Confession/ Povinnost (Russia, Aleksandr Sokurov, 1998): A homoerotic film of cult potential

November 27, 2008 at 1:15 am

Among the films I watched over recent days, Sokurov’s Confession/ Povinnost (1998) impressed me the most. Not so much the film itself, as I admit to not be particularly fond of films that run over 200 minutes at a slow pace. My fascination came more from the two realizations which I made while seeing it, and immediately thereafter. First, Confession (more accurately translated as Service of Duty) is one of the most intensely homoerotc films I have ever seen, yet it does not seem to be a film that is recognized in the context of gay cinema. Secondly, the few reviews of the film downplay the intense homoeroticism or interpret it as a minor feature while foregrounding other aspects, thus raising questions about the underlying reasons of such critical myopia.

The first dimension: Homoerotic motives, have been present in Sokurov’s work from early on, at least since the feature Dni zatmeniya/ Days of Eclipse (1988, pictured) and the five-hour long documentary Spiritual Voices/Dukhovnie golosa (1995), both films evolving around Caucasian and Asian men cast away in some remote Asian locations, Turkmenistan in the first case and Afghanistan in the second. In Confession, which is set on a military ship in Russia’s far north, nothing much happens by way of action. There is a voice-over which reads excerpts from the ship captain’s diary, passages that are not directly linked to what one sees on screen, mostly evolving around matters of commitment, dedication, or endurance. In contrast to the voice-over, the visuals of this meditative film mostly consist of gentle and yet unrelentless scrutiny of the semi-naked bodies of the sailors. The camera endlessly dances around their daily routines on board in Murmansk. In most instances the young men are shown sleeping, scrubbing floors, sorting out their clothes or beds. Usually, they are naked from the waste up, but they occasionally wear horizontally striped T-shirts, as if having come out from a gay comic strip. Their bodies are lean rather than muscular, and nothing explicitly sexual is taking place. Yet, the innuendo is so intense that the constant mutual avoidance of bodies makes the attraction much more convincing than one could have achieved though the display of actual sexual acts.

What is more curious to me is the second aspect, which concerns the critical reviews of the film. In the overall, the reviews that I was able to find, generally evade discussing the homoeroticism of Confession (while I believe this to be the uniquely defining feature of the film). True, reviewers cannot help it but mentioning this aspect, but they usually do it only in passing. The reviewer at PopMatters, for example, talks about ‘suppressed desires’ and is quick to veer away from discussing this aspect of the film by warning that ‘Sokurov has repeatedly warned against any homoerotic interpretation of his films, but speculation remains as to whether such conviction is a necessary concession to a homophobic Russian public.’ He opts to honor the warning of the director and interprets the film in the categories of despair, monotony and oppression (all these supposedly being inherent features of military life — something I would tend to agree with). The reviewer at The Village Voice describes the film as a ‘fictionalized meditation on life aboard an Arctic naval ship, pensively decked out with some of the oddest visions of edge-of-the-map industrialization ever captured’. The reviewer in The Chicago Reader sees it as an exploration of ‘the way human consciousness can become a prison, walling off the self from visual, emotional, or physical contact’. Most reviews declare the film profoundly Russian in its concerns and representation, some mention the references to Chekhov made during a conversation between the Commander and his friend. Yes, all these aspects could be found in the film if one watches it carefully. Yet if one engages in such careful and patient viewing, it would be impossible to not be overwhelmed by the intense homo-eroticism which dominates nearly every shot. There is a deep gap between the voice-over commentary in this film and the imagery. The pensive voice-over commentary based on the Commander’s philosophical diary is in such a drastic contrast with the image on the screen that one could not possibly overlook it.

