Thomas Ciulei is a lesser-known filmmaker for the average Romanian, but his films are critical to the analysis of Romanian society. The son of a famous theater and film director, Liviu Ciulei, Thomas focuses on portraiture, intertwining the stories of several personalities to create an overall impression of location and era. Ciulei would likely refer to himself as a documentarian, though his films often tread that fine line between fiction and objectivity. Unlike some of the studio-produced films reviewed here, Ciulei's works tend to run on the Bucharest art gallery and cultural cinema circuit, and for this reason his films are not as well known as they probably should be. I was recently recommended Asta E, one of his two most famous films, the other being the more recent Podul de Flori (2008). Asta E is from 2001, and it is a beautiful work.
As the film opens, a drunken peasant walks straight up to the camera and looks straight into the lens. The opening action of this subject, or character, depending on the genre this film truly inhabits, sets the stage for Ciulei's portrait of life in the Danube Delta of Romania.
For the film, Ciulei chooses to focus on four principal characters: a presumably homeless alcoholic, an aging couple, and a young boy. Introduced by title cards, their stories form the backbone of the film, which takes place in a small village called Sulina. The phenomenon in the small town is an almost banal reality for rural Romania: post-communist decline in a once prosperous village. Even twelve years after the events of the December 1989, the village has not seen its situation improve; the collapse of communist industry and rise of consumer culture has left little for these bucolic denizens. But despite the economic woes (which can be likened, in some ways, to the crumbling mill towns of the United States), the vivacious Balkan spirit pushes through. Here, at the terminus of Europe's most famous river, dreams and lightheartedness survive. Ciulei has carefully selected his subjects to show both sides of Sulina.
With the opening shot of the film, Ciulei directly acknowledges the camera and the presence of the documentarian. But he waits an entire hour before deliberately addressing the camera once more. Until then, it is more of a roving eye. Some scenes are even shot cinematically, in what is either a two camera setup or multiple takes utilizing a single camera setup. It even appears that many actions of the characters are heavily staged, as their movements mesh neatly with the sweeping pans and tilts of the camera.
Tracking shots, normally a feature of fiction films, are plentiful in Asta E. Many 360 degree shots, coupled with pans before, during, and after characters leave the frame contribute to the sense of a wandering camera - a visitor and observer, though not an entirely objective one.
Adapting some of the characteristics of cinéma vérité, Ciulei weaves together an organic and beautiful composition about life in the Delta. It is somewhat reminiscent of Robert Gardner's work in India, Forest of Bliss, but less polished and ethereal. Because Ciulei is Romanian, and the picture that he paints is one of an insider or a local visitor, not that of an outsider looking in. He is also less restrained in his technique, willfully acknowledging his own presence as documentarian, and perhaps in doing so, his hand in staging some scenes as well. Ciulei is not on safari. Nevertheless, the sort of natural rhythm of the film, achieved with masterful editing and colorful characters, smacks of Gardner's work.
There is a strange balance attained between the obvious preconception of many scenes and the simultaneous acknowledgement of the presence of the camera and Ciulei himself. Some of the characters' confessions are shocking, as when the drunken villager from the outset of the film pours himself a glass of blue, medical alcohol (for external use only). There is a palpable emotion to the interactions of the older couple, as they sit together at the dinner table and sing folk songs - it seems almost too perfect to be happenstance. But then, later in the film, one of them addresses Thomas by name as he wields the camera. The equilibrium attained between fact and fiction is well realized and often poetic. The familiarity of the characters and their ease in front of the camera instills a comfort that could last far beyond the film's 90 minute runtime.
The portrait of delta life ends with the local alcoholic delivering a slightly rambling but touching monologue on the nature of countryside life. The camera tracks backwards with him, then gradually departs, leaving the receding drunkard on the dusty road. The visit is over, but I wish that it wasn't.
Podul de Flori
Issues of transition are always a ripe topic in Romania, whether looking backwards to the communist era or forwards to the difficulties encountered in ascension to the European Community. It is this topic that Thomas Ciulei poingantly addresses in his extraordinary 2008 film: Podul de Flori (The Flower Bridge). Keeping his approach firmly in the vein of his earlier documentary Asta E, Ciulei once again trains his camera to the rural climes, this time stepping across the Prut river into the neighboring Republic of Moldova. The film takes place in a contentious region of the Moldovan frontier, in a historical principality known as Bessarabia.
