Transilvania International Film Festival, Cluj, 2016

The 2016 edition of TIFF is its 15th year, it’s my 10th year of attending, and we’re still both as youthfully exuberant as ever! But what changes there’ve been over those 10  years. In 2006 three cinemas and one outdoor screening space were used. Now the city is teeming with screening and event spaces, and not just in the city centre, 15 in all, including three open air screenings each night, weather permitting – and mostly it did, despite ominous forecasts. Sometimes it feels like you’re never out of sight of a TIFF logo. Bars and pavement cafes have sprouted, decrepit buildings have been saved, but not at the expense of their character. Food too – Where once there was not a lot of choice outside the top restaurants beyond mici and pizzas with ketchup, there are now excellent varied restaurants and bistros everywhere using wonderful fresh local produce, yet the varzarie with its traditional dishes, the self-service café offering great çiorba for less than £1 per bowl, and the countless hole-in-the-wall street-food joints to keep you going as you dash between screens, are still thriving. it’s a very special Romanian city that also feels increasingly like an exciting European one, a city for living in, with a future – the word that springs to mind as you step out from the hotel every morning into the thronged streets is purposeful. And in tune with the place TIFF buzzes with energy, attracting not just film specialists, but an intelligent local public avid to see good movies.

And many hundreds of this mixture were lucky enough to be present at the Romanian premiere of a new Romanian masterpiece, fresh from Cannes. Cristi Puiu’s SIERANEVADA, a few minutes short of a daunting 3 hours, is a finely crafted, totally absorbing ensemble piece, set in real time in a small apartment during a family wake. Our entrée into this world is Lary, a son of the deceased, whom we first meet in the family car having a testy argument about a Snow White costume with his wife. She’s much preoccupied with getting to Carrefour before it closes; also, one picks up, pretty keen not to spend too much of the afternoon with the in-laws. And we soon see why. Once inside the flat the camera does marvellous things, long takes ducking in and out of the small rooms, following then leaving the many characters and conversations, or pirouetting in the hall with views through doorways of rooms and dialogues we shall never hear, utterly breathtaking choreography.

The people are both ordinary and mysterious, and it’s up to us to pick up who they are and what their relationships might be, a process that itself holds some satisfaction. Puiu certainly makes us work, but the effort is extremely satisfying and the effect total immersion in this world, so that when Lary, who has become our representative in this party from hell, gets the giggles over the absurdity of it all, we don’t just laugh with him, we’re actually viscerally catching the giggles ourselves. Some take centre stage, like the sparky Auntie in a rather capitalist-looking white fur hat, a staunch communist still, constantly arguing the toss about how good things were in the old days. Some we never do really get to know at all – there’s a particular lady of a certain age with a bohemian look sporting a cap who might have been interesting, but then we spot her leaving. A huge meal has been prepared but we’re waiting for the priest who will perform a blessing on the house, then for the dead granddad’s enormous suit to be taken in so his skinny grandson can wear it as part of the tradition. A granddaughter brings in and dumps a retching drunk Croatian girl she hardly knows, the baby keeps getting woken up, then another drunken uncle arrives and creates a crisis as his marriage unpicks before our eyes. Meanwhile the men discuss politics and make fun of young Sebi, the famiy conspiracy theorist, who believes the Charlie Hebdo massacre (which has just happened) is some kind of establishment plot. The idea of authenticity (even the Snow White argument brought this up, you realise in retrospect, with the Disney version now being seen as stealing the authenticity of the original Grimm story) becomes a theme, or maybe, troublingly, it’s the impossibility of authenticity and truth, the fact that there are always at least two sides to every question.

There are echoes of Visconti’s finely choreographed family set pieces, from Rocco to The Leopard, and Chekhov’s warm messiness of life’s absurdities and tragedies. Bunuel’s teasing frustrations are here too, not only from the never-to-be-eaten meal of Discreet Charm but also The Exterminating Angel’s existential trap of the flat and what it contains as people lurk about on the stairs outside seemingly unable to leave. Under the dark humour and entertaining observations there’s a bleakness that sometimes bobs to the surface to float around with all the rest of the debris of human existence.

The other stand-out new Romanian film here was DOGS (CAINI), a debut feature by Bogdan Mirica, a chilling and nail-biting thriller with a western feel and one of the most striking openings I’ve seen for some time, as the camera sweeps over a landscape of prairies and then descends across weed-covered water, all of the greenish-khaki shades which are to become a keynote of the entire film, to come to a stop with a horror we shrink from even though we can’t quite make out what it is. City boy Roman (Dragoş Bucur) has come to sort out the sale of his dead grandfather’s house in the country, only to discover the old man, known as Uncle Alecu, didn’t farm the land but used its vastness as a territory for illegal dealings of an unspecified and violent nature. Black humour prevails for a while, as the drily sardonic country cop who seems pretty powerless to set things right investigates the aforementioned ‘thing’ from the water, examining it with his knife and fork on the plate he has just finished eating from. Hereafter it gets carried round in a plastic carrier bag and unceremoniously pulled out  to show to various locals and the police doctor.

But there’s not much else to smile about, as Uncle Alecu’s trusty lieutenant, who has taken over leadership of the business, arrives with an offer Roman isn’t expected to refuse – keep the house and turn a blind eye. That this character is played by the wonderful Vlad Ivanov, the abortionist from 4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days, and many another tight-lipped amoralist, means this bloke is a complex figure, terrifically frightening; coldly logical yet full of reckless violence.

The arrival of Roman’s girlfriend from the city, half-expecting some kind of rural idyll, points up the film’s theme of unyielding masculinity – she’s sidelined and her ultimate fate is unknown, while Roman’s city facade is sloughed off, against his better judgement,  and he is dragged along with the old-style machismo to make a deadly decision which can only end one way. Tense night scenes and the silent brooding landscape where the only sounds are those of barking dogs and unknown vehicles driving through the dark create an atmosphere of dread. You know things won’t end well, but you’re afraid of quite how bad it can be. Pretty bad.

CAINI won the Transilvania Trophy, the top prize of the Festival, awarded for a first or second feature fim.

More to come…

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