Romania-France-Belgium (2012). Dir: Cristian Mungiu. Scr: Cristian Mungiu
If you sat down to watch an hour into this film you’d be forgiven for thinking it was set in a medieval monastery. But this is the Romania of today. And in Mungiu’s troubling, bleak movie he stares, scratching his head – morally poised but almost in disbelief, at his own country. The inadequacies of its institutions at the root of – and a reflection of – poverty, indifference, misunderstanding and fear. Over a decade after the fall of Communism and five years after joining the European Union as its third-poorest state, what is better now? What chance, pure love?
The film opens at a busy railway station. A girl of about twenty, Voichita – played by Cosmina Stratan, dressed in traditional heavy dark robes, determinedly fights her way through crowds of men to meet Alina, who has traveled from Germany. The two hug each other, Alina appearing to hold on longer and tighter than Voichita. The pair set off towards the rural hinterland, the end of the journey a walk across country towards the patched up buildings which form a small, isolated orthodox convent where Voichita is a novice. We soon learn that the two were lovers in a local orphanage and Alina has returned to take Voichita back to Germany, once the necessary travel documents have been organised. Alina, who appears sharp-edged, selfish and wild feels that she has discovered the free world. But the absence of Voichita is a source of despair. But for Voichita – whispering, gentle with soft facial features – her love of God now conflicts with her love for Alina and, despite the absence of electricity and hot water, she now has a safe, ordered existence.
As Voichita’s inner conflict grows, so does Alina’s frustration and hatred of the convent community and its code. At the same time her mental and physical become more fragile. Her behaviour confuses and terrifies the nuns but the “Father” of the convent, who found his calling after an experience while working in a factory, is at a loss about what to do: Alina’s old foster home cannot take her back and, after admission to hospital, she is discharged back to the convent. Relentlessly, the situation deteriorates, “God has a plan for her and he’s testing you, father”, building to a shocking, tragic climax of clumsy, workman-like bondage and exorcism.
It’s a slow, brooding, powerful film, acted poignantly and shot with a dark and cold beauty by Oleg Mutu. Mungui gives us many layers. We don’t know the free world Alina has discovered in Germany, but sexual trafficking and exploitation are hinted at in references to Herr Pfaff, who used to photograph the girls and has given Alina a camcorder. It is difficult to sympathise with the convent community – easy to judge its irrationality, atavistic binary moral code and idea of “Divine” love, fear of the unknown – but Mingui portrays “Father” as someone trying to doing his best. In the face of true vulnerability, all we see in others – foster homes, the medical profession, the police and the orphanages – is indifference. “God help anyone who falls into your hands” the doctor says to an older nun. She flashes back “God forgive me, but the same goes for you doctors”. The wonderful final frame brings home that, for all involved, it is impossible to wipe away the mud that has stuck to them. But also Mingui seems to be saying to the viewer, “What do you expect in this place?”
Also by Cristian Mungiu:
Tales From The Golden Age (2009)
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007)