Had this film been made in Soviet times, I am sure it would have been interpreted along the lines of censorship and the director would have been praised for using smart smokescreen techniques that attach a benign text to a radically subversive imagery. Well, we are now well beyond the times of Soviet censorship, and critics have had to abandon the interpretative tools that the regime’s censorship practices was supplying them with. But then, why would one avoid naming the things one sees on screen, and acknowledging the divergence between commentary and visual representation? Isn’t it more a matter of which one of our (apparently split) critical abilities we would choose to follow — one’s instinct, linked more to what is on display to see and experience through the eyes, or one’s mind trusting mostly what one hears in the commentary, in the spoken or written word. The second, verbal dimension of the film, is rational and meditative, and invited for a Brechtian distant-type reception (and this was the way critics have apparently felt they would or should interpret the film). But then, the first aspect is so overwhelmingly present and yet so unrelated to the verbal commentary (clearly an intentional effect), that the disparity becomes drastic at moments. If I trusted my eyes, this was a film that was speaking of desire and physical attraction, and doing it so powerfully through the use of visuals that everything else just came across as a mockery. The series of images of the film were erotic art of high order, with skinny Russian sailors putting their precious bodies on display — snuggling in their bunk beds, fidgeting with gadgets, looking at books, discussing if they should sleep naked or on their clothes. The monotony was just another opportunity to revisit the view of someone’s torso. The despair, the repetitiveness of military life — an excuse to linger around and gaze more at these amazingly beautiful male species. Why is it that the critics had rejected it to pick up on the discrepancy between the two possible aspects of interpreting the film, when, I believe, it was simply shouting out at the viewer? Not that they would not have seen it. I wonder if this is not more about the way in which one canonizes the interpretation of certain auteurs. Bergman, Tarkovsky, Sokurov…

I see a short piece on the matter of the gay dimension in Sokurov’s work at CinePassion, but the writer only mentions other films and mostly focuses on Father and Son (2003) (pictured). If he were to see Confession, much of his uncertainty would be dispelled.

The two DVD-set containing all five parts of the film has been released by Facets in the US, but it is in fact an import from France, and it is therefore produced to much higher standards than the usual Facets fare. The film is subtitled in all major European languages. The second DVD contains an interesting digital booklet which one can read through the computer and which provides background to the director and the film, once again avoiding the gay theme altogether.

© Dina Iordanova
25 November 2008

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Transnational/migrant actors: A certain case of invisibility I I

November 18, 2008 at 12:04 am

Just this past week I came across two instructive examples that illustrate the invisibility of transnational actors that I have been talking about. In these particular cases, it seems, it all comes along with a degree of voluntarily acceptance of the condition of invisibility. Let me elaborate.

The first instance was with Ingeborga Dapkunaite, the Lithuanian-born actress whom I first came to know of more than a decade ago, from Nikita Mikhalkov‘s Oscar-winning film Burned by the Sun (1994). She since emigrated and, I believe, is based in the UK, but has been taking roles internationally. I just watched her a few days ago in a Belgian production called 25 degrees in Winter a few days ago. She had the lead here, playing a Ukrainian immigrant to Belgium who gets involved with a displaced Spaniard while searching for an elusive Russian husband. A fully competent performance, precisely like the other work in roles Dapkunaite has delivered in more than ten other films where she has been given lead roles (e.g. the British Kiss of Life, 2003, where she plays opposite Peter Mullan). So I could not help being surprised when I came across the Wikipedia entry on the actress, which was not making any mention of what one would think were high profile engagements but was instead describing her exclusively as an actress engaged in ‘minor roles’ in Hollywood, e.g. as the mother of Hannibal Lechter in the ridiculous Hannibal Rising (2007) or as Brad Pitt’s wife in the utterly forgettable Seven Years in Tibet (1997). And yes, it also said she also appeared as a Bosnian refugee in a British TV drama. Clearly, the entry could be enriched substantially. Yet the very tone in which it was written was more than suggestive: whereas I would tend to describe the actress as a notable figure of transnational cinema who mostly moves within the realm of European film, this most easily accessible reference to her profile slots her immediately in the category of actors who are normally engaged in small supporting roles. Hence the resulting lesser visibility.

