The trump cards of four upcoming Romanian films

31 March, 2022

When a film industry is cursed with limited financial resources, this is also reflected in the stories that screenwriters and directors afford to explore. As a result, Romanian cinema is often criticized by the general public (rather a fan of Hollywood escapism) for being too familiar and repetitive. But that’s not quite true, which is why Films in Frame brings to your attention four debut (fiction) films, all centered on an element never seen before in our cinema. They are set to be released this fall or, at the latest, next spring.

To the North (dir. Mihai Mincan)

Premise: A story about faith and survival on a transatlantic ship

Synopsis: A religious Filipino sailor working on a transatlantic ship discovers a hidden Romanian stowaway. Convinced by the Bible the young man clutches at his chest, the sailor starts playing a dangerous game, involving his crew, his faith in God and an innocent man’s life.

Why To the North is worth your while
If we usually hint at the pink elephant in the room, now we are talking about the transatlantic in a Romanian movie. Mihai Mincan (known so far for his documentary features: Bondoc, Emigrant Blues, The Man Who Would Be Free) comes up with perhaps the most ambitious debut film of the year, in an atypical setting and starring Filipino actors (Soliman Cruz, Bart Guingona and Noel Sto. Domingo, among others). And it gets even more exciting when you find out that it often happens that transatlantic crews throw into the ocean the illegal passengers they discover on the ship…

To the North started from an image: a Filipino sailor and a young Romanian man, locked in a metal chamber at the lower level of a giant ship, on its way to America. The two barely manage to understand each other, the only thing that seems to link them is a Bible in Spanish. A book that for one of them means life itself, whereas for the other is a simple object. It’s the image that best represents what I have been looking for in this film: an attempt to understand how people in extreme situations end up discovering that any act of kindness towards a fellow human being requires acting for one’s own good first,” says the director in regards to the premise of the film.

This deFilm production will have its theatrical release in Romania this fall.

Mammalia (dir. Sebastian Mihăilescu)

Premise: A man in search of his own masculinity

Synopsis: Mammalia is a surreal exploration of the limits of masculinity, which focuses on Camil, a troubled young man who feels emasculated around women in his life. Camil reaches the end of his rope when he tries to make sense of his own existence and the strange female apparitions that seem somehow connected to his girlfriend. The nightmare continues when his partner disappears. Camil sets out to look for her and reaches a secret community dedicated to fertility, where no men are allowed, somewhere near a lake. There he finds something far more disturbing.

Why Mammalia is worth your while
Just take a look at the picture painted above and it should be enough to convince you that Mammalia deserves its place on this list. And it’s more than exciting to see what can be said about emasculation in a predominant male national cinema. So male predominant that out of the dozens of productions made in our country in one year, there are only a handful of strong female protagonists. And I’m not saying this on a wild guess, it’s on account of my recent participation in the jury that decides the nominations for the Gopo Awards, where I had the disturbing revelation that the ratio between lead female characters and lead male characters is one to five.

“I believe that life is chaotic, that it’s just a complex and fragile system of illusions, which can collapse at any time. Films should illustrate this aspect, and I wanted to capture and explore this chaos through raw, «found» images that access this space beyond words,” explains the director on why he chose this particular topic and setting for his debut feature.

This microFilm production is expected to have its theatrical release this fall.

A Higher Law (dir. Octav Chelaru)

Premise: An illicit affair between a Religion teacher and one of her students

Synopsis: Ecaterina, a high school Religion teacher and wife of the town priest, gets involved with Iuliu, a 16-year-old student with a troubled past. Ecaterina tries to keep him under control, but she loses her own sense of control in this process. As Ecaterina faces a genuine crisis of faith, Iuliu’s infatuation turns increasingly dangerous when he takes his sins to the priest – and her own husband.

Why A Higher Law is worth your while
One criticism we can bring to our cinema is that it’s playing too safe. Need I remind you that we live in a country where Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Vol. II was originally deemed “not suitable for public screening” by the National Film Center’s rating committee? We might look differently at our cinema’s prudence after seeing A Higher Law, which throws on the screen two elements that don’t go well together, an illicit affair and religion.

I asked Octav Chelaru what was the main challenge in making A Higher Law: “Personally, I wanted to have a coherent concept and narrative approach. During the seven years since I made my first short film and until my debut, my focus has constantly been on storytelling and cinematic approach. So finding the right “tone” and keeping it through the entire process – writing the script, shooting and editing – was the biggest challenge. I discovered that the task is even more difficult for the emerging director because that burning desire to make your first film is a great vulnerability.”

This deFilm production will be released in Romanian cinemas this fall.

Tiger (dir. Andrei Tănase)

Premise: The escape of a tiger from a local zoo has a small town in Romania in an uproar.

Synopsis: 31-year-old Vera is a small-town zoo veterinarian from Transylvania. After losing her newborn baby, she becomes obsessed with giving him the proper Eastern Orthodox burial rituals, spending more time at work and subsequently drifting apart from her husband, Toma. One day, Vera’s negligence leads to the escape of a tiger that had been recently bought by the zoo…

Why Tiger is worth your while
Beyond the exotic nature of the title character, the film tackles a rather generous topic – freedom or the illusion of freedom. Which is what director Andrei Tănase suggests in his rather cryptic answer when asked about the message of his film: “In the beginning was the Tiger, to paraphrase a famous book. The wild, majestic animal. Man was created in their image and likeness. They are both captives and each will help the other to free themselves.”

I couldn’t resist asking Irena Isbăşescu, the film’s producer (along with Anamaria Antoci), what difficulties the presence of a large feline on the set raised: “Logistically, shooting with two tigers raised a number of challenges, starting with finding the trainer and the tigers, bringing them in Romania, contacting the local authorities and ensuring the accommodation conditions for the animals and up to the safety rules for the cast and crew and drawing up a shooting schedule that best suited the attention span of the tiger on the set. Nevertheless, we had the great opportunity to work with one of the world’s most renowned big-cat handlers, Thierry le Portier (Gladiator, Life of Pi) and we had a great collaboration with the Mureș Sanitary Veterinary Agency and the Zoo in Târgu Mureș.”

This Domestic Film production is expected to have its premiere this fall or next spring at the latest.

We also recommend this Films in Frame article where we talk about four other upcoming films, all of which feature elements that have rarely been explored so far in our recent cinema. Sibiu ’89 (dir. Tudor Giurgiu) reenacts events from the Romanian Revolution, starring 2,000 extras that will be digitally multiplied in post-production. Clara (dir. Sabin Dorohoi) uses the Danube as a central point in the story, and Dark Ages (dir. Tom Wilson) presents a unique approach in Romanian cinema well-known for lacking female perspectives. Last but not least, Liviu Mărghidan finishes his third feature, Refuge, a film shot exclusively outdoors.

Born in Piteşti, Romania, in 1980, Ştefan is a graduate from the University of Bucharest, with a degree in Journalism and Communication Sciences. After trying his hand with financial journalism and photography (the latter still being very close to his heart), he put his career on a new path in 2006, when he became the senior editor of Cinemagia. He is also the Romania and Bulgaria correspondent for Cineuropa.org. At Films in Frame he recommends monthly the newest film trailers.