Andrew: While not strictly “Performance”, there seemed much to recommend seeing acclaimed Romanian director Silviu Purcărete’s cinematic début. For a start, apparently (I didn’t see it) his Faust knocked everyone’s socks off at the Edinburgh International Festival a couple of years back with its audacious visuals and scale. So I wanted to see what all the fuss was about ahead of his Gulliver’s Travels at this year’s EIF. At the same time I was starting with literally no coordinates at all (I’ve got a very basic background knowledge of Romania– mostly culled from Caryl Churchill’s Mad Forest and last week’s 20/20, presented by LIFT). This hardly put me in an ideal position to review the thing. So, I suggested to Diana (who also saw the film and is also, happily, Romanian), that we do a conversation-in-print type review, as a means for me to describe some stuff which might give an idea what the film is like, and for Diana to explain to me – and, by extension, you – what it might have meant.
A quick impression of the film: imagine Peter Greenaway being ordered to make a David Lynch adaptation of a Gabriel García Márquez novel. (No, I’ve never read a GGM novel, but this strikes me as exactly what the aforementioned version of one would look like…) It’s about two and a half hours long; visually, theatrically sumptuous; and though a patchwork of quirky personal stories appears to create a giant, king-sized quilt of a national allegory. Or at least that’s what I think that’s what I saw…
Diana: The film, as far as I am aware, took over three years in the making, and shot in an
abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of Bucharest during a very cold winter. It follows, more or less, the life and times of Dr Serafim as a newly arrived medicine graduate in a small town in the middle of nowhere. The film is inspired by the real stories of a doctor with a similar experience who had graduated in the midst of the communist regimes- when, depending on the grades which you obtained upon graduation, you were sent by the university to work in a particular place. If you were lucky- and maybe a member of the communist party, you might get a good position somewhere in Bucharest. If you weren’t, you ended up, well, in places like Palilula. Where politics didn’t really matter, and life didn’t pan out as you’d expect.
Purcărete certainly has a penchant for the gargantuan and playful- this is quite visible in Somewhere in Palilula, perhaps more so than his theatrical productions. It flirts with visual and dramaturgical excess, I think – but it does so in a particularly domestic manner. Perhaps I might go as far as calling it a national manner- and in this sense, I don’t think Somewhere… attempts to work as a metaphor, but flirts with parables that are central to Romanian folk culture. It references Romanian playwrights and philosophers – in fact a tapestry of these references – but they exist in the background, sat on the empty chairs that no one else is filling without obstructing the view. It’s a film that hinges on the absurd whilst scarily grounded in reality. For me, this is its most intriguing feature.
With all the mess that’s taking place in Romania at the moment, the film became, for me, a
very true and plural portrait of a country always in search of identity in belligerence with its history, slowly falling apart, never managing to gain momentum. I don’t think that’s necessarily a directorial intention- and I think Purcărete’s skill lies in constructing worlds on the verge of the magical, but with an absurd realism. But politics aside, it strongly reminded me of films like Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (giant warehouse, microcosm, reality blended with fiction, a heavy dose of postmodernism) and Jan Svankmajer’s Lunacy and even Jean Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen. It fits comfortably in that genre of work, but flirts with national character. That stranger coming to town story, a little bit Kafka, a little bit Ionesco.
Andrew: The “stranger coming to town” thing does indeed feel like a recurrent motif. Besides Dr Serafim himself, there’s also a very curious episode depicting the arrival of a black man in the village; a black man who – while evidently played by a white actor anyway – turns out to have indeed been a white man all along. Is that based on a folk tale, or just some bonkers idea of Purcărete’s own?
Actually, it’s interesting that you say that the film flirts with parables central to Romanian folk culture, and references playwrights and philosophers. I think I felt while watching as if I could have done with an additional simultaneous translation – alongside the surtitles – footnoting what those elements were. You suggest that the references don’t obscure the view, but without knowing what is reference and what is original strangeness, I think the view of that landscape looks very different.
