Cannes 2016: Bacalaureat [Graduation]

I covered Cannes Film Festival this year, and I will be posting my reviews here weekly. My pieces are on a website known as The Upcoming and have been published in something called Swipe magazine.

Former Palme d’Or winner Cristian Mungiu returns to Cannes with Bacalaureat, an engrossing study of conflict between public morals and necessary compromises. Another Romanian entry to this year’s competition, the slowly unfurling tale depicts the insidious effects of endemic corruption within the Eastern European country. The thin end of the wedge is represented through nepotism and small favours, which spiral deeper into blackmail attempts and criminal injustice. But this is mostly a film about fathers and daughters: a parent’s choice of offering paternalism and positive liberty, and a child’s desire for independence and autonomy.

Adrian Titieni plays Romeo, a respected doctor in Cluj with a network of useful contacts across a variety of public institutions: in health, education and the police. His daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus, of Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon) is a brilliant student, due to earn a conditional scholarship in psychology at an esteemed English university. The day before her final exams she is assaulted and raped outside her school by an unknown assailant. Men, including her father, emphasise the assault; women, including her mother Magda (Lia Bugnar), do not dare downplay the fact that it was rape, despite the apparent flaccidity of the attacker. This fracture is only the beginning of a severance. Romeo’s concern for his daughter is twofold: obvious anguish at her injuries, but a further acknowledgement of the importance of her upcoming exams. Sensing Eliza’s disillusionment and distress, he attempts to circumvent the rules of the process, enlisting help from various high-ups to whom backhand deals are common currency. The film then carefully and complexly attempts to pinpoint whose best interests are served by such machinations.

Mungiu fascinatingly and painstakingly prods at the moral dilemmas that dominate Romeo’s life. Romeo cares deeply for his family, but is a constant philanderer. He believes in teaching honesty and respect, but eschews both traits when the occasion suits. As he castigates a young boy for throwing stones, we see an explanation for Eliza’s new-found resistance and disdain for her father. There are problems: the middle section is extremely cluttered, with several plot strands later left by the wayside, and Dragus’s performance as Eliza is a strangely muted one. These are minor issues though; this is thoughtful, absorbing filmmaking.

Cannes 2016: Sieranevada

I covered Cannes Film Festival this year and I will be posting my reviews on here daily. My pieces are on a website known as The Upcoming, and have been published in something called Swipe magazine. 

Sieranevada is a claustrophobic, enthralling and supremely intelligent entry from director Cristi Puiu. This is the first film shown in competition at Cannes, and it’s a cracker, a tale of an Orthodox Christian Romanian family undergoing crisis, conflict and not-quite resolution. Sometimes difficult, uncompromising and arresting, it is also sharp and often surprisingly hilarious: when the characters laughed, the audience often laughed in return – even in relief.

Lary (Branescu Mimi) attends a family commemoration during the winter festivities for his recently deceased father. The inevitable tensions of hosting a large extended family in a cramped apartment brings rise to a variety of confessions, misdemeanours and, most toxically, political debate. When a particular dispute seems to reach resolution, and a conclusion appears imminent, another family member steps in to stir up existing tensions or deliver new contentions. Among the antagonistic cohort are an elderly, short, communist-sympathising provocateur, who moves around ominously in a large fur hat provoking arguments on the merits of Ceaușescu, and a violent, adulterous and pathetic husband, who enters late into the celebrations but propels events further toward farce and disarray through outings of his perverse sexual requirements and rampant deceits. It says a lot about the amount of characters on show that most are just about sufficiently squeezed into the almost-three-hour running time.

With most of the events taking place in the small family apartment, the film is expertly choreographed. Long scenes with multiple characters appear to play out in real time, with the camera providing subtle shifts to extend the viewer’s periphery, and the acting is rarely mannered or self-conscious. Mimi’s Lary is undoubtedly the star; it is a deeply complex performance that straddles both stoic machismo and naked weakness. Debates around 9/11 conspiracies reoccur as an explicit motif, and it is sometimes difficult to discern the point the filmmaker is trying to prove; perhaps – unsurprisingly – that there is middle ground between blind conspiracy theorists and conservative reactionaries unable to question authority. But this is a minor point, overall Sieranevada is an excellent and fascinating film.