Probably the most enjoyable film I saw at TIFF was EL REI BORNI (THE ONE-EYED KING), by Spanish director Marc Crehuet. Based on his own play, it preserves the claustrophobic single set of its stage original, and with its four (and bit)-character cast (the original actors from the play) feeds on the tension between the naturalism of the domestic setting and the high theatrical farce of its black, black comedy. The flat belongs to David (Alain Hernandez), a pumped-up policeman who considers himself an expert on crowd control, in fact is proud of the fact he’s shot out the eye of a pesky demonstrator with a rubber bullet. His timid wife Lidia (Betsy Turnez), though eager to please her man, is worrying it may be becoming a habit as that’s the second time this year. Her latest of many enthusiasms is gourmet cooking (she put me in mind of detective Alec McCowen’s wife in Frenzy), and running into her old school friend Sandra (Ruth Llopis), now an actress, she’s invited her and her husband Ignasi (Miki Esparbe) to dinner. Arriving on their bicycles, they already seem rather bohemian for David’s taste ,and when we see that Ignasi has a dressing on one eye…
What follows is an extremely funny and lively satire on a political & economic situation which could apply to almost any country just now. It’s all the stronger because it doesn’t spare either side, as David becomes more not less paranoid and dangerous after a hilarious attempt at political education from Ignasi, and the lefty pair, confronted by direct action, turn all law abiding. There’s a crackling , dashing script and farcical action that’s reminiscent of Carnage, as the flat, so commonplace, seems to shrink in and menace its rudderless characters. Yet, as the four of them confront their powerlessness in the confusion of the world it manages to end on a note that is not just funny but genuinely moving.
My next film, part of the Jean-Pierre Melville retrospective, is BOB LE FLAMBEUR, the classic French film noir. And it’s showing in a building I’ve wanted to get into for years, the Urania Palace Cinema, a Secessionist-style building with its high decoration of fig-leaved youths in typically flattened style, built in 1910, the first cinema in Cluj. Years ago I peered into its locked up empty foyer, dusty and left as if it had just closed after its final screening (then as the Favorit) more than 20 years ago, but as if breaking the seal might crumble it all away. Now it’s been partly brought back to life as a space for music, exhibitions and films, and a black-walled subterranean room (still no sight of the potential decayed grandeur of the original cinema, sadly) holds an assortment of chairs and sofas of various levels of comfort. I’ve been walking around in the baking sun and exploring the architectural wonders of the Strada Horea on which it stands, a glorious mix of robust Venetian palazzo style , art nouveau, deco, and crumbly modernist concrete, with notes of exoticism from the domed synagogue and the brightly painted deco Chamber of Commerce building across the way. Even the manhole covers are stately. So I gratefully choose the warm leathery embrace of the softest ever armchair, and sink into a dream of 50s Paris with gambler Bob.
It’s the Paris of your dreams, the Paris Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel dreams of in A bout de souffle, men in trench coats, je-m’en-fou women who’ve been around a bit and bright-eyed gamines, night-time streets and grimy bars and glittery casinos, huge shiny cars and guns and doomed looks through the gitane smoke. And all on delicious, lustrous 35mm. Real film, a film with a history that bears the flecks and scars of the countless times it’s been round the reels, packed away, opened up, in so many grand and humble picturehouses. You know how it will end: cars screeching, guns, bodies falling. And in that wonderful atmosphere, instead of fighting the drowsiness I surrender to it, only half following the plot, but immersed in the abstraction of it, fully experiencing cinema.
Turning out into the still bright, warm sun, brushing off feelings of guilt at my slumberousness because the feel of the film is still so strongly with me, I head off, via a stroll across the park and a quick look in at a party for sustenance of canapés and a small glass of pink Prosecco (mustn’t doze again!) in the renovated Casino, an elegant bright white building by the lake where swans real and of the pedalo kind lounge on the water. Then back past the row of noble and eccentric old buildings looking out onto the leafy park which include the British Council (shades of Graham Greene, whose autobiography I’m reading) to the largest cinema, the Florin Piersic, for the Romanian Days film ANNIVERSAREA (THE ANNIVERSARY), by Dan Chişu.
Eerily akin in theme to Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada of last year, it’s a portrait of a family get together. This time rather than a funeral it’s the 94th birthday of head of the family Radu. As family members and friends arrive their various problems and hang-ups are teased out – the unhappy marriage, the put-upon daughter-in-law, the sibling strife, the avaricious son and wife already clocking up the worth of the considerable household treasures – with Radu, a physically diminished figure, a silent and reluctant attender. But as old work colleagues turn up, the picture focuses on the wider world, and we begin to see just how in his prime Radu accumulated this wealth, working for the state. The shadow of the past hangs heavy over the family, and some members have tried to arrange for Radu to make his confession, while others argue he should not do so unless he actively wants to. Radu’s own feelings remain opaque.
As a metaphor for the dead weight of the questionable past activities of many of the wealthy in Romanian society it’s deadly serious, but has a good deal of humour too. Confused about which church Radu belonged to, different family members have separately brought two different priests to hear his confession, and they sit ill at ease with each other in a side room waiting for the call. A grandson is given a video camera to record the ‘happy’ proceedings, and manages to record things that don’t go down too well. The pompous politician son is both slimily sinister and funny. It’s a clever and original take on the still-present burden of the dirty or at least questionable past of many comfortable members of society, of the state itself… Should it come out? Or is it better to let lie and focus on the future?