I learned early on to care for the little guys. Or: this film destroys me. How I spent the end of the world… I remember seeing this in a dingy room spending my last five dollars to have it on demand. It is as good as I remember. If they ever send another one of those time capsules into space…you know, the ones with music by Bach and such…they should reconsider this film as one of the most touching pieces of art humanity has ever produced.
Sometimes the little guy is a long, lanky guy…and so it is in this movie. Andrei (Cristian Văraru) is like a Romanian Napoleon Dynamite. But this is no comedy. Imagine living in a country where emigration is forbidden. That’s a big way of saying, “you can’t leave.” No exit.
Văraru is so good in this that it is unreal. Imagine the dorkiest kid you ever went to school with…picked on, beaten, made fun of… Well, Andrei is determined to get out of Romania. This is communist Romania…in the year(s) leading up to the fall of Ceaușescu. Andrei is the new kid in town as well. He shows up with a police escort. The military police dump his family’s stuff onto the unpaved, rainy road and he starts life anew as the neighbor of Eva (Dorotheea Petre).
[At this point I must pause and catch my breath, because Petre’s acting is one of the most remarkable phenomena I have ever seen. Thank you.]
Dorotheea starts off as an average girl…in fact, literally the girl next door…soon enough. She has a sort of jock, soldier boyfriend. They go to the communist school. The idiot guy sneaks her out of class like a luckless James Dean. As they are halfway making out, he kicks over a statue (bust) of Ceaușescu . Dorotheea ends up taking the blame. She doesn’t squeal, but the dude is a cop’s son.
And thus life changes for Dorotheea. She is removed from the communist youth party by her comrades; her colleagues. Keep in mind, there is no choice in the matter as far as being a member or not. As she won’t admit to a crime she didn’t commit, she is moved to a school for rejects and losers…a little reeducation.
There she meets her new neighbor Andrei. He’s not like the other dudes. He’s thin as a rail and has gigantic lips. He’s weird.
They become friends and she learns that Andrei is planning to escape from Romania. He is going to cross the Danube. There’s no waltzes of Viennese blue in these waters…this is the icy Danube of totalitarian government. He agrees to take Dorotheea along. They train. In perhaps the most touching (and certainly the most visceral) scene, the two practice acclimating to freezing waters by immersing themselves in an old bathtub filled with floating ice. Andrei even rigs up flotation vests using old coffee cans.
And so one night the militia (secret service) show up at Andrei’s house. He’s one step ahead. He will have to leave now if he’s going to leave at all. The two set off and hop a train. It is an amazing story of the desire to be free. They finally arrive at the crossing point. Armed guards watch the river with automatic weapons…ready to shoot any who try to escape from this utopia.
As they are halfway across the river, Dorotheea turns back. Fear? No. She remembers her adorable little brother…one of the ones too young to have this chance.
Timotei Duma plays Lalalilu (Lilu for short). It is for him that Dorotheea returns to the grey monotony of Eastern European socialism. Andrei makes it to Italy and sends pictures, a denim jacket and Toblerone. I’ve never seen a girl look so sad while eating chocolate in all my life. As you might notice, I’m not too worried about dangling modifiers at this point either.
And so Dorotheea soldiers on. She even gets back together (somewhat) with the cop’s son because he is supplying medicine for her sick little brother. Poor kid is always getting fevers… But the sadness is in her eyes…and her first sexual experience turns out to be just a momentary diversion from her horribly drab, drab life.
And then it happens. It happens in more than a few Romanian New Wave films…because it is the moment: the fall of communism. Dorotheea and Lilu and the parents hug and dance around like a Matisse painting while verbalizing the moment…”we’re free!!!”
This is darn near a perfect film. This is a film for the little guys. This is a film for the forgotten corners of the world. This is a film for people with drab, drab lives who feel like prisoners–who have no dream other than the hope of managing a smile once in a while. Cătălin Mitulescu made a piece of art to be cherished and hidden and shared and preserved. This is why I love cinema.