Footnotes: Delta Space Mission in 4k

22 September, 2022

Now that it’s late, meaning that disc-based distribution (on DVD/BluRay) seems to have become a thing of the (unfortunate) past, an independent restoration and distribution company from the States, Deaf Crocodile, through its representative, Vinegar Syndrome, has released its own 4k restoration of the highly unusual Delta Space Mission (dir. Călin Cazan, Mircea Toia, 1984) on Blu-Ray. Nothing would have seemed more improbable for such a film, given that the presence of pre-2001 Romanian cinema on the international archive stage – specialty festivals, institutional retrospectives, re-releases of all kinds and so on – is terribly conformist: a few days ago, a friend of mine, who is otherwise quite cosmopolitan, wrote to me to say that she will organize a screening of Lucian Pintilie’s The Reenactment in a foreign festival.

Before moving on, it must be said that the Blu-Ray released by these American independents is indeed a work of curatorship. Something which, beyond the Pintilie, Filmmaker box set (released in 2013 by Transilvania Film) and the Sahia Vintage series by One World Romania, cared for by Adina Brăteanu, has – to my knowledge, at least – not happened to many other re-released Romanian films. Of course, I’m distinguishing between those quick-fix, one-off plastic throwaway editions and the few elegant titles, which were accompanied by formal/historical analyses, bonus materials, audio commentaries, and so on. It’s quite obvious to me that the collections put out by the Media department of the Romanian National Television (TVR), or magazines like Adevărul and Jurnalul Național were not in vain, that the people who worked on them invested in digitizations and tried to keep their prices as low as they could, but it’s just as clear to me that they were cutting corners when it came to the content itself. The countless “author series” featuring names such as Elisabeta Bostan, Sergiu Nicolaescu, Florin Piersic, and other towering figures are not automatically uninteresting to me, but what kills them in my eyes is their curatorial tedium and amateurishness.

Deaf Crocodile’s job was not easy. Because, despite some online enthusiasm for the film from within the local science fiction community, there hasn’t been much written in Romanian about the Delta Space Mission, not in an applied manner – neither in the press, nor in pop “film dictionaries” and all the less in the history books. Which sort of leaves things in a wrong place, without a definitive chronology of the episodes in the TV series (1980-1983) that formed the basis of the feature film. Filmmaker Victor Antonescu, the creator of the first episodes of Delta, was the one who worked the most to preserve its memory, but he did so from approximate recollections. A review of its first episode, The Planet of the Oceans, is published in the January 1981 issue of Cinema by Dana Duma, so one could assume that its TV premiere took place shortly before that (December 1980 / January 1981). As planned by the studio, the series had several directors, including Laurențiu Sîrbu, Mihai Șurubaru, Constantin Păun, Călin Cazan and Mircea Toia, and episodes did not have any continuity, be it narrative or stylistic, a fact which made Antonescu leave the production in ‘83 (although Bat Planet, Sîrbu’s first episode,a ired in ’81), with Cazan and Toia taking his place. It is believed that the series had 13 episodes, but Dana Duma notes at least 16 in the filmography that concludes her History of Romanian Animated Film, 1920-2020 (Editura Academiei, 2020).

Bat Planet / Planeta liliacului (r. Laurențiu Sîrbu, 1980)

The Planet of the Oceans / Planeta oceanelor (r. Victor Antonescu, 1980) 

Failed Towing / Recuperarea ratată (r. Victor Antonescu, 1981)

The Alarm / Alarma (r. Mircea Toia, Călin Cazan, 1981)

The Ashen World / Lumea cenușie (r. Ștefan Anastasiu, 1981)

The Message of the White Planet / Mesajul planetei albe (r. Virgil Mocanu, 1981)

The Relic / Relicva (r. Victor Antonescu, 1981)

The Tunnel / Tunelul (r. Constantin Păun, 1981)

The Mirror / Oglinda (r. Constantin Păun, 1981)

The Fugitive / Fugara (r. Mircea Toia, Călin Cazan, 1981)

The Purple Jungle / Jungla purpurie (r. Mircea Toia, Călin Cazan, 1982)

The Lonely Navigator / Navigatorul solitar (r. Mihai Șurubaru, 1982)

