Severino: The Secret of Condor Pass (GDR, 1978) Claus Dobberke

January 10, 2009 at 12:34 am

This Gojko Mitic vehicle from his later period is interesting to mostly as it represents yet another good example of the transnational filmmaking that was in full swing in the area of popular cinema in the Soviet bloc countries of the period. The actor is past his prime here, and even though he does pull some of his traditional stints of horseback riding and shows off his sculpted upper body on several occasions, it is more by way of giving fans a treat in a routine effort to maintain an established star image rather than an attempt to impress new audiences. (In a way, it is a film that can be compared to the fare that Tom Cruise is involved in these days — mostly relying on past glory rather than radical reinvention.)

The film is set in Argentina and is based on a novel by Eduard Klein. A mature and balanced man, Severino is a Manazanero Indian who has been away for ten years and now comes back to his village, ridden by conflict between the locals and the settlers, all evolving around the secret of a certain Condor pass (a climb to which provides one of the nicest moments in the film, with awe-inspiring views over the highest parts of the Andes). Severino does his best to settle the disputes and manages to do so, but only to some extent; he is also involved in a love affair, but it is an added subplot that lacks sparkle and does not engage. In the overall, the film feels tired and overlong, even for its short 78 minutes. There is very little character development, almost no gripping action, and the conflicts are not persuasive nor deep enough to engage. There is surprisingly little effort to propagate the cause of proletarian struggle (which is a feature of earlier films like Osceola); the advancing age of the actor and the early decline of socialism are both felt in the film.

Thus, as I said, the most interesting aspect for me remains the information that the film brings on the matter of international socialist co-productions. The cast of the film includes the titan of Polish cinema Leon Niemczyk, as well as a host of Romanian actors such as Constantin Fugasin or Violeta Andrei, as well as many more. The film is made by DEFA in collaboration with the Romanian Buftea Studio (and it is places in the Carpathian mountains that seem to stand in for the Andes). What is particularly important, however, is that it appears there is no consistent pattern in the co-production dimension in these DEFA projects. In other cases there is usually one co-production set-up that is put in place and then exploited all over again for as long as it is possible; it is simply not economic to have a new co-production configuration put in place on a per-project basis, especially if one already has got a set-up that is working. Yet, in the case of these productions, the films are shot in a different production configuration each time — Osceola is made in co-production with Cuba and Bulgaria, this one — with Romania, The Scout — with Mongolia, Ulzana — with Russia and Romania, The Sons of Great Bear — with Bosna film. It reads like a list of socialist international cultural collaborations. What is specific here is that the driving force behind many of these projects seems to be not so much economic convenience (nor financial considerations of pulling together budgets or resources) but rather the desire to be involved in joint projects with the group of ‘brotherly’ countries. This was the underlying motive of many of the cross-border cultural initiatives of the period, and it worked. It is important not to lose it out of sight today.

© Dina Iordanova
10 January 2009

Intoarcerea lui Voda Lăpuşneanu/ The Return of Prince Lapushneanu (Romania, 1979, Malvina Ursianu)

November 1, 2008 at 1:07 am

Alexandru Lăpuşneanu, a descendant of the Stefan the Great (who ruled for nearly fifty years in the 15th century), was installed prince of Moldova for two periods in the second part of the 16th century. At that time Moldova has lost its sovereignty and has become a vassal to the Ottoman throne; all the affairs of the country are controlled by Istanbul, and this interference is clearly sensed when the Prince’s young son Bogdan is taken away from him and kept away from his father for seven years. Surrounded by all sorts of intrigue, facing resistance from the local feudal landowners, not being particularly capable of (or interested in) communicating with the ordinary people, and often excessively tough, the Prince is often isolated and clearly his life is not easy. He is faced with constant threats to his lands coming mostly from the Hungarians to the West but also from other directions. He cannot rely on proper support from Istanbul and yet he is expected to regularly deliver the Sultan’s cut of all the income.

The Return of Prince Lapushneanu is based on a classical Romanian novel by Costache Negruzzi, written in 1913. It is representative of a wave of films made in the region in the 1970s and 1980s, usually well funded productions that often involve significant numbers of extras, elaborate historical costumes and sets, and revisit important moments of national history. This film clearly influenced other historical productions, for example Bulgarian Boris I.

Malvina Ursianu, the director, is one of the rare women-directors from the region. She has several more titles to her name, and this is clearly her most important film. It is clearly influenced by other films made across Eastern Europe during this period; most of all I see influences by the Polish historical epics of the type made by Jerzy Kawalerowicz, even though the art direction relies more on Byzantyne and Othrodox imagery which makes the ultimate product look quite differently. The main influence, however, is from Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, and it comes across as loud and clear that it overwhelmes at moments: the dark corridors of the compound, the treacherous members of the court who move silently and are engaged in relentless plotting, the unsettling shadows they cast on the walls — it is all as if taken directly from that classical film.