It’s interesting to me that you say that you don’t think Somewhere… attempts to work as a metaphor, though. For me, the film felt like it absolutely came together shortly before the end – when the Communist Party official in the village dies, and there’s this sudden night of misrule. Right in the middle of it, Capra, the Goat-lady (think Twin Peaks’ Log-Lady, but younger, madder, and with a goat), turns up, pregnant, dead, charred in the ruins of the town’s restaurant. Serafim drags her from the ruins and delivers her child. Her child turns out to have a goat’s foot; a garish, blunt portrait of a country that when – Palilula having feared birth (rebirth?) for so long – it is finally delivered of a new child, that “child” is still somehow crippled. This struck me as a forceful central metaphor for the end of Communism.
What I suspect I picked up on less, is how the coda to these scenes – the most “meta-” part, where the warehouse setting is revealed; as you say, Synecdoche, New York-like – relates to what you’ve called “all the mess that is taking place in Romania at the moment”. That, I suspect, is more my failing than the film’s, however.
The thing that is interesting to me, is the extent to which this film will remain a slightly odd closed- shop to those without enough of a grounding in both Romanian history and folk tales and literature. The overall structure – without the beneficial pleasures of reference-spotting – did feel somewhat languid, potted and lacking drive…
Diana: I thought the arrival of the black-but-not man might cause at least confusion, if not mild offence. I remember when a similar thing happened in the Romanian version of Festen that was on at the Barbican last year – in which an actor was blacked-up, probably because they couldn’t find the right casting in Romania, but the whole thing was more than mildly racist. He even had an accent of some kind. I don’t think the same thing is happening here. From the onset, there’s this play on exoticism and prejudice in the film, and an amusing critique and love for popular prejudice, which I think Purcărete is trying to understand. I think this relates more to difference and homogenisation than anything. That character is, from the onset, clearly not who he seems to be; I took it as partly a humorous take on an important date in the Orthodox calendar called “Schimbarea la Fata” (literally meaning the changing of the face, transfiguration in English I think… – which refers to the radiant metamorphosis of Christ six days after his burial). In Romanian folk tradition, this has become an expression that stands in for the double-entendre, the two-sided, and I think it’s a playful take on that reference. So there’s a mild critique of this mythologisation than carries quasi-religious weight, but also a take on ignorance- one that is more representational than acute. I also think it references this state of constant waiting which the film also introduces in other ways- for example, the man who is always standing in the cue, afraid to leave so he doesn’t leave his place. The discussion about the American that are constantly due to arrive, but never come. (Indeed, they never came)
I absolutely agree with you about Capra’s child functioning both as character and as metaphor. But I also think the film deliberately navigates away from the precision of a metaphor- I think it’s more allegorical, and wants to refuse outright critique. In relation to that, what becomes visible in the ending is the image of the storyteller, lost in his landscape where reality and fiction have long collided in a long nebulous winter (and summer); where emotion is an aesthetic, and metaphor an anaesthetic. It’s to me the same message which the shots of the warehouse reinforce; this strong idea that despite the play between the real and the surreal, this is a story, and history will only make it more so.
That’s also what I see as an excellent portrait of the way Romania treats its own national and historical identity, but again I think this is a side-ways view. Here for me is also where the contemporary link materialises too comfortably – the reality is so fable-like that it enters abstraction; but it’s reality, still.
I think the structure is an interesting discussion point, because, well, it’s a durational film in many respects, and despite its aesthetic language, the translation doesn’t do much to convey the dynamism of the humour, and the abrupt changes in tone. It reminds me of the idea of the storyteller as a tragic-comic figure, something permeating through a lot of Romanian literature- from the works of Ion Luca Caragiale to those of Marin Sorescu. There’s a lot of funny swearing, of character shifts and nuances, which I think don’t come through very well, when what the film would benefit from is context.
That being said, I do think its length, despite mostly being justified, is perhaps a little too tentative; we go through these traditional Romanian scenes – the funeral, the marriage the birth – it’s a lifetime that no one owns up to; not even Dr Serafim, the main character. In that way, I think the spaces in which the movie takes place – these ruined rooms, the maternity hospital – are absolutely reminiscent of national fears; it’s a movie about Romania growing up, but an incomplete portrait as such, and not as political as I am making it I think.
Andrew: I think That idea of it being a “durational film” strikes me as a useful way to watch it. It strikes me that it would also work better if shown in a less conventional, traditional-cinema setting – somewhere with comfier seating, indoor smoking and a bar, ideally. But then, I think that about nearly everything, so that’s maybe not indicative in this case.