Saturday is the day of the Awards Ceremony here. Winner of the Romanian Days Best Feature Film was Radu Jude’s INIMI CICATRIZATE (SCARRED HEARTS), which I’d already seen at the London Film Festival last October. Jude’s previous film, Aferim! was one of the best films of 2015, a totally original black and white, expansive take on C19th life in Romania, full of life and melancholy and meditation on society. Here he restricts rather than opening up his world. Scarred Hearts is set almost entirely inside a sanatorium on the Black Sea Coast in the late thirties, where we follow a young Jewish student, Emanuel (Lucian Teodor Rus), for treatment of tuberculosis of the spine.
Based on the semi-autobiographical writings of Max Blecher, it creates a claustrophobic world by using a starkly containing 1.37:1 format, with a mostly static camera, closing in the perspective rather in the way that being in a hospital bed limits one’s vision of life around. Many of the patients are totally encased in plaster, as was the procedure then, and are therefore mostly seen at angles only in lying-down positions, the consequence being an uneasy inability to relate to them as people in the way we usually do in films. An exception is the beautiful, successfully cured Solange (Ivana Mladenovic), who revisits the wards like a fresh breeze from real life, and becomes an object of yearning for Emanuel. With echoes of the enclosed febrile world of The Magic Mountain, conversations are a mixture of erudition, romance and silliness, lively young minds, though Emanuel can be somewhat irritating in the way of a brash sixth former who has just discovered philosophy. But it gradually dawns on us, however breezily the procedures are explained by the ever-optimistic doctor, that recovery is rare, and slow decline is the norm.
The film follows Aferim! in its meticulous recreation of a historic way of life, the medical procedures, the surroundings, the attitudes, but also uses its audience’s knowledge of what was to come, always subtly aware of scarcely mentioned anti-semitic feeling, and its resonance for the future of the country. And the jokey visits of Emanuel’s wealthy parents bear the burden of what we know will soon come to those families in the outside world just as death might come to the young residents. At 140 minutes it’s detrimentally too long, but hangs around in your mind afterwards to a surprising degree.
One of the admirable things about Jude as a director is that he’s always surprising from one film to another, particularly in form, but always very much grounded in analysis of his country. His latest is a documentary, illuminating to see here alongside Scarred Hearts. The Romanian Holocaust, at its worst in the north east of the country, is still very much an unknown, both inside and outside the country, but it was responsible for the deaths of more than half of the Jewish population by the end of World War II, when a xenophobia fed by rising nationalism was encouraged and harnessed by the Fascists in command. TARA MOARTA (THE DEAD NATION) is an essay using a collection of still photographs by Costica Axinte of the people of one small Romanian town in the 30s and 40s. Family groups, young people larking around, children, contented spouses, and increasingly soldiers, mostly at leisure, fooling about with guns or posing on equipment, and funerals. It all looks so innocent and ordinary. But over this lies a soundtrack of readings from the journal of a Jewish doctor over the same period telling of his personal experience of the creeping rise of anti-semitism and its effect on his life and the life of his town, from casual incivilities to looting, starvation, deportation and murder. A hard watch, that deserves to be seen both internally and elsewhere.
Other winners included Icelander Gudmundur Arnar Gudmunsson’s HEARTSTONE as Best Director; THE LAST KALDERASH for Romanian Days debut Award; GODS’ OWN COUNTRY won Special Jury Award; AFTERLOVE (Stergios Paschos), the Fipresci Prize; and from Georgia’s young female director Nana Ekvtimisvili and Simon Gross’s CHEMI BEDINIERI OJAKHI (MY HAPPY FAMILY), won both the Transilvanian Trophy as well as Best Performance prize for Ia Shugliashvili (reviewed below). Special guest for the Lifetime Achievement Award was Alain Delon, whose presence at the festival was clearly a source of utter bliss for so many Romanians, and who revealed his charm is undiminished. His remarkably ecstatic reception to and from engagements and on the evening itself was explained to me by a young Clujean as being that for his parents’ generation he, along with so many of the western European stars, was a symbol of so much that they were missing in the restricted world of arts and entertainment. And the fondness remains.
The day after the Awards is a quiet day in the city, the omnipresent traffic diminished, folk in their best clothes having a wander after church and families sitting at leisurely lunches at pavement restaurants or tasting the Cabbage a la Cluj or Tripe Soup at the Varzaria, an old Cluj institution from Communist days. The Central Park a pleasant place to stroll and relax, sitting around in the grass, lolling in hammocks or pedalo-ing on the lake.
It’s also a day to try to mop up any film you haven’t seen, so there was time to catch CHEMI BEDINIERI OJAKHI (MY HAPPY FAMILY), Transilvania Prize winner. It’s a slow-burn, deep look at an apparently simple situation. In Tbilisi, Manana (Ia Shugliashvili), a woman in her 50s, announces to her family that she is moving out to live alone. In the cramped flat live her husband, ageing parents and two grown-up children, with the almost perpetual presence of one or other of their current partners, as well as other relatives dropping in, but that’s only a small aspect of her desire to get away. Manana can’t explain her reasons, cannot even, maybe, define them herself, but never budges from her determination, even though it means moving into a dodgy area and a flat that’s a little short on creature comforts. Selfish, petty and just plain baffled, relations bombard her from all sides – it’s her duty to live with them and share their lives and problems; has she found someone else; is she having a breakdown; how can she prefer anything to living with them; can she manage alone? One family member even asks the older neighbours at her new apartment to keep an eye on her welfare. Even friends make assumptions about her marriage falling apart in a more conventional way.
It seems initially like an old-fashioned feminist fable, but has the sense not to bludgeon with a message or overstate its case. The possibility of being alone, operating independently, just for its own sake, is something even now society is still reluctant to give, especially to women, and particularly those who have already given so much of their own lives to others. The ‘room of one’s own’ is needed not just for creativity but for freedom itself. It’s not just the family who need to be set aside – an old school reunion begins to pall with its embroiling memories and gossip. And do Georgians, particularly men, feel the need to break into harmonised singing every time they have a few drinks? (It’s charming to witness though.) Performances all round, and in particular Shugliashvili’s, are simply brilliant, naturalistic and non-demonising, as is the hand-held camera work in such confined settings giving a feeling of Manana’s oppression. These directors, and new Georgian film, seem like ones to watch.
Being at a film festival sometimes seems like being in a happy, privileged, bubble. I returned to the UK on the evening of Tuesday 13th June. It was a lovely mellow late evening as I crossed the canal at Paddington to the friend’s place where I was staying the night. About a mile away in a 24-storey tower block called Grenfell kids were worrying about their exams tomorrow, parents putting their babies to bed and hoping for an undisturbed night, ordinary people finishing their meals, drinking tea, texting, noticing the streaky summer’s night through the window, leaving the washing-up till the morning, ironing, working or playing games on their computers, dozing in front of the 10 o’clock news, setting their alarms. Tomorrow will be different.