Despite of its ambition and professionalism, The Return of Prince Lapushneanu suffers from two major weaknesses: the pace of editing and the choice of the male lead. Had the editor given the film a slightly faster pace, it would have had the chance to become a truly engaging viewing (and it would have cut the unnecessarily long running time of 140 min.). George Motoi, the actor playing Lăpuşneanu, is competent and certainly good looking, but does not have the dramatic presence that would allow him to elevate the role to the epic psychological dimensions that seem to be written into it. It is a miscasting error that can be compared to the miscasting of Colin Farrel in Oliver Stone’s recent Alexander (2004): there are certain actors who clearly cannot carry an epic film. I was intrigued to discover that Motoi was born in 1936 on the Caliacra peninsula on the Black Sea, a place that was on Romanian territory at that time but is now in Bulgaria — yet another one of these situations of irredentist acquiring or re-acquiring of small pieces of land that have been typical for the region over the last two or so centuries (this particular one linked to an intervention from Nazi Germany around 1940). The ethnic issues typical for the region (known as Dobroudja) are explored in Lucian Pintilie’s excellent Un été inoubliable/ An Unforgettable Summer (1994) with Kristin Scott Thomas.

The film is recognized as one of the most important films in the history of Romanian cinema and screened recently as part of a Romanian cinema panorama as Return of the Banished at the Siskel Center in Chicago.

© Dina Iordanova
1 November 2008

Haiducii/The Outlaws (Romania, 1966, Dinu Cocea)

October 26, 2008 at 12:33 am

The Outlaws, a great example of the adventure-cum-history films that were produced in Eastern Europe in the 1960s, was directed by Dinu Cocea (b. 1929), a director most of whose work is in the lighter genres and who has to his credit some of the most popular titles of Romanian cinema, such as Parasutisti/ The Paratroopers (1972) and the films about legendary outlaw Iancu Jianu from the early 1980s. The Outlaws was 37 year-old Cocea’s truly assured directorial debut, soon thereafter followed by a second installment called Razbunarea haiducilor/ The Revenge of the Outlaws (1968), the poster of which is pictured here.

The film is set during the 18th century in the mountains of Wallachia (a.k.a. Ţara Românească), a province located to the south of the Carpathians, which was part of the Ottoman empire. At the time it was effectively ruled by Greek Phanariots installed by Istanbul to take charge of the empire’s Christian millet (province). The outlaws that acted during this period would usually aim to undermine the rule of the Phanariots and the Ottomans, and this is one of the main motivations behind the actions of the film’s protagonists. But there are also complex inter-personal relations at play.

The story evolves around two stepbrothers, Sarbu and Amza, who are leaders of a band of outlalws. Sarbu, a treacherous and violent person (played by Romanian megastar Amza Pellea, 1931-1983), betrays his brother and sells him off to the Ottoman authorities who come to hunt him in the inn where he has just spent the night with his lover. Amza, the good brother, is brandmarked and then put in a cage and left hanging between the walls of a huge cave. Sarbu violates his woman (a feisty inn-keeper played by Magda Barbu), and then ventures on to a series of outrageous deeds, which involve, among other things, marrying the Phanariot ruler’s daughter and then rudely manipulating and blackmailing her family over money due to the Turkish sultan that they have tried to appropriate. The story, which involves simple-hearted Romanians, treacherous Greek Phanariots, and aloof Ottoman Turks soon turns into a story of revenge, after Amza is freed from his cave imprisonment and comes back to institute a spectacular vengeance over Sarbu.

Here s the only clip from the film I was able to find. Alas, it has got no subtitles. It refers to the moment when Amza’s outlaw friends manage to charm and fool the local Christian monks, a move that allows them to get access to the cave where their friend is imprisoned and manage his bold release.

The film is edited on a fast pace, the characterisation is convincing; all in all it makes for an excellent example for the achievements that East European cinemas had in these genres (see my discussion of another representative of these films, Estonian Viimne Reliikvia). The copy which I watched was black and white, so all I could do was to imagine what it would look like in color, especially as the photography proficiently focused on dynamically-staged fight scenes interspersed between spectacular and breathtaking mountain views. The film is influenced by some of the Polish historical epics of the early 1960s, but also by swashbuckler extravaganzas like Fanfan la Tulipe (1952) as well as by spaghetti Westerns (most clearly seen in the pub and shoot out scenes at the beginning of the film).

The spectacular death of Sabru is interestingly staged: he is hanged on a church bell and his body keeps bouncing up and down for a while. This same set-up is seen in several of the films of Emir Kusturica, most notably in Time of the Gypsies and in Underground (where Marko’s brother commits suicide this way). The Outlaws was most likely distributed in Yugoslavia, and it is quite possible that it informed Kusturica’s artistic vision, as the director is known to frequently re-stage visual tropes from other films in his own works (see my 2002 monograph Emir Kusturica for a more extended discussion on this matter).

I was able to see this film due to the friendly assistance of Marian Tutui from the Romanian National Film Centre of which I am truly grateful.

© Dina Iordanova
26 October 2008