The other curious case I came across was the one of Max Freeman (a.k.a. Momchil Karamitev). I was on the IMDb, doing research on the Bulgarian epic film Time of Violence (1988), on which I am writing in my forthcoming book on Balkan film and history. Scrolling down the list of actors’ names, I came across the unlikely reference to Max Freeman in the role of the shepherd Goran, a strange appearance of a Western name among the long list of Bulgarian names. What was this Westerner’s name doing here? I did not remember any significant Western actors having taken part in the film. A simple click through the link supplied the answer: Max Freeman was the new name of the actor formerly known as Momchil Karamitev.

Freeman’s filmography as an actor, consisting of 20 titles in total, listed 11 Bulgarian films. He had played in ten of those during an intense five year period between 1984-1989, before emigrating in the early 1990s. In the eighteen years since 1990, the actor had apparently been in another nine films, some in Italy and some in the US. On the IMDb he is pictured with the make-up from his appearance in a singular installment of Star Trek: The Experience (2004; episode 4.04 more precisely); we also learn that he was entrusted with the role of a Russian mobster in the straight-to-video thriller Hit Me (2005). A click through to Freeman’s biography informs that he is the child of two actors, but the Bulgarian references are kept to a minimum. After all, what has been Momchil Karamitev in the past, is no more, and the new name is more like the new face given to him in the context of Star Trek.

As I am Bulgarian, I cannot help thinking of Max Freeman mostly as the son of two of Bulgaria’s greatest actors, the formidable Apostol Karamitev and the theatre diva Margarita Duparinova, people at whose talent I have had many an opportunity to marvel in my early years. Max Freeman’s biography does not include links to the father’s or the mother’s nor to his sister’s profiles on the IMDb, a place where linking to family members who are cineastes is commonplace. Well, true, linking to the names of actors from an obscure nation (even if they are great locally) would not help the actor raise from the certain degree of invisibility that seems to have afflicted him (like many others). Let’s hope that the change of name does the trick for him.

© Dina Iordanova
18 November 2008

Lamerica (Italy, 1994, Gianni Amelio)

November 15, 2008 at 12:26 am

Narrative cinema that tells stories from the transformation of the post-1989 South and Eastern Europe relies on the postcolonial framework much more than is usually acknowledged. It features plots that inevitably reveal dependencies and inequalities in today’s Europe in a way that differs substantially from the view provided by the self-congratulatory rhetoric of official politics that usually depicts the transition from state socialist economies to capitalism as smooth, linear, and universally embraced. Films like Gianni Amelio’s acclaimed Lamerica (Italy, 1994) subtly present old and new colonial-type hierarchies and political compromises that affect the lives of the ordinary people who appear as the film’s protagonists. The underlying postcolonial dynamism may not be overtly manifest in cinematic texts, yet it can easily be revealed in the process of closer analysis, especially in films like this one, featuring migrants that have been set on the move as a consequence of the radical social shifts of 1989.

Lamerica provides a snapshot of postcolonial anxieties affecting Europe in the aftermath of 1989. The protagonist, Gino (the great Enrico Lo Verso), an aspiring young businessman from the South of Italy, is sent to insolvent Albania to sort out a shady business deal. A series of unfortunate events, however, lead to a reversal in Gino’s fortunes and his visit unravels in a way that puts him on the breadline and in a position in which he cannot be distinguished from any other destitute Albanian trying to get a slice of Italy’s prosperity. A secondary but important character in the film is an elderly Italian, another Southerner, who has come to Albania during WWII as a soldier with Mussolini’s army and who has been confined to Albanian labour camps for decades. Now released, but having effectively spent the prime of his life among Albanians, he is closer to them than to his long forgotten Italian compatriots.

Lamerica reveals a situation where Italians live through circumstances that make them experience the challenges that ordinary Albanians face. While the plot line is based on accidental encounters and reversals, the narrative set up is not inconsequential; it is skillfully used by the director whose intention is to show that the invisible divisions between East and West are not as durable as they seem to be. The bonding between dispossessed Albanians and cast-out Italian Southerners charts new fault lines, suggesting that the East and West of Europe’s South are becoming compatible in a new configuration of power affiliations.

