A 20-something drifter and a young cancer patient make a connection in this Bucharest-set comedy/drama

Where Elephants Go

Source: Reason8

‘Where Elephants Go’

Dirs/scr: Gabi Virginia Sarga, Catalin Rotaru. Romania. 2024. 112mins

At the beginning of Gabi Virginia Sarga and Catalin Rotaru’s second feature as writer directors, the camera eye scans the streets of Bucharest from a high vantage point, lurching from fuzz to focus, literally searching for characters and stories to zoom in on. The same thing happens at the end. It’s an apt framing metaphor for a film with a sentimental story at its heart that is dragged back from schmaltz by its meta-cinematic probing of the stories we tell and the way we choose to tell them.

By turns irritating and cute

The duo’s first feature, Thou Shalt Not Kill (2018), was an intense, straight-up drama about a hospital whistleblower. Where Elephants Go, which tells the story of a nine-year-old girl with cancer who crosses paths with an immature, twentysomehing drifter who becomes something of a brother to her, is an edgier, more elusive film. Picked up by UK sales outfit Reason8 in March, it is currently touring a raft of Eurofests, including Transylvania. By turns irritating and cute, its audience appeal rests on the oddball pairing at the heart of the film, and may generate some arthouse interest.

Sarga and Rotaru, who played in Cannes competition with their 2016 short 4:15 P.M. The End of the World, deploy many post-modern tricks here. One example takes place in a hotel diner where student drifter Marcel (Stefan Mihai) is greedily tucking into what is clearly a rare free meal. Marcel, who has already revealed that he writes plays that are never performed, meets an older writer who complains to him that he has a great opening scene for a new film – or, at least, a great opening image. As he is describing it, we recognise it as the scene that opened Where Elephants Go.

Mihai offers a nuanced account of a vulnerable yet cocky modern Hamlet (the parallel is made explicit in an early scene). At first, his Marcel comes across as a situationist prankster whose idea of fun is to follow passers-by, imitating their gait and gestures, parroting back their angry reactions when they turn to confront him. His other schtick is to stop women to ask them first for directions, then for sex. There’s something a little nasty in his boyish smile, a touch of the sociopath that could, at this stage, go full Haneke or shade into the discomfort zone of Mike Leigh’s Naked. But no, Marcel turns out to be a softie deep down.

When waitress Magda (Alice Cora Mihalache) – one of the women he accosts – throws his indecent proposal back at him, he’s silenced and deflated, but also fascinated enough to start following her around like a lost puppy. Next he meets little Leni (Carina Lapusneanu), a feisty primary school graffiti artist with a rich inner life that she deploys as a shield against chemotherapy and school bullies.

The fact that Magda turns out to be Leni’s mum is one of several coincidences that the film holds up with a nod and a wink as another example of – what exactly? The need to darn the holes in harsh reality with comforting stories? (Leni does this herself, inventing upbeat or comic dialogue for characters she can see but not hear). Or are all these self-conscious cinematic games just being played out of an uneasy sense that, without them, this tender story would be more than a little trite? It’s a tough call to make, but Where Elephants Go is inventive and intriguing enough for the uncertainty not to be a deal-breaker.

Production companies: Green Cat Film, Atelier de Film, Avanpost

International sales: Reason8 Films, info@reason8films.com

Producers: Gabi Suciu, Gabi Virginia Sarga, Catalin Rotaru

Cinematography: Adrian Paduretu

Production design: Simona Paduretu

Editing: Stefan Azaharioaie

Music: Alexandru Suciu

Main cast: Stefan Mihai, Alice Cora Mihalache, Carina Lapusneanu, Andrei Razvan Hincu, Richard Bovnoczki