„They (didn’t) confuse me”. Thoughts on the Gopo Awards and on Filantropica | The State of Cinema

19 May, 2022

I spent the last couple of weeks processing Viorica Vodă’s courageous gesture at the Gopo Awards (during the moment that commemorated 20 years since the launch of Filantropica, a modern classic of Romanian cinema) and the reactions that followed it on social media and the press – starting with the moment of her speech, itself, which I listened to live, sitting in the Grand Hall of the National Theater in Bucharest. In those seemingly infinite moments leading up to the unspeakably misogynistic and insensitive interruption of her co-actor Florea Vizante, who yelled over her that “but the film turned out right, in the end”, I felt my knees go soft, I felt my breath and heart going faster and, above all, I felt that someone finally dared to address the hugest elephant in the room – that of the abuse that is perpetuated in the Romanian film industry (and, by extension, in all the country’s creative sectors). Just as actress Ilinca Manolache put it in an interview for Scena9, “a place which offers such high exposure, like a film awards ceremony, is a perfect place to grapple with heavy topics such as sexual harassment”. I knew that I was witnessing history at that moment – and that no matter what was going to be said in the next few hours, at the gala, the next day would be the truly crucial moment in the posterity of Vodă’s speech. (I must be honest: I was not at all surprised that the overwhelming majority of those who followed her on stage simply ignored what had just happened; just as I was not surprised, in a positive sense this time, that the one who spoke up about it was actress Katia Pascariu.)

Quickly going through the rest of her speech after being interrupted, Viorica Vodă was followed by Mara Nicolescu, in what was to be the evening’s second-most discussed moment. In the words of filmmaker Lucia Chicoș, which she published on Facebook, most seemed to judge Nicolescu more than they criticized Vizante, after “some standards that (…) are very scrutinizing, and that we sometimes continue to hold the abused more accountable as that we hold the abusers themselves”. In a reply to Vodă, who said that “many theater and film directors seem to have confused me with my character [ed.n.: from the 2002 film Filantropica]”, Nicolescu expressed her regret at her colleague’s experience and added that “they didn’t confuse me”. I must say that, at first, before becoming aware of how diminishing her words were, I thought to myself, rather bewildered, “So, they didn’t confuse you with a scammer [ed. n: Nicolescu’s character in Filantropica]… what does that have to do with anything?!”. (Professional defect, I guess.) Later on, I realized that what she meant to say was that she hadn’t been confused with an “easy” woman. After the scandal erupted, Nicolescu published a text where she outlined her version of the events, in which she also spoke of her own experiences with abuse in the industry, saying that it lay at the root of her decision to retire from acting, even from the city – a sad fate, that is shared by all-too-many female film and theater professionals.

Still, I can’t help but take a critical eye at the aspects and nuances of her written testimony that do, indeed, seem to validate some initial reactions to her speech. First, Nicolescu allocates much more space to write about her various critiques of Viorica Vodă, than she gives critiques of the abuse within the industry, itself. Second of all, she seems to subtly imply that women who face abuse and that choose to continue working in the industry rather than retiring from it (like she did) are, to a certain degree, tacitly agreeing with any future abuse that they might be subjected to. And I think that we can all agree that this is not a solution, not in any case – the solution is to eliminate abuse and to hold abusers accountable for their actions, not to exile ourselves from the creative industries. We need systemic solutions, not individual ones.

All of this does nothing more than to make Mrs. Nicolescu’s so-called good intentions even more questionable. Because, amongst others, her words run the risk of reinforcing the belief that abuse of all kinds, be it sexual, emotional, psychological, economic, or of any other nature, simply “happens”. Like in a famous Romanian stand-up sketch about reflexive verbs, where the comedian jokes that “the computer is all f*cked” – where, he adds, “then, that’s it, I guess”, but still, “who did the computer f*ck with, the printer?!”. Jokes aside, we know all too well that this is not the case. Abuses are committed by someone. Abuses don’t happen by themselves, it is the result of the conscious and deliberate actions of one individual against another, who is often in a vulnerable or unequal position. 

