By Sam Littman.
Cluj-Napoca, the second largest city in Romania with approximately 350,00 inhabitants and home of the Transylvania International Film Festival, aspires to become the Youth Capital of Europe by 2015. This might seem outlandishly ambitious for any European city; Paris would have to compete with Barcelona, Barcelona with Florence, Florence with Berlin, the combinations of competition are infinite. The advantage held by Cluj is that the very ambition which would seem to render it a mouse among titans, is the same ambition that led to the successful revolution of 1989 and ousted one of the most oppressive communist regimes of the 20th century. A beautiful, exotic, large but not remotely overwhelming city situated in the second cheapest country in Europe, a week’s stay in Cluj is no more than one-third the price of any country on the Euro and its myriad cultural and historical offerings can be thoroughly exhausted in a week. Chief among these is the TIFF, one of the fastest growing and intuitively evolving festivals in Europe and the preeminent ambassador of culture in Cluj, attracting more than 67,000 attendees, at least 20,000 more than Sundance.
The man at the helm is Tudor Giurgiu, president of Romania Film Promotion, the inaugurator of the TIFF in 2001 as well as Romania’s equivalent of the Academy Awards – the Gopo Awards – in 2007. An acclaimed filmmaker himself, Giurgiu’s latest effort behind the camera, Of Snails and Men (2012), netted the highest opening weekend gross of any Romanian film in the last decade at the time of its release and won the Special Jury Award at the Warsaw International Film Festival one month later. His production company, Libra Film, is largely responsible for the increasingly transnational nature of the Romanian film industry; the studio’s most recent relatively large-scale production, the Spanish-language Canibal (2013), premiered at Toronto and earned Romanian actress Olimpia Melinte a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the 2014 Goya Awards. A fixture in attendance at events both public and exclusive and always standing out with his white-rimmed glasses, Giurgiu’s warmth and willingness to engage with attendees despite his demanding schedule and burgeoning stature has become fairly well known at the festival. His close collaborator, the similarly warm Mihai Chirilov, is the most infectiously passionate Artistic Director I have yet had the pleasure of meeting.
A clear mission of the 14th TIFF was the introduction of elite international auteurs to Romanian audiences through the Supernova section, comprised of prestigious acquisitions from recent alpha festivals. The first couple days of the festival were defined by a dizzying selection of works by eminently relevant directors in the discourse of world cinema in advance of the competition screenings commencing on day three. The first day showcased Yi’nan Diao’s Golden Bear winner Black Coal, Thin Ice; Lukas Moodysson’s best film in a decade, We Are the Best!; and concluded with prodigy Xavier Dolan’s stunning psychological thriller Tom at the Farm. The second day was highlighted by Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves, Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo, Kim Ki-Duk’s Moebius and the rapturously received Nick Cave documentary 20,000 Days on Earth.
The FIAPF categorizes the TIFF as a “competitive specialized feature films festival,” otherwise known as a “second tier” festival, below Cannes and Venice but on par with Sarajevo, Warsaw, Sydney and Stockholm. The competition slate reflected the FIAPF’s designation of TIFF as one “specializing in first and second feature films,” as half the competition features had previously premiered at Venice, Sundance and Berlin. The compilation of competition titles is laudable in its increasing variety, however; the Transylvania Trophy was awarded to a Romanian film three times in the first eight years of the festival – Christian Mungiu’s Occident in 2002; Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest in 2006 and Police, Adjective in 2009 – but since Porumboiu won a second prize, the winners have hailed from Thailand, Argentina, Norway, India and Spain, respectively.
The most unique and experimentally enthralling works screened in competition emerged from Iran, not meta-personal works in the tradition of Close-Up (1990) and This is Not a Film (2011) but rigorously composed narrative dramas quite unlike anything that could be said to have preceded them. Amir Toodehroosta’s Paat (The Dog) follows a dog’s journey in and out of the lives of a warring couple and drug addicts among others in Tehran after his master is murdered. The camera is situated at the dog’s eye-level in every shot in which the dog is present and it never pans or tilts; characters wander in and out of the frame with the camera set low to the ground in an Ozu-inflected manner. Paat is the rare live-action drama that positions a dog as a main character and never mobilizes it as a manipulative tool, rendering it an especially endearing work within the subgenre it transcends.
