The Leeds International Film Festival Catalogue has this film described as
“a tense, atmospheric Romanian western . . . “
I rather wondered about this but several friends recommended it. The film does bear comparison with quite a few westerns though it is set in the early C19th. It is set in Wallachia, which is close to Bucharest and includes rolling plains, but also woodlands, rivers and some hills.
Across this territory ride Costandin (Teodor Corban), a constable, and his son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu). They are chasing a runaway gypsy Carfin (Toma Cuzin) on behalf of a local Boyar (noble and landowner). Carfin, like many of the servants in this time and area, is equivalent to a serf, at the mercy of the lord. In fact, as the plot progresses, it becomes clear that Carfin’s sins are greater (or lesser) than this.
The gypsies, as it still the case in parts of Europe, are on the end of racist exploitation and oppression. Costandin represents this hierarchical and privileged system. And his conduct is ensured by the system whereby he is paid by results rather than by wages. This is no independent police force, and a judicial system seems entirely absent. The power of the Boyar is apparent in the submissive response that Costandin receives on almost every occasion.
As Costandin and Ionita ride the father talks incessantly: much of the time imparting his experience to his son. Other character also talk volubly. They meet an Orthodox priest whose long rant exhibits prejudices about almost every conceivable class and ethnic group except the ones to which he belongs. Also along the way the pair meet an encampment of gypsies, poor rural peasants and craftsmen: and late in the film a fair where among the items for sale are adult and children sold as slaves.
The film offers a caustic portrait of this reactionary and oppressive society. But it does so with great skill both in the performances and in the production values. The film was shot in black and white anamorphic Eastman 35mm film stock. It has a tendency to site people in landscapes in long shot, visually pleasing and reminiscent of some classic westerns. It runs for 108 minutes and has English subtitles. However, it has also been copied onto a DCP (very likely only 2K) and I am sure that 35mm would have given greater definition, especially in the depth of field. It has an 18 certificate in the UK, due to very strong language, some violence but presumably also for a sequence where Costandin arranges part of Ionita’s education.
The Romanian ‘New Wave’ which started to have a major impact on the festival circuit in 2004 has been one of the strengths of the Leeds Film Festival for several years and this was evident in the healthy audience for an afternoon screening in this year’s festival. Unfortunately it’s one of the recent film movements that I haven’t really caught up with (the unwatched DVDs are on my shelves waiting for my attention – lack of time rather than interest). As a result perhaps, I was not alert enough to spot the crucial significance of a scene early in the film and the result was that I felt slightly cheated and frustrated at the end. The fault is mine, not the film’s.
Radu Muntean is a central figure in the New Wave and this, his fifth feature, was shown at Cannes this year in the Un certain regard strand. The central character is Patrascu (Teodor Corban, an actor associated with New Wave films). Muntean presents to us the daily incidents of Patrascu’s life – taking his dog Jerry for exercise in the park, squabbling with his young teenage son who is obsessed with videogames and Facebook and then doing his job. Patrascu and his wife run a small business which provides a service to iron out the tedium and bureaucracy involved in registering motor vehicles in Romania. It took me a while to work this out since the first job appeared to involve a film production company. The important narrative incident occurs when Parascu hears shouts and bangs in the apartment below in his block. He stops to listen but then decides it’s not his business. Later it transpires that a young woman has died in the apartment. Questioned by the police, Patrascu says nothing. We presume that in Romania the legacy of Ceaușescu’s brutal repression is such that 25 years later middle-aged people like Patrescu are still careful about what they say. The bureaucracy that provides Patrescu with a living must be part of this legacy as well – as is the network of contacts that he methodically maintains. He can queue-jump on behalf of his clients mainly because of these contacts. At other times though Patrescu shows himself to be an ‘ethical man’, e.g. in his support of the girl who has died when others start to repeat gossip about her.
The narrative moves into its final phase when a young neighbour asks Patrascu to re-register his vehicle and then wheedles his way into Patrascu’s household, befriending his wife and son – offering them advice on a new computer etc. You can probably work out what eventually happens – it was because I didn’t recognise who this neighbour was that I literally ‘lost the plot’ at this point. When I realised what was happening I felt rather stupid. It occurs to me that this film has some similarities to Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and that film’s mix of a police procedural and a drama about relationships in families and communities. One Floor Below doesn’t approach the epic scope and narrative complexity of Ceylan’s work, but its focus on ‘smaller’ stories is just as valid and I should have got more from this than I did. Reading other comments on the film, however, I see that I was not alone in missing aspects of the narrative and that’s going to be a risk in making films like this.