To go back to the gala, I wouldn’t say that – in contrast to the narration that has become predominant since the 3rd of May, based on the recording of Vodă’s speech – that the entire room fell silent and had no reaction to the actress’ gesture. The reaction was definitely not up to par, even when presenter Alexandru Ion, himself visibly unprepared for what was happening, called for applause. The fact that most were unprepared for such a moment to happen speaks volumes about the self-humbling nature of such galas, but, from where I sat, I heard women react to Vizante’s interruption but also to Mara Nicolescu’s already-infamous “they didn’t confuse me”. I saw women in the hall who applauded her, some holding their hands above their heads when Vodă retorted that “they didn’t confuse you because you were Nae’s [ed. n: Caranfil, director of Filantropica] girlfriend”. And I heard and saw those who applauded Viorica Vodă when she finished her speech, and I was one of them. I also heard the woman who, with a gutted voice, yelled “Bravo!”. The reason I’m mentioning all of this is that, to me, the act of rendering the reaction of the women in the hall invisible, given that many of them are also, most probably, victims of a form or another of abuse or harassment, inside or outside the industry, means to also unwillingly perpetuate the same type of narrative that erases women from the larger histories that they participate in.

Still from Filantropica (2002), by Nae Caranfil.

***

Still, did the film really turn out right in the end, Mr. Vizante? To quickly summarize, there were two moments at this year’s edition of the Gopo awards that marked the anniversaries of two important Romanian feature films: Sequences by Alexandru Tatos, which turned 40, one of the absolute all-time masterpieces of Romanian cinema (and I can’t help but bitterly notice that the film has one of our local cinema’s most haunting representations of a domestic abuse victim, performed by the late Luminița Gheorghiu), and Filantropica, that turned 20. What I mean to say is that I’m not a great fan of such anniversary moments, that simply reproduce myth after myth in their factious formalism – capital-S speeches, cheesy moments of nostalgia, fun facts from the st that lack any real substance; and let’s not neglect to mention the extremely awkward moment when presenter Alex Bogdan, who hosted the moment dedicated to Tatos’ film, made a joke about actors’ salaries.

Given the courage of Viorica Vodă, and the careless words of Mara Nicolescu, I kept on wondering – what does it actually mean to (not) be confused with a character? How do we end up confusing reality and fiction? And why? What is there to find in these fictitious, in their representation of women and femininity, that not only perpetuates toxicity but also lays out the field in which it occurs? In search of an answer to all of these questions, I decided to rewatch Filantropica.

I’d seen the film in my early teenage years, like so many other Romanian youths, and all that I could remember was the scam that the characters played by Mircea Dianconu and Mara Nicolescu – high school teacher Ovidiu Gorea and secretary Miruna – were pulling in various restaurants in order to obtain money, as they were involved in a foundation that acted as a front for organized crime, co-opting beggars in the scheme, and led by the (iconic) character played by Gheorghe Dinică, Pavel Puiuț. I had almost no recollection of Viorică Vodă’s character (Diana), the protagonist’s love interest. Likewise, I did remember the film’s famous catchphrase, and that is, “an outstretched hand that doesn’t also tell a story won’t get any cash”. Later on, as an adult, I often thought of how Filantropica was the source of a very toxic domino effect in Romanian society throughout the aughts, where the above phrase (and the film’s plot and title) became shorthand for those who refused to help the neediest members of society, who were forced to beg to make ends meet. It happened quite a few times that I would be walking down the street with someone who would hastily reject a beggar and then ask me: “have you ever seen Filantropica?”. From what I’ve gathered from friends living in other parts of the country, it doesn’t seem like I’m the only one who has had such experiences.

After all, why did Filantropica become a cultural juggernaut in the first place in 2000s Romania? I tend to think that it was more than just the effects of the overwhelmingly right-wing climate that dominated the cultural spheres at the time, with its explicitly classist and meritocratic discourses, along with the mass media – lest we forget that, to this day, the news channels in Romania often still run materials that excoriate local social services and their beneficiaries, perpetuating various myths and stereotypes that sociologists are then forced to painstakingly debunk.

I think this was a film that was also pliable to the endless economic traumas of the nineties and that validated some of their very worst impulses: the tendency to blame people who have been failed by the state’s lax social security net for their own misery, but also to judge anyone who seemed to make any sort of gains without an “effort”, without “working” – often the poorest in society, than the political class that supervised the privatizations that mutilated countless lives. I don’t even know if Nae Caranfil could anticipate this while he was shooting Filantropica, and I don’t want to blame him (directly) for this, barring any evidence. But what I do know is that if his film’s discourse had been careful to portray the nuances of this sensitive topic – and I really believe that it could have done so without any compromise to its comedic tone – these would not have been the results. And this lack of care is also painfully obvious when it comes to how the film’s female characters are represented.

Still from Filantropica (2002), by Nae Caranfil.