In January 2013, Swedish director Anette Skahlberg’s 7333 Seconds of Johanna was enshrined in the Guiness Book of World Records as the longest single-take narrative feature, clocking in at 123 minutes, surpassing the previous record of 96 set by Alexander Sokurov’s masterwork Russian Ark (2002). Iranian filmmaker Shahram Mokri’s sophomore feature, Fish and Cat, winner of the Horizons Award at Venice and one of the marquee competition competitors here in Cluj, is a single 134-minute shot; a Guinness Book of World Records representative was not on hand for the production, and one can be sure that Mokri could not have cared less. His attention was acutely focused upon the choreography of the unnerving depiction of impending doom at a remote campsite near a restaurant which the opening titles note was shut down for allegedly serving human meat, though the facts never confirmed. The film is set somewhere between a daydream and a nightmare, absurdist yet grounded by an engrossing narrative that’s certainly traditional until the very last sequence. Here is a filmmaker whose trajectory is worth tracking.
Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s talky but intense debut feature Stockholm was awarded the Transylvania Trophy, the festival’s top honor, which comes with a $15,000 Euro cash prize. This was preceded and strongly forecasted by the bestowal of the Best Performance Award upon stars Javier Pereira and Aura Garrido, the only two named characters in the spare, extraordinarily well-written drama reminiscent of Before Sunrise (1995) but defined by a grittier, more claustrophobic atmosphere. The Best Director honor went to Polish filmmaker Tomasz Wasilewski for Floating Skyscrapers, a nuanced hypersexual depiction of a tragic love triangle palpably trending towards a devastating conclusion. An outstanding performance from the perpetually underestimated Eddie Marsan earned the Audience Award for Uberto Pasolini’s otherwise unexceptional Still Life. The epic, generations-spanning, mother-daughter tour de force Victoria, a Bulgarian-Romanian co-production, won the Special Jury Award and Paat received the Special Mention of the Jury prize.
Hard times have fallen on Romanian New Wave pillar Corneliu Porumboiu, whose most recent narrative feature, When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (2013), comprised of just 18 shots, disappointed his small but fervent critical fan base built on the likes of wryly hilarious formal exercises 12:08 East of Bucharest and Police, Adjective. Turning to the documentary format for the first time with the soccer doc The Second Game, composed with his typical emphasis on long takes and reverence of the mundane, Porumboiu won the Romanian Days Award for Best Feature accompanied by a 6,000 Euro prize for further post-production work. The Romanian Days Award for Best Debut was somewhat predictably but deservedly given to Tudor Jiurgiu’s acclaimed 2013 release The Japanese Dog.
Romanian films have been regarded as the most formidable prizefighters at festivals over the last decade but the state of the Romanian film industry is beyond troubling; one could even posit that it is one false turn away from the verge of extinction based on the precipitous transparency of the industry’s woes over the course of the last year. This will come as a shock to most considering the well-documented avalanche of awards garnered by Romanian productions at the world’s most prestigious festivals, beginning with best short film prizes at both Cannes and Berlin in 2004 for Catalin Mitulescu’s Trafic and Cristi Puiu’s Cigarettes and Coffee, respectively; when Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu won the Un Certain Regard prize in 2005, it had become clear that Romania was not merely an emerging nation in world cinema but a veritable powerhouse. This notion was strengthened by the Camera d’Or prize bestowed upon 12:08 East of Bucharest in 2006 and confirmed by the all but inevitable Palme d’Or seized by Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days in 2007. The film grossed $9.8 million worldwide but utterly flopped in Romania; an infinitesimal 0.03% of its worldwide haul was generated at the domestic box office. Cristi Puiu, the most important and internationally celebrated Romanian New Wave director, didn’t manage to crack the top 90 at the box office with his most recent feature, Aurora (2010). Audiences simply do not want to be returned to the communist past or engage with the bleakness of the foremost Romanian filmmakers’ ideologies, especially with the glut of Hollywood escapism imported regularly; American films accounted for 90% of the box office in 2013.
