I didn’t actually want to watch this film. In fact, truth be told, I was more interested in what came after the film. Bundled together along with the Romanian short film, ‘Megatron’, I was keen to check out what the best of the competition had to offer. After all, ‘Megatron’ is the multi-award winning international film festival juggernaut, one of the main films responsible for the ascendency of the Romanian New Wave to the top of critical international favour. Simply put, it sounds like the kind of film that I want to make.
But, as such programming goes, the treat that is ‘Megatron’ is scheduled together in a double bill. In a most nationalistic move, the first up is ‘The Paper Will Be Blue’. As it turns out, it is a story that revels in raw grittiness as much as the other Romanian film that I saw some time last year, ‘4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days’.
The circumstances, however, was different. That film I saw as something recommended to me by my cinematographer, after having discussed the look I wanted for a short film I made called ‘Bound’. “You have to see it,” he said. “I think it matches perfectly what you want to achieve for the film.”
After having seen ‘Paper’, the premise and the execution is almost exactly the same. Set during the time of the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu (in fact, just a few hours after it), the film basically follows the trials and tribulations of a squad of soldiers. They’re supposed to be doing the rounds, patrolling areas and maintaining the security, so to speak, but a lack of communication from the main HQ meant that they quickly lost direction, both figuratively and literally. They don’t know who they’re supposed to be getting their orders from, and as every soldier will tell you (or at least, soldiers in Tom Clancy novels), orders are everything. It doesn’t help that the radio breaks down at time, adding further to the tension.
Led by Neagu (Adi Carauleanu), it is in this state that they start to fall apart. The youngest soldier of the lot, Costi (Paul Ipate), wanted to go and defend the TV station that had fallen into the hands of anti-Ceausescu protestors. Despite this, the pro-Ceausescu people are still trying to take it back. Feeling strongly enough about this, he decided to leave his unit behind and go his own way. Along the way, though, he gets taken in as one of the protestors, but is then accused of being a terrorist. It is a fine exercise in the blurring of the lines, of how quickly one can turn from hero to zero. At the same time, though Neagu doesn’t like the idea of Costi abandoning his unit, he also fears that he will get into trouble for the desertion. They then spend the whole night looking for him. It is the journey of these two characters that we get into the most.
Despite the grim-looking outline that I’ve drawn out for you, the film is not without its humour. Some parts, especially, are just laugh-out-loud moments that breaks the tension perfectly. For example, as Costi was suspected of being a Ceausescu sympathiser, he was held as a prisoner who was only released when his mother got on the phone with the people in charge. “He’s a good boy,” his mom said, and they let him go. It was just so weird, and yet, within the context of the film, works perfectly fine.
After all, the country is in a big state of confusion. We never forget this, then: the director, Radu Muntean, weaves in moments that brings us back from the comedy, the heat of the moment. News footages from the actual revolution are included. As the film progresses, I slowly realise the metaphoric role the unit serves for the Romania of the time. The team of soldiers mirrors the nation in almost every way. Chaotic, directionless, rudderless, splitting into factions upon itself, without much of a clue as to how to negotiate the dark streets of Bucharest.
And when I say dark, I mean DARK. It is the very style that is associated with the Romanian New Wave. Almost Dogme-like in its approach, the films works on a lot of long takes, grainy shots, and very natural conversations. It doesn’t really feel like you’re watching a film; if anything, you don’t even feel like you’re watching a product, an art, of any kind. I’m tempted to compare it to documentaries, but that wouldn’t quite do it justice. It does a pretty good job of placing you in the moment, I’ll tell you that.
Which is also why it is something that could work against it. There will always be a segment of the crowd that appreciates it. For my part, I revel in the long takes. It has always been a personal favourite of mine, for I believe that, when utilised well, it brings out the best in the scene and the actors. In this case, it did the business for me, but I can see others hating it for precisely the same reason. There is a certain feeling, a certain emotion that is evoked within me, as the scenes played out all the way to the end. No matter the technical deficiencies, it is this feeling that all filmmakers hope to bring out in the audience. In that regard, then, I consider this movie to be one worth watching.
Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for ‘Megatron’…
Fikri thinks that Romania has lots of people who are crazy about rowing (row-mania). Ho hum.