Not trying to join the Stereogum Anniversary Culture, but I happened to watch this on the tenth anniversary of its premiere. This is bound to happen at least once during Cannes Week. Rounding out my viewing of Mungiu’s major features right before his brand-new one debuted, this one’s a prime example of a movie good enough to transcend its dreary subject matter (insular religious cultures; see also Silent Light).

Much of the appeal is in the character of Alina (Cristina Flutur of Backdraft 2, what?). She and Voichita (Cosmina Stratan of the Border guy’s surrogate pregnancy movie) were orphanage sisters, now separated, and Alina returns to visit then refuses to leave. She’s extremely needy, fearing abandonment, but also acts impossible so she can’t stay anywhere. Both the hospital and Voichita’s quiet monastery say they’re overcrowded during renovations, and anyway, Alina isn’t a believer. But she’s devoted to her friend, so the nuns read Alina a list of all 464 sins to see which she has committed, then when she’s violent they tie her down to drive out her evil spirits, but she’s also convulsive, and they leave her tied too long, and she dies. Seems like an openhearted, respectful take on a tragic story, made in the good ol’ master-shot long-take foreign-arthouse style.

A key document of pandemic-era people being shitty to each other. Last week’s viewing of Happy Valley was well timed, since Jude also roams the streets here, filming construction and advertising billboards and plant life. Altogether too academic, despite all the sex. Chapter two is didactic social horrors. Mostly exasperating – give me Social Hygiene over this any day. At least this had better color than most movies – surprising, since it’s mostly a parent-teacher conference interrupted by documentary street scenes. My first by Radu Jude, whose previous six films have been on my radar.

Always a good call to open your movie with “The Passenger” by Iggy Pop. I lost track of the relationships and double-crosses, because I think all the cops are dirty and spying on each other… or rather, it’s not hard to follow while watching, but with the state of everything, I’ve lost track a month later. Story told in named chapters, out of order.

Our main dude is Cristi, with conspirator Gilda and boss Magda. The conspirators’ whistling language (and Cristi’s Old-Mark-Wahlberg look and performance) mostly serves to add notes of absurd humor, so this doesn’t turn into another grim tale of Romanian society/government corruption like Graduation.

Two dirty cops:

Sharp-looking and pleasurable, filled with guns, whistling, hidden cameras, vinyl records, movie theaters – after 12:08 and Metabolism and Infinite Football, I now have no idea what to expect from this guy.

Straightforward doc, named after the rock club that caught fire during a show, killing 20-some people (including most of the band), leading to massive public protests and a change of government. After 30-some more concertgoers died horribly from bacteria due to lack of care in local hospitals – a real-life Death of Mr. Lazarescu – Nanau followed the story through a reporter for a sports magazine, who does his own investigation, enraged by the corruption he uncovers: the hospitals all used disinfectants that had been diluted unto uselessness. The incoming health minister says he’ll operate with transparency, and he does, to the point of allowing the crew to follow him around. So we follow him for most of the second half of the film, also checking in regularly with a survivor of the fire, whose hands were badly injured. She does fashion shoots, gets robotic hands, and stays frustratingly apolitical. The post-film Q&A was interesting – this was early March, and parallels to more immediate government-botched health crises were becoming apparent. Opener Eli Fola played solo sax , but apparently there was a luggage snafu, he arrived sans equipment, and sax isn’t even his primary instrument… very good improv.

Almost the entire movie is a film director (Bogdan Dumitrache of Sieranevada) having conversations, rehearsals and affairs with his lead actress (Diana Avramut). He fakes a stomach illness, claims he had it checked by a doctor, and his producer (Mihaela Sirbu of Aferim!) has his cover story carefully verified, either to catch him in the lie or, as she says, because of picky insurance demands. Another filmmaker (Alexandru Papadopol of Toni Erdmann) pops into a dinner chat, possibly representing a future job for the actress. This is practically all that happens, and it ends abruptly – so why is it a movie? I get the self-reflexive talk about long takes and film cartridge capacity in a 35mm movie composed entirely of long takes, and after all the film-vs-video talk, video gets finally represented in the form of a colonoscopy DVD. After two long scenes where the director tries to convince the actress that a newly written nude scene is dramatically necessary and she goes over the blocking with him to verify that this is properly motivated, our movie finally shows her gratuitously topless. All this is worth a few meta-chuckles – surely I got more out of it than 12:08 East of Bucharest, and if the whole thing feels slightly pointless and the conversations go on for too long, that’s probably intentional too, for reasons I don’t feel like researching at the moment.

We closely follow Romeo (Adrian Titieni, one of Mr. Lazarescu‘s many doctors), sort of a sad Romanian Nick Frost, during the week of his daughter’s final exams. At first he’s a regular guy whose family has a string of bad luck, then things open up and we see that he’s cheating on his wife, that all the professional and government services are greased by favors and bribes, and that, in trying to help his daughter, he ends up dragging her into the small-town societal corruption that he was trying to save her from. We don’t know for sure if she’ll end up going off to Cambridge, or stay in town with her boyfriend and fall into the same traps as her parents, but I suspect the latter. At least the problems on display here aren’t as life-crushingly bad as in Leviathan.

Daughter Magda is Maria-Victoria Dragus (creepy bird-murdering kid of The White Ribbon). Mungiu tied with Assayas for best director at last year’s Cannes. I finally got to see it on opening day of this year’s Cannes (and also during graduation week).