The fission between acclaim and attendance is unparalleled in modern world cinema, the statistics utterly unfathomable. The country with a population north of 23 million contains only 76 theaters to accommodate them, one for every 315,000. The Czech Republic, to provide just one example, boasts one per 15,000 inhabitants despite much less notoriety and prestige on the festival circuit. 78% of Romanian cities do not have a movie theater. In 1989, the year of the revolution and fall of communism, Romania boasted 156 million admissions. In 2005, that number fell to a perilous 2.8 million. Admissions increased to 9 million in 2013, a still infinitesimal figure considering the population. Ada Solomon, producer of the financially and critically successful Romanian film Child’s Pose, winner of the 2013 Golden Bear at Berlin, called for politicians to focus more attention on the film industry as it has doubtlessly become an ambassador for the country.
The dire state of Romanian cinema was taken up in a press conference, “Save the Big Screen,” with a panel headed by Giurgiu and the mayor of Cluj-Napoca, Emil Bloc. The primary goal set forth by Giurgiu is implementation of one theater in every city with at least 20,000 inhabitants within the next ten years, which would add seven cinemas to Romania’s paltry current total; Giurgiu noted that this may seem like a few, but the accomplishment would be major and audiences as well as authority figures such as Bloc finally appear ready to get behind the mission to reinvigorate their nation’s cinema.
The dawn of capitalism in Romania led to the conversion of hundreds of theaters into bingo and music halls, but when Cluj-Napoca’s budget for the last fiscal year was revealed to be significantly higher than expected, citizens were polled as to whether they would like the funds allocated to cinemas, which would also provide entertainment for children, rather than an addition of bars and restaurants, and in a surprising and hopeful gesture the people voted for more theaters. Residents of Cluj see the most films per capita of any city in Romania and twice as many as residents of Bucharest, further clarifying Cluj as the ideal home for the festival.
Earlier this year, the second largest neighborhood in Cluj invested in the construction of a new cinema. Cluj-Napoca already allocates more than 70% of its annual budget for culture to the 10-day TIFF and the investment is proving worthwhile as evidenced by the small but nevertheless significant increase in admissions over the last 10 years; as the festival continues to blossom, it appears that Romanian cinema may again flower as well.
Mood Indigo (Michel Gondry; France; 125 Minutes)
The less that Gondry has to work with the more, creativity he inherently unleashes; such was the case with the brilliant music videos he cut his teeth on, often opting to use a single location (as in Daft Punk’s “Around the World”), or even nothing more than the passing countryside outside a speeding train, mixed and looped in an eminently minimalist manner (as in The Chemical Brothers’ “Star Guitar”). The budget of his latest film, Mood Indigo, pales in comparison to The Green Hornet (2011), but nevertheless seems to have spoiled the ultra modernist filmmaker and soiled his ability to tell an engrossing story. Gondry has not been temporarily exiled from Hollywood for lack of creativity – of that he will never be accused – but because he’s increasingly turned his focus towards effects rather than characterization. Gondry helped Charlie Kauffman pen one of the most memorable characters of the last quarter-century in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet), but Mood Indigo is treated like a drawn-out music video, an ultimately alienating bombardment of stop-motion and CGI trickery practically devoid of plot and meaning.
Jealous that all his friends are falling in love with others in their social circle, Colin (Romain Duris) enlists the help of his best friends, Chick (Gad Elmaleh) and Nicolas (Omar Sy), so that he may self-actualize in the City of Light. Colin falls for Chloe (Audrey Tatou), and they become engaged almost instantly. During their honeymoon, Chloe inhales a snowflake that freezes up her arteries and relegates her to bed rest. Colin desperately seeks medical attention for his beau.
The plot of the 125-minute feature is aggravatingly thin. Gondry’s most undiluted absurdist work yet is based on Boris Van’s 1947 novel Froth on the Daydream, material well suited for the filmmaker with its myriad invented words and phrases and an infectious Parisian vibe of romantic bliss, though it unfortunately encourages his acute focus on images in complete sacrifice of story. The magic simply cannot sustain itself for over two hours without the requisite engagement of caringly built characters and a story that flows through their complexity. Gondry clearly had a great deal of fun making the film, but his indefatigable artistry shines through the product in a meaningless, unsatisfying manner that causes one to wonder if he is still capable of taking us on a journey that pleases the mind as it does the eyes.