See my analysis of the film in Cinema of Flames: Balkan Film, Culture, and the Media (2001) and the essay in The Cinema of Italy (24 Frames)

© Dina Iordanova
15 November 2008

Le Pariscope

November 11, 2008 at 12:41 am

There is barely another city that offers as much as Paris; there is no better city for cinephiles (but only for those who can reconcile with the French language that is, naturally, prevailing). And the Pariscope, the little booklet of listings, is the key to it. It is published on Wednesdays and it would cost you 40 cents to buy from any newspaper kiosk; it is also available from supermarkets and other stores.

The listings of cinema-related information run over about 60 pages, thus taking up about a quarter of the total 240 pages of the weekly Pariscope. The film section opens up with some 200-words highlights on new theatrical and DVD releases, followed by an alphabetical listing of all films playing during the week in Paris: It runs over three pages and includes about 250 titles. Then there are short revues of the dozen or so films that get released every week. This is followed by an exhaustive alphabetical listing of all these films with the respective capsule-reviews, and by special sections on Reprises (including various screenings of films of a range of earlier periods), Festivals (a section that features at least several events every week), the programme of the several cinematheques (the one in Bercy and of several more, located in the peripheries), and of screenings at various museums, cultural centres like Beaubourg and various other locations. The second major film section lists theatre schedules across all 20 arrondissements as well as across the suburbs, a complex task as many of the theatres change their programme once every two days and feature an array of special late night screenings, screenings for children, screenings of silents with musical accompaniment, and so on. With time you learn to know which cinemas feature the most interesting special events, and every week one can attend screenings where the filmmakers are present (e.g. Amos Gitai, Robert Guedigian) or where some famous critic runs a regular cine club or a series of presentations. It is not a knowledge that comes overnight, as there are at least thirty cinemas in Paris that can be described as specialized art house, and each one of them features original programming that is worth following closely.

The middle spread of Le Pariscope, p. 120-121, is for the average movie-goer: It is occupied by a table that includes the ratings of the most popular new films as rated by a selection of a dozen of French critics (not critics from art-house film magazines like Positif or Cahiers du cinema but those attached to newspapers or magazines such as Telerama; V. Gaucher and V. Gaillard are listed as Pariscope’s own critics), who assess about 20 films by assigning up to three stars. The spread also includes a listing of box office hits (throughout the particular period which I observed it was the French blockbuster Welcome to the Sticks that kept on top of the 20 listed titles, with more than three million tickets sold). At the bottom of the page there is another chart showing the current week’s hits at the box office.

I am mostly interested in its cinema listings, even though before you get to them you would browse through the theatrical and musical ones, followed by extensive listings of galleries and museum exhibits. There are also listings of restaurants, various other leisure pursuits, tours, promenades, receptions, gallery openings, and night life, and ending with the indispensable for such guides picture-accompanied ads of various escorts and related services. For cinephiles is interesting to browse through the theatre section in particular, as many French film actors regularly make theatrical appearances, and it is quite an ordinary thing to see actors of the caliber of Claude Brasseur, Jeanne Moureau or Isabelle Hupert life on the stage.

It is noteworthy that Le Pariscope does not have much on-line presence; a search for it takes you to some not particularly user-friendly web-site called Premiere, a heavily commercial one that is nothing like the lovely small booklet I am talking about. Both are owned and run by the same publishing empire, Hachette Filipacchi Medias. Media mogul, surrealist and jazz sponsor, and publisher Daniel Filipacchi (pictured here in 1958) is behind it all.

I do not know much of the history of Le Pariscope, and not much of the people who publish it today. From the editorial information at the end, it appears it is not even produced in central Paris but in the outer suburb of Nanterre. About 20 people are listed as working on it, with Virginie Gaucher responsible for cinema. No e-mail contacts are made available; everything is clearly channeled via phone or fax, yet the interesting thing is that they seem to take not only domestic but international subscriptions as well. Le Pariscope must be a profitable publication: at least I always parted with my 40 cents with pleasure, regarding it as money well spent, and indeed it would be a worthy thing to subscribe to, even if for the sake of dreaming for the variety of cinema that one can find in Paris while reading it.

