Unbelievably, when one witnesses the appetite for film here in Cluj, two years ago Romania had only 30 cinemas still in existence.TIFF took the problem to its heart, in particular acquiring and starting to restore the old state Film Depository on the outskirts of the city, where thousands of metres of film lay abandoned in and around the vandalised derelict building. Snails crawled over the celluloid and grass and weeds had begun to close over its images. Currently used for outdoor screenings, the plan is to create a new community film and arts centre and eventually create a Cinema Museum. As part of the move to highlight the plight of the closure and neglect of small cinemas, the festival now has a strand, ‘Cinema mon Amour’, and this year a film of that name made a powerful and emotional argument for the importance of local independent cinemas, something that even the multiplex-crammed UK could well learn from.
CINEMA MON AMOUR by Alexandru Belc is a poignant documentary about the struggles of Victor Purice, manager of the decrepit Cinema Dacia in the small town of Piatra Neamţ. With the unflagging help of his loyal assistants Cornelia and Lorena he is shown keeping the struggling cinema afloat. When the heating goes he offers blankets and hot drinks, when the sign needs repainting he does it (very expertly) himself, and teenagers are beguiled into attending with offers of two tickets for the price of one and the chance to choose their own films. He sadly recalls the old days of collecting reels from the station and cycling with them to the cinema, but this is no mere trip into nostalgia – a visit to a successful small independent cinema in Germany (‘to see how the civilised world does it’) shows him what could be done with a little financial help and state encouragement, including, somewhat sadly for a real film enthusiast, going properly digital. As it is he can’t even accept the German offer of some unwanted free seats to take back because of the cost of transport. It’s a beautiful film without sentimentality – Victor’s a fighter, and not for nothing is he filmed in front of the Gladiator poster in the foyer. So when he seems ready to give up, it’s a truly sad and affecting moment. A late offer of help from Romanian Film, the very people who have closed down so many cinemas, may mean a hope that things may be starting to be seen differently, but the happiest note for the Dacia, revealed in a Q&A at the end, was that the showing of the film there has brought back audiences and ensured its financial viabililty – for a while at least. Victor won the Cultural Resistance Award at Trieste this year, and I’m proud to have shaken his hand.
Also enjoyable among the Romanian films on offer was Paul Negoescu’s TWO LOTTERY TICKETS (DOA LOZURI), a well-made, snappy and inventive comedy featuring three hapless friends who lose their winning ticket and pursue the two heavies who have stolen it through various adventures, produced by and featuring Dragoş Bucur (also seen in DOGS), revealing a real comic talent after all the melancholy, troubled or romantic characters usually associated with him. In contrast EASTERN BUSINESS (AFACEREA EST) by Igor Cobileanski, which has another trio of losers this time pursuing absurd attempts to make money, has its moments but mostly trails along through its almost identical 80 odd minutes feeling far longer and more ponderous, squeezing every last drop from each situation and never approaching the meaningfulness it clearly aspires to.
ORIZONT (Marian Crişan), set in the forests not far from Cluj, is a worthy attempt at a gloomy doomy thriller, set in a modern hotel recently acquired by a city family with hopeful ideas about making a new start in a healthy environment. But the fresh air soon starts to pall when the local heavies who control illegal wood trade make their presence felt. It’s a foresty, non-existential variation on the ideas in DOGS, but loses its grip somewhere halfway, when a kind of torpor sets in, and the melodramatic finish doesn’t quite get the drama it’s aiming for, partly because we’ve never truly engaged with this family.
But for me the most disappointing Romanian film was THE LAST DAY (ULTIMA ZI), by Gabriel Achim, responsible for the chirpy but very darkly-streaked comedy ADALBERT’S DREAM a few years ago that promised much. Here Adrian, wearing a neck brace and mournful expression throughout, has set off to join a monastery some distance away from the town where he lives. He’s driven there by his old friend the Mayor, and their car is accompanied by another bearing the local police chief and the leader of the Christian Youth Association – it’s a proud day for their community, and the mayor insists on filming it as Adrian’s ‘last day’. But some kind of cock-up means the abbot’s away so Adrian cannot be received, and they have to return home through the night, the mayor still filming. Claustrophobically shot inside the cars, the men discuss religion, life, morality, society, but for me this elicited impatience rather than engagement, and finally, sad to say, boredom. The Mayor soon emerges as a bullying egoist, with some kind of hold over each man.
They reach the Mayor’s place, where he will treat them to a barbecue lunch. Adrian is increasingly glum, while the other men’s sycophancy reaches epic proportions, and we start to see what it is exactly that the mayor has on each of them. His behaviour becomes more frenetic, getting out his hunting rifle, a rather too strong indicator of the way things might go. Whether the long wait for climax, which begins well, is a masterpiece of suspense or a dragging of the feet is a moot point. I wanted to like this film, made on a low budget by a kind of cooperative, but for me it was at first too opaque (the business of going to the monastery, for example, was never made very clear), and then too repetitive and obvious. Others clearly found it more striking than I did, however, as it won the Romania Days prize.