It might be that the best idea in Lebensdorf (2021), the sophomore feature of director Valentin Hotea (following Roxanne, 2013), is to uproot Mimi Brănescu, an actor whom we’ve become accustomed to seeing trapped in the cramped apartments of the New Romanian Cinema, and to replant him in an eco-commune in Germany.
The mismatch between his character’s abulic, careless nature and the mopey persona of writer who is out of inspiration, whom Brănescu knows how to express, and the discipline and order rening in this special, strictly-ruled place where the protagonist comes to see a Romanian lover (Ana Covalciuc) from his youth, has a certain comedic effect to it, and is constantly slow-burning in the background.
The main aim of the narrative thread concocted by scriptwriters Valentin Hotea and Ileana Muntean is to extract this man from Bucharest (the owner of a beautiful Maine Coon feline) out of his comfort zone, as he is divorcing his wife (Ioana Flora) and is coddled by his mother (Victoria Cociaş), and to throw him into a new space, such as the alternative and cosmopolitan streets of Berlin and, alternatively, this eco-village and all of its strange habits.
Mimi Brănescu offers an inspired performance of the awkwardness of a man that is slightly destabilized by the foreign milieu in which he has landed, and who is there not only to get rid of his problems at home for a while, but especially to reconnect with a woman (now, the mother of a boy), although his official pretext is that of a literary residence.
The result is only partially accomplished – to be more precise, in the few moments that have to do with the restrained comedy that is given by the contrast of two cultures (one rather conservative, the other more libertine) and with the character’s attempt to accommodate in this new community (where even the simple act of sitting down makes him seem a little bit silly).
Apart from that, despite the promising offers of the script’s premise, the film doesn’t have the necessary aplomb to transform them into directorial ideas that are capable of catching one’s attention and becoming memorable.
Just as in the case of Roxanne, which much rather resembles a television film (a medium that Valentin Hotea is all too familiar with, having worked as a TV series director in the 2000s), the mise-en-scene in Lebensdorf is as conventional and tame as can be (purely functional dialogues and storyboarding, classical changes in shooting angles, and so on.)
What shakes its lethargy a bit up are its few oneiric moments, wherein the protagonist’s nightmares are represented, and which start off from his personal obsessions – in one of them, the least clumsy of the lot, Ioana Flora meows like a cat while sitting in the display case of a Bucharest art gallery.
The way in which Germany is represented, as a land of sexual and political freedoms, where one stumbles upon all sorts of supposedly eccentic characters is oversimplificatory, even chicheed. An alibi for this can lie in the fact that the film is shot from the perspective of a tourist, an outsider gazing upon the society which is temporarily hosting him with a mix of curiosity and astonishment.
The film has a detached manner of displaying the downfall of this character from the stable existence of a middle-class man living in the capital city, to an uncertain life in a new family, living in a precarious home in a Romanian village, after passing through what should have been a revelatory trip to Germany. Although its irony is quite hamfisted, it works.
The only thing that raised some questions for me was the film’s cinematography, helmed by Alexandru Solomon, the well-known documentary filmmaker who started his career out by working as a camera operator. It’s a cold, almost brutal cinematography, as if this were an amateur shoot – a surprising choice, which gives a certain edge to a film that is otherwise modest.
Mimi Brănescu, Ana Covalciuc, Ioana Flora, Victoria Cociaş