© Dina Iordanova
11 November 2008

René Vautier: Anti-Colonial Filmmaker

November 8, 2008 at 12:32 am

I first heard the name of René Vautier from Erwan Moalic, the powerhouse behind the remarkable film festival in Douarnenez, a true community-based festival dedicated to working class audiences and featuring films on ethnic and other minorities (in existence since the 1970s). I was asking Erwan if he could please identify what was the ideological influence that had informed the establishment of the Douarnenez event, and he named Vautier, whom he described as a hugely important but little known and widely-suppressed Breton filmmaker. The description proved correct, as when I asked around about Vautier at a later point (talking mostly to colleagues in anthropology and French based in the UK and the US), almost no one knew of him (I gather, I did not ask the right people): I was left with the impression that the filmmaker is not as widely known as he apparently should be. Eventually I was nicely surprised to come across a lengthy article on him in the Financial Times (of all places), in which author Tobias Grey described him as ‘the most censored of all French filmmakers’. Luckily, there is the Internet where one can find more on him, from the good French-language Wikpedia article to various write ups on his classic anti-colonialist film Afrique’50 and on his best-known film, the documentary-style feature Avoir 20 ans dans les Aurès (1972).

It is this film,
To be Twenty in the Aures, that prompted me to write on Vautier today, as I finally got round to watching the French language DVD I had purchased in France a few months ago. It is a memorable and certainly extremely brave feature, which can be taken for documentary at moments, especially when featuring extreme scenes such as the rape of a local woman or the torture of detainees (scenes that surpass in intensity similar scenes from such anti-war classics as Brian de Palma’s Casualties of War or recent Iraqi-war themed films like Nick Broomfield’s The Battle for Haditha). A platoon of hesitant French soldiers are fighting the colonial war, being fed daily doses of indoctrination from the radio dispatches and from their own lieutenant Perrin (a remarkable young Philippe Léotard), yet the things that happen on the ground and the local relationships they forge make them more and more disillusioned about the supposedly patriotic mission they are serving. The only French film to be included in the Cannes selection in 1972, the film received the FIPRESCI prize. Aesthetically it is a pre-cursor of Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1993); at moments I also thought that certain scenes in it may have influenced Bill Douglas’ Comrades (1986) — both films featuring European men who are essentially displaced by being transplanted to a Southern environment. The film is released by Doriane Films, a distributor that carries the work of filmmakers like Peter Watkins and Ousmane Sembene. I see that in the site, from where it is available for sale, this rare DVD ranks at around 30,000 level of popularity. Sad.

The DVD features various extras, most importantly a 55 minute-long extraction of his earlier work on colonialism in Algeria, called Peuple en marche which presents the anti-colonial stance of the director particularly persuasively and features what I suppose is an extremely rare footage (as Vautier is, reportedly, the only French filmmaker who has filmed the war in Algeria from the point of view of the colonized). The 23 minute documentary called Vautier The Indomitable which chronicles the life of the director, was particularly important to see, especially as it features the sequence of systematic suppression of his work over the years (filming, prison terms, filming again, hunger strike, filming, censorship, and so on) in a light-hearted manner, evidently this being the way in which Vautier prefers to present himself. Born in Bretagne in 1928, he has remained at the periphery of French militant filmmaking. It is sad to see he is so little known, provided that what I saw of his work appears to be so enormously important: after all, he filmed in Algeria at the very same time when Frantz Fanon was writing his seminal The Wretched of the Earth (1961). Yet spending time in Paris earlier this year, I did not come across any mentions of Vautier nor across events that would feature his work (whereas, in conjunction with the commemorations of 1968, there were plenty of discussions of other similarly-motivated groups, such as the Medvedkine collective and others).