V. Morton, who also has a nice bit on the film’s “egalitarian framing”:

Even as the film’s central narrative event happens (the assault on Romeo’s daughter on the eve of her baccalaureate exams), we see Romeo as an adulterer (later, we learn, with his wife’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” semi-connivance). We very promptly learn after the assault, even before the narrative implications have really been set up, that he and “Vlad Ivanov” had bribed their way out of the military draft and thus “owe” someone re a liver transplant. Romeo is a doctor. Graduation is not the story of a good man corrupted but a corrupt man trying to do “good” (when it serves him and his) because society runs on corruption.

Sounds like an American-ready comedy premise (which is why there’s a rumored remake): uptight daughter gets a visit from her goofball dad who tries getting her to lighten up. Generic versions of this story have been made before, but this one uses some unique characters to change the trajectory, eventually revealing the daughter was maybe right to hide her true nature beneath a serious businesswoman facade, because when she lightens up, she’s almost psychotically awkward (shades of Ade’s debut The Forest for the Trees).

The infamous nude scene was different than I expected, at least. You figure a nude scene will be about sex in some way, and it’s not. Out of a combination of the quirky strangeness that her dad’s visit has perhaps inspired and frustration at a dress zipper, Ines (Sandra Hüller: Requiem, Amour Fou) answers the door to her party guests in the nude, then starts insisting they disrobe as well. Meanwhile her dad Winfried/Toni (Peter Simonischek) has dramatically upped his costume game from a moppy wig and false teeth to a giant Bulgarian hair-monster costume, and arrives at the party without saying a word, freaking out the already scared naked party guests. It’s clearly a very good movie, and even if I have trouble understanding Cinema Scope’s film-of-the-year acclaim, this may be the scene of the year.

Ade, probably predicting the failure of next year’s remake:

When I tried to shorten the film, it gets very banal and less complex. The film needed a certain length … The moment you take out 20 minutes, then you have the father coming, he’s an idiot, she’s a businesswoman… it gets very simple, very fast.

A movie about nazis being killed off by aliens should’ve been more entertaining – besides a really fantastic smoke-monster effect, this was only pretty good. It tries to be very serious and sets up many conflicts (good alien/bad alien, good nazi/bad nazi, nazis/jews, etc.) then doesn’t do anything wonderful with any of these things.

Trevor: “it fell apart for me when none of the story mattered… mystery invincible guy with glowing eyes walks in and defeats the beast, the worst execution of deus ex machina.”

Smoke Monster, de-smoked:

Okay, Nazis led by Jurgen Prochnow (Sutter Cane in In the Mouth of Madness, and I think Kyle’s dad in Dune) occupy a Romanian town and camp in an empty fortress watched over by a priest (Robert Prosky of Christine and Gremlins 2), who calls in his professor friend Ian McKellen with daughter Alberta Watson (Hedwig/Hansel‘s mom) to translate ancient writings after soldiers keep showing up dead. Prochnow isn’t murdering enough villagers, so the more ruthless Gabriel Byrne (three years before Gothic) is sent to take charge, later shoots Prochnow dead. Smoke Monster heals the formerly-crippled Ian McKellen, says he’s a golem-like Jewish avenger who will crush all nazis if Ian frees him. The priest gets all shitty and tells Ian he can burn in hell (admittedly all the nazis might be stressing him out), meanwhile Mystery Invincible Guy (top-billed Scott Glenn, Jodie Foster’s boss in Silence of the Lambs) has sex with Ian’s daughter until she notices he has no reflection. I think Invincible Guy and the nazis and Smoke Monster all kill each other at the end?

Alberta with sex alien:

Ian under Smoke Monster’s spell:

Second movie I’ve watched this Shocktober where the first death is by exploding head. TV veteran Mann’s second feature, which he has since disowned, based on a story by the guy who wrote Pelts. The actors act as big as possible (apparently Ian McKellen has mellowed with age) and the then-trendy Tangerine Dream soundtrack does the nazi-horror atmosphere no favors. But it’s a startlingly different movie, anyway.

Another drag of a Romanian movie making some sort of opaque political statement, this one by 50 Under 50 filmmaker Porumboiu. Won a couple of awards at Cannes the year before 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days had everyone talking about Romania.

A TV studio cameraman says handheld camera is “the new thing” until the presenter tells him “put it on the tripod before I whop you with it!” That might be Porumboiu’s thoughts on the matter, since his film is shot with locked-down cameras, drab framings through doorways. The program within the film is portrayed as pretty half-assed, with focus problems, making the uninteresting-looking main feature look more competent by comparison. Indiewire says the compositions are “elegant” and “lovely,” so they saw something I didn’t.

12:08 is what time president Ceausescu fled the capital by helicopter on 12/22/1989. On the anniversary, TV call-in host Virgil Jderescu invites a couple of guests (beardy prof Manescu and old man Piscoci) to discuss whether their small town participated in the revolution or simply followed it, defined as whether there were people in the square before or after 12:08. No serious conclusions are drawn, and at the end everyone shuts up and watches snow fall.

Jay Kuehner in Cinema Scope:

This quietly bravura set-piece manages to be narratively torpid and aesthetically flat, but nevertheless conceptually rich; it’s a sublime metaphor for the uses of history, how people make it as much as it makes people, and how received narratives often entail multiple and conflicting views. .. That Porumboiu stages the “action” on live television is surely not coincidental, as impromptu broadcasts from the seized television stations relayed the progress of the revolution, up to and including Ceausescu and his wife’s bloody end.

AV Club says the points are “whether a revolution can happen if nobody risks anything, and whether the long memories of small-town stalwarts can be both a blessing and a curse.”