I found this feature the most impressive new film so far at the Leeds International Film Festival. It is part of the Official Selection programme and it will be interesting to learn how the Jury rate it. This is a portmanteau film with three love stories. The director and writer Dalibor Matanić is quoted in the Festival Catalogue:
“As a filmmaker I have been long intrigued by the ever-present inter-ethnic hatreds in the Balkan region, and conflicts rooted in war, religion or politics. With this film, I wanted to explore three separate stories of a Croatian boy and girl from a Serbian family, across three decades. The stories all take place in the same location, in the sun-scorched villages, and the young lovers are always in their early twenties. Using the lens of these three stories, I wanted to tease out the accumulated atmosphere of evil that smoulders among the damaged communities in the region.”
The films are set respectively in 1991, 2001 and 2011. The leading characters are played across the stories by the same actors, who are excellent, especially Tihana Lazovic and Goran Markovic. The characters in each story are discrete but certain characteristics re-appear to good effect. The setting is a coastal area, with low hills and a lake [probably connected to the sea] in which the characters swim. The area is semi-rural and rather different from the city of Zagreb, to which one couple plan to flee.
The film is beautifully photographed by Marko Brdar. The range of close-ups to long shots is exemplary in presenting the characters and situation. There are some fine tracking shots and the use of Steadicam for tracks and simulated hand-held shots. The sound track is equally good. There are distinctive musical themes and songs, though the latter are not translated in the subtitles.
There are visual motifs which provide suggestive comment. At various time the characters swim in the lake: once a single person, then a couple, then a whole crowd. And there is fine underwater camera work at this point. Cars are also important in the plot and setting. The buildings are evocative, first the traditional houses, then derelict buildings, then finally a series of new builds. In one fine repeated shot a young woman sits in an exterior passage as a lone dog lopes by. A different dog appears in another sequence, again with a lone character, suggesting their alienation from others.
The catalogue suggest that ‘love can finally take root’. I felt that the final resolution is ambiguous, leaving a poetic question mark over this journey through two decades of confluent.
The film runs for 123 minutes, it did not seem that long. It is in widescreen colour with English sub-titles. And it is showing again at the Hyde Park Picture House on Thursday November 12th at 8.30 p.m.
Thirst opens with a long shot of a road snaking its way up a hill towards the camera position. The credits appear to the left of the ‘Scope frame and in the distance a figure is running up the road towards us. I was immediately struck by resemblances to other films such as Zvyagintsev’s The Banishment or Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Uzak which start in similar ways.
The running figure is a teenage boy who it later turns out has to run 4,000 steps each day to prevent the heart attacks suffered by his father who monitors the lad’s progress from his position up a tree (where he sneaks a crafty fag). When the boy stops he spots a young woman and an old man by the side of their truck. The fifth principal character is the boy’s mother who has moved into her father’s old house at the top of another hill. She earns the family’s money by washing the bed linen from hotels (presumably in the valley below). Each day a driver delivers soiled sheets and collects the washed and ironed replacements. The only problem is that there is a drought and each day the water supply is disrupted, making the washing business increasingly difficult to manage. But the girl and the old man are a water drilling outfit. She divines where the water is and he organises the drilling. Problem solved – or is it?
There is certainly a strong indication that this is an ‘elemental story’ with possible ecology issues as well as metaphorical meanings. Asked about ecological questions, the debutant director Svetla Tsotsorkova replied that she hadn’t thought too much about them. The story was actually inspired by her own family memories – her grandmother had washed sheets for hotels. Another question in the post-screening discussion was: “How does this film relate to Bulgarian cinema more generally?” Tsotsorkova replied that perhaps it did resemble films made in Bulgaria during the 1960s and into the 1980s. It has a timeless feel with little dialogue and unnamed characters. The two younger characters are played by non-actors and the older characters by veterans of Bulgarian cinema. Working with a much older male screenwriter, Tsotsorkova gradually refined the script and the film as screened runs 90 minutes.
The family on the hill has a settled but restricted life before the arrival of the father-daughter water drillers. They have different ‘thirsts’ for all kinds of things besides water to wash the sheets and their ‘Eden’ is eventually destroyed when they seek to quench those thirsts. The girl in particular is a fascinating character and her back story works well with an excellent performance to suggest an ancient story of disruption of the family unit. The LFF audience clearly enjoyed the film which works wonderfully as an aesthetic experience as well as a gripping tale. It’s a remarkable début film that will stay with me for a long time. Reading various interviews with the director after the screening I was intrigued to see that she name-checked Andrea Arnold as a filmmaker she admires and thinking about the connection I can see that though the films are very different, Arnold’s work on something like Wuthering Heights does share the same sense of people and places.
I hope this gets UK distribution. Properly handled there will be an audience for a film of this quality and I’d like to watch it again.