© Dina Iordanova
6 November 2008

Transnational/migrant actors: A certain case of invisibility I

November 6, 2008 at 12:51 am

There is a scene in István Szabó’s Mephisto (1981), a film which tackles the case of actor Hendrik Hoefgen (based on famous German actor Gustaf Gründgens), where his friend, the actress Nicoletta von Niebuhr is shown pondering on the advantages and disadvantages of emigrating. She is clearly aware that her career would face decline once abroad, and articulates her concerns over her chances to master a foreign accent or over other types of marginalization she would be likely to face. It is a fateful conversation, which proves decisive not only for her but for the protagonist as well, who decides to stay in Nazi Germany (and returns there even when he has got the chance to emigrate easily). By staying in his native country he enjoys a high profile career indeed, but also becomes a Nazi collaborator. In any case, by committing to a national culture, even if to a problematic one, he avoids the danger of becoming invisible.

This was back in the 1930s, or more than seventy years ago. Things have changed, and the migrations of actors over the years have increased. Yet, scrutinizing the creative paths of those actors who go into emigration today and build transnational careers is most instructive, especially as one traditionally believes that for actors, faced with the challenge of mastering new languages and accents, emigration often spells the end to a career. Having looked closely in the cases of many actors who emigrated out of various Eastern European contexts over the past decade or so, I can clearly establish that it is only singular actors who are able to sustain meaningfully visible careers abroad, and it is a mixture of resilience and luck that proves decisive in the process. Many vanish, or even worse, make appearances in films that are of a much lower quality than the ones in which they have launched their careers, and, having moved over to the nearly invisible periphery, keep working but are never noticed.

Migrant actresses remain invisible even when cast in key roles. For example, international critics nearly unanimously destroyed Bruno Dumont’s Twenty-nine Palms (France/ Germany/ USA 2003), featuring Russian-Lithuanian-French Actress Katia (Yekaterina) Golubeva (pictured here in Claire Denis’ L’Intrus, 2004). Their criticisms of the film were directed elsewhere, yet most of them spoke of the actress as a completely unknown face dug out by Dumont from who knows where. In fact, Golubeva has been a more or less permanent presence in films by Sharunas Bartas since the late 1980s, so these same critics are likely to have not only watched her but also to have praised her for performances in a range of films at the festivals they frequent. In addition, she played significant parts in well-known French art house films such as Claire Denis’s J’ai pas sommeil/I Cannot Sleep (France/Switzerland 1994) and L’Intrus/The Intruder (France 2004) and the lead in Leos Carax’s Pola X (France/Switzerland/Germany/Japan 1999), all extensively covered by these same international critics. Yet, in her new reincarnation in the Californian desert, Katia Golubeva remained unrecognized and was treated as a newcomer (or, rather, not particularly welcomed outsider). Similar examples can be discovered in the case of many other migrant actresses (e.g. Croatian star Mira Furlan, Russian Chulpan Khamatova, Polish veteran Grazyna Szapolowska, the Lithuanian-Russian Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Serbian Branka Katić and Mirjana Joković), all stars of award-winning films by directors such as Kieslowski or Kusturica, yet unrecognized in the Western productions they have appeared in lately. One discovers that these actresses have managed to keep themselves employed by appearing in perfectly respectable Western European or American films even after changing countries. In reality, however, they remain known only in the context of their original national cinema; their transnational work remains invisible.

The situation with migrant male actors is similar. The most successful among the East Europeans are those who, while abroad, are happy to embrace the limitations of typecasting and play the roles of Eastern European villains or migrant patriarchs. This fully applies, for example, to former DEFA star Armin Mueller-Stahl and to Yugoslav Rade Serbedzija, who enjoy high-profile international careers today. Both actors maintain a remarkable transatlantic schedule by regularly taking on roles in Hollywood, in American art-house and indie films, as well as in films made in a range of European or other countries (New Zealand, Canada, Australia), and in their countries of origin. They both are well-known for roles that link them to their Eastern European heritage and tradition: Armin Mueller-Stahl recently played a London-based Russian Godfather in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2007) while Serbedzija (pictured), who, to his credit, has persisted in retaining his difficult name unchanged even under the temptation to Westernize it by making it somewhat easier to spell or pronounce, has readily embraced the roles of an Eastern European mafioso, Russian gangster or underground trader, in a range of international productions since the mid 1990s.