That being said, it was extremely difficult to rewatch the film. To me, Filantropica is, without a doubt, an absolutely misogynistic and objectifying film when it comes to its female characters. And it’s a film that has aged really badly – to put it in meme language, this is the kind of movie that you call the horny police for; it fails the Bechdel test with flying colors. I won’t stop to make an inventory of all the dozens of gratuitous, voyeuristic shots which frame the legs, butts, and breasts of the female characters – ranging from teenage girls (!) to anonymous characters tha simply show up in a bikini, out of nowhere; from the girl that is caught as she’s about to have sex in a high school bathroom stall to the hysterical ex-girlfriend who has a public meltdown because the protagonist refuses to have a baby with her (and nothing more, her character then simply disappears into the same void within the script from which she emerged from).

The main perspective through which the female leads in Filantropica are seen is that of the male protagonist, who regards them as objects of amorous conquest, mere sexual fantasies that somehow end up falling in love with this bland loser who complains incessantly, and who obviously want to sleep with him. (Mara Nicolescu has her own scene in which she is clad in nothing but lingerie, which she discards – because her character has sex with the teacher, of course). The fact that the film borrow’s Ovidiu’s perspective from the very beginning (like in the scene where a teenage version of his ends up with his face buried in his teacher’s bosom) is an even better excuse to sexualize female characters, especially Diana’s (for example, when they slow-dance with an orange, where the teacher once more ends up with his head planted between a pair of breasts). Even small, inconsequential details are dominated by sexual gratuity – for example, a man in a library, who interacts for a couple of seconds with the lead character,  seen holding an issue of a porn magazine. Of all the characters, Viorica Vodă’s is the most objectified and sexualized of them all, from the very moment of its introduction, through the usage of costume and framing; her first arrival is seen through Ovidiu’s eyes, as he scans her body from head to toe, the camera panning over her entire body until it lands in a composition where her breasts are in the literal middle of the shot. It’s not just Ovidiu’s gaze that is objectifying – the commercials in which Diana stars within the film, be they ads for hotlines or toothpaste, are all gratuitously objectifying her body.

The nineties and aughts were the peaks of the phenomenon of female sexualization and objectification in Romanian society – with nude photos routinely printed in newspapers. (See Iulia Popovici’s essential essay, “Female Sexuality and Male Power in the Cinema of the Transition Period”, in Romanian Cinema Inside Out, published by the Romanian Cultural Institute.) The secondary characters in Filantropica don’t have a better fate than their counterparts, as they’re also reduced to essentialized roles, such as the motherly one (the protagonist’s doting mother, the woman who he visits at the beginning of the film); the woman who cannot obtain this “status”, Ovidiu’s ex, can then only be a hysterical woman in the means of this economy of means. It’s exactly what Laura Mulvey described in her seminal 1973 essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema – women are either represented as the male protagonist’s object of sexual desire, either is in the plenitude of her sexual role, and that is, as a mother. And, of course, the film also puts the myth of girls with expensive taste to good use, as well. This stereotype in particular is, quite literally, one of the plot’s main driving forces.

After all, it’s quite hard to (fully) understand why Filantropica is just so crowded with shots that sexualize its female characters – sometimes, to the extreme –, beyond the fact that it’s a male fantasy (not just of its protagonist, I dare say); it’s not even a parody, a commentary on objectification and on hypersexual environments like Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls (1995), for example, where these sorts of aesthetic choices are used precisely towards critical and subversive means. And it’s exactly because Filantropica is so ambivalent towards its usage of nudity and sexuality, an ambivalence that women know all too well from their own lived experience – on the one hand, they are posited as objects of sexual desire that are to be consumed to fulfill the ends of male pleasure (be it visual or otherwise), on the other, they are chastised, moralized, excoriated because of their own bodies.

And Filantropica is indeed the type of film that, at its core, has a moralistic attitude towards female sexuality: all of these gratuitous shots are part of a film that shows a society that is duplicitous, downfallen, bankrupt – both intellectually, ethically and especially morally; and are we not all familiar with the ways in which our bodies were used all across history as instruments that would signify treachery, decay, and ruin? Behold: this is the system with which the two actresses have been confused with (whether they accept it or not), with which women, in general, have been and are still confused with to this very day – with this desolate and dehumanizing image that one confronts from the very moments that we become women (to quote Simone de Beauvoir’s famous axiom).

Film critic & journalist. Collaborates with local and international outlets, programs a short film festival - BIEFF, does occasional moderating gigs and is working on a PhD thesis about home movies. At Films in Frame, she writes the monthly editorial - The State of Cinema and is the magazine's main festival reporter.


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