Niki and Flo – Two Weddings and a Funeral | Kinostalgia
For his last directorial project, Lucian Pintilie, the spiritual father of the New Romanian Wave, made use of the Cristi Puiu/Răzvan Rădulescu scriptwriter duo which, at the time (2002-2003), was getting ready to walk into the spotlight of the Romanian industry. The result is “Niki and Flo”, Pintilie’s most atypical film, which will have an anniversary screening at the „Șerban Ionescu” Festival in 2 Mai.
Something is striking about rewatching Niki and Flo. At the borderline, one could say that they’re looking at the illegitimate child of Puiu and Rădulescu, which was retrofitted with a few inserts short by Pintilie, in the name of conformity: a close-up of an unphotogenic pot of sour soup boiling over, another with some skinned lambs hanging from hooks, or another where a newlywed couple (Dorina Chiriac și Șerban Pavlu) are sitting naked in bed, underneath a cliched poster of New York, which is neither romantic, satyric, nor sordid – but rather, a bit of everything. After all, if Pintilie’s “patina” – characteristically thick, massive – suddenly becomes so diffused, it’s also because Niki and Flo is affected by an almost suffocating prevalence of the script, a fact which, in the long term, will constitute the strongest hint of Rădulescu’s presence on the film’s roster of credits.
From the get-go, Niki and Flo espouses its pretense of competing with reality itself through writing: a mission that, any way you’d look at it, is not at all easy. As such, the film should also be (re)watched for this ambition of talking about two fathers-in-law, the titular Niki and Flo, two men in flesh and bone – all their flabby flesh, all their crackly bones –, with an unpredictable force of writing that owes nothing at all to textbook shortcuts. To what end? For the beauty of the gesture, for this desire to go very deep, while also paradoxically staying on the surface (wasn’t this the definition of realism?). Few Romanian films dared to venture beyond this boundary along which young Puiu și Rădulescu prove the full measure of their talents, in their desire to write from scratch, and in advance, the very thing that by definition defies all anticipation and construction: from wide-ranging social chronicle to maniacal character study, the film builds itself up from line to line, in keeping with a precision of documentation and character composition that goes, admittedly, head-to-head with Pintilie’s stumpy brushstrokes.
But it may well be that this brushstroke, in certain contexts, may work better – and that its annulment carries within it a certain strand of violence. Hence the double sense of dissatisfaction that is caused by a renewed contact with Niki and Flo: first of of all because now, two decades later, the entire initiative comes across much more like a hyper-sophisticated exercise in style than having a real stake; and then, because there is a literal conflict of interest between the gazes of Pintilie (from afar, rich in flashes of intuitions, hurriedly sociological) and of Puiu and Rădulescu (grassroots, infinitely meticulous, careful even with the infinitesimal). Lost between micro (two characters described down to the molecular level) and macro (an underlying impulse to grapple with the transition at a global level), Niki and Flo is instructive of the turning point that, back in 2003, heralded the New Wave and set Romanian cinema on the tracks of a patient observation of the minutiae of life, all the more endearing the harder it is to pull off.
In other words, Niki and Flo is a sample of bravado. Time and time again, its gimmicks are dazzling. In his review, Andrei Gorzo was right to mention this barely sensible moment, where Flo “films his daughter-in-law and, at the same time, helps her get undressed; she seems to be at ease, almost naked in front of her father in-law’s camera, and when one arrives to that moment, with a new perspective that opens up about their relationship, they might wish to quickly gloss over it, trying to not look back.” The battle between Niki and Flo is simultaneously the one between the confused and the handy, the losers and the winners of the transition, and – through the lens of these two great, quintessential actors of two successive decades of political chaos in Romania, Victor Rebengiuc ad Răzvan Vasilescu – the fight between two distinctive styles of acting: one that is solemn, slightly emphatic and perpetually touching, the other eager, fire-blooded, never at all theatrical.
It took the immense writerly talent of Puiu and Rădulescu, who, in this care, are also acting as the era’s chroniclers, both moralists (in the sense of Balzac) and creators of “art for art’s sake”, for this reservist who is dragging his feet across the hallway and this self-entitled “freelancer” who has a preemptive opinion on just about everything, from wrapping roses in aluminum foil to computers, to impose themselves as characters that are larger than life. Never before in Romania have scripts been written as brilliantly as they were then. A vain performance about the act of writing, the film stuns through the quality of its execution.
On the other hand, just like we had the chance to understand in the meantime, this brilliance is not enough. It might even prove itself to be rather absolutist if one were to leave it to its own devices. It’s the fact that, despite all of its efforts of seeming correct and complete, this method of a script that plies itself upon reality as if it were a second skin, usefully replacing it, has increasing difficulties in masking its synthetic and artificial character. Because to substitute reality when reality itself is becoming increasingly available (cameras that are getting cheaper and cheaper, subjects that are more and more willing to tell their stories) starts to seem forced, to seem that it’s shoving it aside. Ultimately, Niki and Flo remains stuck in its time, in which a scriptwriter’s mind could bring all sorts of social strata to the same table, rendering the chasm that separates them invisible. What was at play was both the talent of the two scriptwriters and the lack of reflexes of an audience that has meanwhile become (too?) suspicious. But maybe the idea of an absolute justice of “representation” is only secondary: the main thing is this self-imposed limitation in the field of drab naturalism, incapable of dissimulating its own strings.
I like to think about Niki and Flo as if it were a documentary about the tragi-comedy of the transition, adapted from one end to another. I especially like the team’s intuition to include these “amateur” shots that Flo, who is a bother to just about everyone, captures at his son’s wedding (and they are truly virtuous). But I regret the fact that I’m not able to see more of Pintilie in it. Much has been written about the Puiu-Rădulescu phenomenon. Nowadays, much less is said about Pintilie, whose gaze had the (mis)chance of not leaving a school of thought in its wake.
Niki and Flo
Lucian Pintilie/ Cristi Puiu, Răzvan Rădulescu
Victor Rebengiuc, Răzvan Vasilescu