© Dina Iordanova
6 November 2008

Breaking and Entering (2006, UK/USA, dir. Anthony Minghella)

November 3, 2008 at 12:47 am

Even though this film does not seem to deal directly with migration, it reveals the hierarchy of belonging in post-Cold War Europe. Written and directed by Anthony Minghella, Breaking and Entering (UK/USA 2006) offers a revealing panorama of the symbolic hierarchical standing of different social groups in London. Its prosperous protagonist Will, an architect, is the owner of a beautiful home with a SW postcode; his partner is an attractive Swedish blonde whose daughter, Bea, suffers from autism. A gang of migrants from former Yugoslavia repeatedly breaks into Will’s studio at Kings Cross. Determined to prevent further break-ins, Will takes on night shifts to watch the studio; here he meets and befriends Oana, a streetwise prostitute from Romania. Will also meets the mother of one of the teenage robbers, the Bosnian migrant Amira, who ekes out a living by repairing clothes in her flat in the nearby housing project. Will falls in love with Amira and has several sexual encounters that leave him truly infatuated.Soon, however, he becomes paranoid and begins to suspect that Amira might have entered the relationship in order to protect her felonious offspring; he imagines she may try to blackmail him. Even though he is ready to forget the burglaries, he ‘sobers up’ and takes some radical steps to put an end to the relationship with Amira. While making the generous gesture to forgive the aberrant son at the cost of his own public embarrassment, Will regains the respect of his beautiful Swedish partner. The passion for the Bosnian woman fades away, only occasionally haunting him as a bad dream.

The plot configuration is representative of what has been aptly described as ‘nesting Orientalism’ (Bakic-Hayden). On the surface, Breaking and Entering focuses on the midlife crisis of a white upper middle-class Briton, while below the surface it reveals a hierarchical reality of a Western metropolis where ‘clean’, ‘elevated’ (‘white’) Europeans (an Englishman, a Swedish woman) are forced to co-exist and interact with ‘untidy’ (‘dark’) migrants (a Romanian prostitute, a Bosnian delinquent and his jobbing mother), but soon regain control and distance themselves from these low-grade contacts. A variety of details in the film efficiently restate Europe’s hierarchies: The British protagonist is an educated professional, an architect, who is responsible for a regeneration project in central London’s Kings Cross where the film’s migrant characters live. The Eastern European characters, by contrast, may have had professional lives at some point, but now inhabit the murky spaces of the metropolis and earn a living in menial jobs or moonlight as petty criminals. The daughter of the blond Swede is autistic, but has exceptional talents; she is treated by considerate psychologists. By comparison, the son of the Bosnian brunette is on skid row and in the ‘care’ of tough-talking policemen and overworked social workers. The Swedish woman has difficulties coping with her child’s disability; hence she needs all of Will’s love (and financial support), which she demands and accepts with an air of noble superiority. The Bosnian woman has difficulties coping with her son’s law-breaking, and the revelation of her relationship with Will is tainted with the references to a lowly blackmail-driven affair that should preferably not be mentioned in public.

All that Breaking and Entering purports to do is to show the private predicament of a middle-aged man in need of love. In charting his dilemmas, however, the film reveals a background panorama of racial and class disparities and dependencies, which provide insights into understanding the dynamism of postcolonial Europe and ultimately bring up issues of identity and ideology that are also raised in other of European films – from Lukas Moodyson’s Lilja 4-Ever (Sweden/Denmark 2002) to Ken Loach’s It’s A Free World ((UK/Italy/Germany/Spain/Poland 2007) – that look at further aspects of the post-1989 migrations and make powerful statements on the postcolonial condition as it plays out in Europe today.

© Dina Iordanova
3 November 2008

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