Thalassa, Thalassa: the lost winner of Rotterdam

23 June, 2022

Romanian cinema was late to understand the meaning of film festivals. A fact which can be easily read between the naive lines that make a monument out of Paul Călinescu’s awards in Venice for The Land of the Moți, 1939, or Carmine Gallonne’s Odessa in Flames, 1942, without bothering themselves with a little detail – back then, the Venice Film Festival, which is also the world’s first, used to work as a podium of sorts of artistic international fascism. It’s read also in what remains unwritten – the studies on Ecaterina Oproiu’s Cannes correspondences, and of Mircea Alexandrescu’s from Venice, that is, the translation of festive cinematic culture, with their luxury, waste, and obligatory caprices (a flower fight on the Riviera was often remembered by Oproiu) into one that was mostly utilitarian and somber, just like Romania’s cinematic output during communism. The truth is that few socialist-era editorial boards were more cosmopolitan than Cinema, and local pop culture studies, as meager as they might be, should take this into account. Just like academics have begun to reconstruct the first post-Revolutionary pulsions of Romanian cinema, In particular, Călin Căliman repeatedly wrote about the vast Romanian documentary retrospective that he organized together with Moritz de Hadeln, back then director of the Berlinale, and which was presented in 1990 at Visions du Réel (via Erika de Hadeln) under the title “Romania: the documentary films 1898-1990”, and a year later, in reunified Berlin. But none of the young researchers are debating this historic (historical, historian) gesture even though it’s so provocative – because to make history, in singular, to show, name, and thus decide the documentary films cannot be definitive.

Instead, we know a little something about the fiction films of the nineties. This is also due to the study titled Transition films, published at Tact, on the films of the decade. Of all the stories of a time that lost itself in remembering Pintilie’s The Oak and forgetting Cristiana Nicolae’s Sanda, the most interesting of them all, to me, is that of Thalassa, Thalassa, the second feature by Bogdan Dumitrescu Dreyer and one of the three winners of the Golden Tiger award in Rotterdam in 1995, which, coincidentally, was also the festival’s first competitional edition.

The filmmaker, like his film, is somewhat of an alien to the Romanian industry. A Saxon from Sibiu, hence the name Dreyer, which he took on after immigrating to the Federal Republic of Germany at the end of the seventies, Dumitrescu hastily returns to the country after the Revolution from Italy, where he studied at La Libera Università del Cinema di Roma, where he also served as a professor until the 2000s. He was a man of co-productions, which was not always useful – Thalassa, Thalassa, although co-produced by Filmex, will end up not finding a Romanian distributor, and his most recent effort, A Farewell to Fools (2013), a co-production between Romania, Germany and Belgium, was at the center of a scandal before its premiere in Bucharest, as Dreyer and Gérard Depardieu, his lead actor, accused Filmex of messing with the editing. A strange career, old before its time yet forever immature; but one that had a beautiful youth, as the Tiger Award confirms. 

This is not to say that Thalassa is more valuable because of its award, but that along with the festival, in a given year, with a given artistic director and a given jury, precisely a Romanian film, precisely this one, was the winner, and that is something definitory. It’s just that the definition seems to have slipped between our fingers, because the film lacked in both distribution and serious reception, even though his debut, the unusual Where the sun is cold (1991) seems to have rendered critics sympathetic – to the degree that many reviewers rejected his sophomore effort as a deviation from the norm, followed by fillers like Hidden camera (2003) and A Farewell to Fools. The reception came a decade later, at the 2004 edition of TIFF, then at its retrospective in Bucharest at Cinema Elvire Popesco. While 1995 might have not been the best year for Romanian film distribution, Thalassa feels like a loss for Romanian screens, a deprivation of a given sensibility, one different from the dominant one, vengeful and fiery – a lighter, more solar one, with the catchiness of worldly juvenile sentiment, whimsical albeit at times whacky, like a heavily-outlined sketch.

Shot in the region of Dobrogea on a  type of film reel that, despite the pixels, carefully retained its dirty white, gray and sandy, Thalassa won’t let the question of present time be answered, because it runs amok in a world removed from ours, amongst children suffering from explicit poverty – in other words, those for whom the politics of Bucharest mean little to nothing. And the little from home – little to have, little to lose, meaning, easy to lose – will keep things in a constant imbalance throughout the film, whose plot sounds a little like this: after discovering a Jaguar hit in a hut in their village, six boys and a girl decide that it’s time for them to take their first swim in the sea. However, on the unknown road to the beach, each of the young boys starts to put on a show of testosterone for one spectator only, the ghostly Anuța (Silvia Gheorghe).

It’s only Fane (Alexandru Cîrstea), the one who found that car and its driver, who seems caught up in something else; because, sometimes, the blinding freedom that guides them to the sea gets stuck at the idea of repercussions, and so he, the pack leader, stays outside the game to reflect on its ending. Of course, almost any film about childhood actually shows maturity at work, and the charm in watching it lies in the complicity with the little disobedient ones of our world, for the pleasure of chaosing the state of affairs. Thalassa gives us just that; to a point, unfortunately, when it starts giving lessons.

Dreyer’s imagination falls short quickly. Some poor kids want to see the sea, so they steal the car of a boss; on the way there, they realize that they’ve all fallen for the same girl, and then things run amok. And this is a film in itself, retaining the very same aim of turning a game into a fight, but it eludes the kind of grandeur that Thalassa tries to espouse, sharing the same pornographic nature as the shocking images printed on cigarette packs: our young protagonists get drunk, they smoke, they wear unruly clothes and point guns at each other in a manner lacking in any sort of economy of the essentialization of evil, one inherited from “the adults”. Forgetting about them, or trying to create their counterimages, the film returns to its original grace, like in that wonderful scene in which the kids chase each other on a former industrial Eiffel tower, one of those modern ruins that Walter Benjamin was talking about, ending it all up with peeing on command, all at once, or in the scene in which a game with stones becomes a question of character.

I often return to Cărtărescu’s “Mentardy” precisely because it manages to put juvenile violence into perspective by using the petty little things that give birth to it. Dreyer succeeded, too, but not to the end, even though he had everything – a clean storyboard, landscapes as states of grace, the spark and rules of the game, the secret cache of mystery; but he also wanted a circus show, for he couldn’t resist the siren calls of the nineties. However, he didn’t let himself be seduced either.

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. At Films in Frame, he writes "Footnotes" - a monthly editorial published on a Thursday.