We Are the Best! (Dir. Lukas Moodysson; Sweden; 102 minutes)
Lukas Moodysson’s lighthearted depiction of three 13-year old girls who decide to start a punk band without instruments or training is propelled by the dizzying energy of young adolescence; that is to say, the exclamation point in the title is fitting. The film cannot automatically be called a coming-of-age tale simply because the drama is centered on young girls. Rather, it could be called an anti-coming-of-age tale; the film is so profound precisely because the protagonists are no more mature at the end than they were at the commencement of their journey, culminating in a first live performance. Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen (2003) was lauded for its unflinchingly “realistic” depiction of the trauma of becoming a teenager, loaded with graphic sex, drugs and apocalyptic mother-daughter showdowns which earned the mother, Holly Hunter, an Academy Award nomination. The trauma of becoming a teenager can be expressed so many ways but Hardwicke’s melodrama is rendered an exercise in shock by Moodysson’s playful, equally affecting probing of youth that would likely be rated by PG if not for some harmless swear words here and there and one of the underage girls’ expectedly unpalatable first sampling of red wine.
The fearless auteur, who verged on becoming the most venerated Swedish filmmaker since Bergman upon the release of Lilya-4-Ever (2002) returns to form for the first time in a decade with an effervescent work quite unlike the edgier productions that affirmed his stature in world cinema. The friendship between the girls who proclaim themselves “the best!”, despite their hilariously amateurish performance in the climactic battle of the bands sequence – Bobo (Mira Barkhammar), Klara (Mira Grosin) and Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) – persists undisturbed until they fall for the same boys. But the conflict hardly lasts five minutes, and is seen as something implicit to their age, as they feel out where and how they fit in through exploration of a music scene that everyone around them insists is dead. Indeed, “punk is dead” is a common refrain in the film, but the girls reject it with nonsensical but endearing passion. The same refrain reflected Moodysson’s career over the last decade, yet here he is, still one of the very best.
Boyhood (Richard Linklater; United States; 165 minutes)
To call Linklater’s new film “long-awaited” would be selling it short; known only as “The 12-year Project” since its inception in 2001, Linklater’s film is every bit the landmark achievement cinephiles have incautiously assumed it would be when rumors regarding the production began to leak precipitously. The film is not merely about boyhood, but girlhood, motherhood, fatherhood, life. Those that have been anticipating it for years will find that hyperbole is unavoidable, whether it regards the achievement of the writer-director or star Ellar Coltrane, whom we witness grow from a puzzled six-year old child into a highly self-aware amateur philosopher similar to the principal characters in Linklater’s most acclaimed works: the Before trilogy and Waking Life (2001).
Linklater’s uncomplicated and concise manner of storytelling seamlessly strings the 12 years together. There are no intertitles marking the elapsed time and the quality of the image appears not have changed over the course of arguably the most technologically and economically transformative decade in filmmaking for both amateurs and professionals, a deceptively thin line that Linklater transcended in his earliest works. Despite the unprecedented form of its production, filmed for about three weeks every year in Texas since 2002, the genuinely devastating and revelatory final product could not possibly be perceived or regarded as a gimmick. Now here comes the hyperbole: it’s one of the greatest coming-of-age films ever made in America.
Coming-of-age films focused on young men tend to be fantasized, often in the crime genre, their creators bewilderingly unconfident in the dramatic potential of a film about growing up sans guns. It should come as no surprise that the film has much in common with This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolfe’s memoir read in most American high school English classes and successfully transposed to the screen despite absence of particularly provocative elements of plot and theme. Like Moodysson, Linklater understands that a chronicle of adolescence that some might unfairly deem “normal” can breed the most engrossing drama imaginable. He brings us closer to the minutiae of maturation than any film has managed to achieve in many, many years, perhaps in all of its history.
Sam Littman is a graduate student in the MA in Film Studies program at Columbia University.