Noah / Noe (r. Mircea Toia, Călin Cazan, 1982)

Robots and Robots / Roboți și roboți (r. Victor Antonescu, 1982)

Captives on Acora / Captivi pe Acora (r. Mircea Toia, Călin Cazan, 1983)

We, People / Noi, oamenii (r. Mircea Toia, Călin Cazan, 1983)

Anyways, the 1984 feature is often said to compile the episodes directed by Cazan and Toia, but an interview conducted by Rodica Lipatti in the October 1984 issue of Cinema with George Anania, deputy director of Animafilm at the time, states that they were re-edited and had added about 20 minutes of new material (600m of film). In other words, the effort was even greater than what history remembers.

Impressive as it is, the Blu-Ray release makes all the predictable mistakes. The restorations – of the film and of two of Antonescu’s episodes, The Planet of the Oceans and Failed Towing – truly look marvellous, but writer Kat Ellinger, editor-in-chief of horror magazine Diabolique, often messes things up throughout her audio commentary. She says, for example, that the series ran in 1983, that the film was supposedly the first Romanian animated feature, that Romania had some independence from the Soviet Union at the time (correct), thus suggesting a liberal culture (wrong), and that by the 1980s, Animafilm was reluctant to make an “arthouse” production, and so on. I’m not trying to make any excuses for her, but I also can’t imagine how she could have avoided all (of our) factual mistakes. Others, however, are all hers. The commentary is otherwise endearing, it doesn’t go over- or underboard in its analysis, it’s brilliant in its observations about the female protagonist’s erotic allure, yet reasonable in terms of associations (Hanna-Barbera, Western psychedelic chic, the story of The Beauty and The Beast), even though her reference to Lev Atamanov’s The Ballerina (1969) on the basis of a short oneiric dance momet in Delta clearly indicated what her trans-cultural limits are, which the author herself often admits to. But I’m starting to get bored by all of these filmologists two admit their own vulnerabilities. 

Be that as it may, the restoration remains: the space fantasy has regained its colour. Cazan and Toia don’t make anything special out of their script, which does indeed seem to suffer a case of de-dramatization due to its disproportionate narrative timing and the opacity of its characters: in the year 3084, a space crew from Earth is about to begin a reconnaissance mission in order to discover other planets to cooperate with. Their society has something of a utopic communist heaven, which is dedicated to the common good and to the friendship of all peoples, standing in opposition to war and imperialism and so on, while the crew from Terra, that is, Oana, Dan (a mulatto man?), Anuta (an African-origin woman) and Yashiro (an Asian man), is conceived as fully diverse especially in order toembody an ideal.  Before setting off on their mission, they meet Alma, an intergalactic journalist who has come from a friendly planet in order to document and popularize their activity. What follows, of course, is a malfunction – the ship’s “brain”, a sort of robotic sphere with diamond-like facets, is programmed to think for itself, and Alma’s flattering words – that “this is the most beautiful thing that I’ve ever seen” – stir an emotion within it that the computer cannot process, aside from the certainty that it must have the journalist all for itself.

Science fiction wants to get itself reacquainted with robotic humanity and its limits. Like I said, nothing new here, and comparisons to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or to Tarkovsky’s Stalker are rather flattering to Delta Space Mission, a film that really doesn’t try to be that reflective. It has other goals, of which the visual spectacle takes precedence. If a rule can be laid down for such and eclectic animation, then I’d say that the two filmmakers keep their well-defined, definitive shapes in the foreground, so that they can go wild in the background, packing the screen with organic landscapes, fauna and flora, all interwoven into a hallucinatory, almost haptic visual sensation. There lies the animation’s true buzz, that exceptional something, while the rest is convention. But convention, before we repudiate it aesthetically, must be understood, otherwise, exceptions to the rull will be useless. We still don’t know how to make our history understood and, with all good intentions, Kat Ellinger reminds us that if we don’t do it ourselves, then no one will.

Film critic and journalist. He is an editor at AARC and writes the ”Screens” features for Art Magazine. He collaborates with many publications and film festivals as a freelancer and he is strangely attached to John Ford's movies.