Dir: Lucian Pintilie. France-Romania. 2003. 98mins
Veteran Romanian director Lucian Pintilie has crafted a fitfully amusing, occasionally absorbing fable of slow disintegration around a fragile story of a father who feels increasingly lonely and alienated as his children leave home, one for the afterlife and the other for the US. Mixing tragedy and farce, Pintilie takes an enjoyably casual and digressive route in his depiction of Niki, a retired army colonel unhinged by the end of the domestic and historical certainties that had shored up (or even constituted) his character; and Flo, the dynamic, modern, utterly insensitive father of the computer programmer who Niki's daughter married. Unfortunately, these sidelights end up being more interesting than the characters themselves. This small socio-political fable, which played in Director's Fortnight at Cannes, is unlikely to travel much outside of the two co-production territories of France and Romania and, these days, Romanian audiences appear to be more receptive to Matrix-style Americana than they are to ironic reassessments of their Communist past.
Stolid, suspicious of change and a little slow on the uptake, Niki is shown to be as irrelevant, as overtaken by history as the uniform he keeps pressed and ready for wear on ceremonial occasions. The first time we see him wearing it is to the funeral of his son, an army cadet who was electrocuted while changing a fuse at home. The preparations for the funeral are observed in minute detail: here, as in the rest of the film, repetitive tasks ' mostly women's tasks ' establish a link with the past and a rhythm that contrasts with the younger generation's search for instant gratification. The best illustration of these two discordant dances comes in a wordless scene where we see a mother baking bread in the kitchen, handling the loaves like ingots. Her son-in-law wanders in with a hard-on bulging through his boxer shorts, fixes himself a coffee from the percolator, and disappears again to continue having sex with his wife in the room next door.
Flo is a vegetarian, a progressive thinker, astrologer and conspiracy theorist whose attempts to talk Niki out of his conservative values are larded with New Age cliches. He is also an aspiring film director, whose finest work to date is the video he shot of the wedding between his son and Niki's daughter. Introduced almost casually in the second half of the film, this video ends up taking up long swathes of our time, playing up the slapstick, farcical element that is always just under the surface. Much of this wry humour is visual: the loading up of the army hearse is observed from the other side of a road so busy that our view is often blocked by lorries; a discussion about family finance is dislocated and larded with suppressed hilarity, as both characters are stark naked.
Strong lighting and kitchen-sink production design conspire to bring out the drabness of apartment life in post-Communist Bucharest: this is a world of pale green kitchen tiles, formica surfaces and black-and-white TVs. Less effective is the casting and scripting of Niki and Flo, whose relationship never really reaches a level of antagonism that allows us fully to understand the violent gesture that closes the film. True, Niki suffers in silence as Flo supplants him in his daughter's affections, or asks for the lid of his son's coffin to be put on and removed three times, so that he can get the perfect shot: but actor Victor Rebengiuc has done such a good job of rendering Niki's mute, mild puzzlement that his final crack-up feels like a directorial imposition.
Prod co: Movimento Production
Co-prod: Filmex Romania
Int'l sales: TBC
Prod: Dominique Andreani
Scr: Cristi Puiu, Razvan Radulescu
Cinematography: Calin Ghibu
Prod des: Calin Papura
Ed: Nita Chivulescu
Main cast: Victor Rebengiuc, Razvan Vasilescu, Dorina Ciriac