Moldova is not only the country known to most outsiders (the aforementioned Republic), but is also the term used for the northeastern portion of Romania - about a third of the country. Bessarabia (i.e. The Republic of Moldova) was at various times united with Romanian Moldova and later with the modern state of Romania. After the Second World War, the Russians, who had often dominated Bessarabia, once again took control of the principality, which became the Moldovan SSR. Despite the Russification of the region, the contemporary Republic of Moldova retains Romanian as its predominant tongue, albeit with an accent heavily influenced by the presence and proximity of Slavs.
Today, the Republic of Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe. Much of its populace, not unlike other former members of the Eastern Bloc, seek prosperity elsewhere. Many head to Romania for its relative economic success and better universities, but still more head for Western Europe - in particular, to Italy.
This reality is only compounded by the title of the film. The name refers to an event that occurred on the 6th of May, 1990, along the Prut river, which forms the border between Romania and the Republic of Moldova. The Soviet Union was on the eve of its collapse, and Romania had just overthrown its own dictator, Ceausescu, in December of 1989. The Soviet authorities opened the border to Romanians for six hours, in which time many families were reunited. As the video below shows, the demonstrators arrived with armfuls of flowers, which were thrown off the bridges into the Prut river, carpeting the waterway below.
Ciulei is of course referring to more than the latent brotherhood between the two states. Though common ethnic heritage is an interesting theme, the title has a more personal implication for the subjects of the film. For the principal characters of The Flower Bridge, the move toward economic ascension is a daily reality . An aging father is left to care for his three children while his wife seeks employment in Italy. The children balance school with the many needs of their peasant household and farm, helping their father in nearly every aspect of countryside life. As the film unfolds, the central metaphor of a "flower bridge" to the West (perhaps via Romania), becomes increasingly more poignant. The romantic image that Ciulei paints in evoking the historical event reflects the personal aspirations and dreams of the Moldovan family. Their mother has left for greener pastures - a possibility only realized just a year or so after the demonstration on the Prut.
The beauty of the metaphor is articulated even further by Ciulei's style in capturing the family's life. His approach is to construct an image that does not linger too much on poverty or lack of opportunity, but rather an image highly pastoral and bucolic in nature. That is not to say that social issues are glossed over, or left by the wayside in favor of aesthetics. The father and children discuss often their work and obligations, with many references to the state of affairs in Moldova. The reason for their mother's absence is made abundantly clear, if it wasn't from the outset.
But these issues are somehow secondary to the organic nature of the shooting. Life comes first: survival, and family, and afterwards the stresses of money, education, and opportunity. The thoughtful coverage of daily actions imbue mundane activities with a rhythmic, ritualistic nature. The clipping of a tree or a visit to a graveyard take on their own totality.
Naturally, such extensive coverage was hardly possible in a single take, and The Flower Bridge thus steps into the verité arena along with its earlier cousin, Asta E. It is possible that Ciulei employed multiple cameras. But it is more likely that he merely stretched or repeated the actions of his subjects in order to create the involved style he affects - a camera without restraint. There is even a beautiful tracking shot that suddenly transports the viewer out of a film shot almost entirely with a camera that pans and tilts, but never travels. Ciulei has done this before, and he knows it works.
Are the children happy? From all outward appearances, they are. They are hopeful, they write adorable letters to their mother abroad, and they are dedicated and polite to their father. They take school seriously. But their expressions belie little more than respect and perhaps even resigned contentment. In one scene, as the father kills a chicken, he has his daughter grasp its head while he lets fall with the ax. She looks on, impassive. Is she unmoved, disgusted… ashamed? It is unclear. Perhaps the presence of film cameras from Bucharest only exacerbated any embarrassment about rural life. Their father even remarks partway through the film: "In a way, I steal their childhood." He regrets the amount that they must labor to help him run the household and farm with his wife gone.
But perhaps he is not such a bad father. At the end of the film, he reads to his two daughters while they fall asleep. He reads from a collection of the Russian poet Sergei Esenin's writing. This is the first time Russian is spoken at length in the film (many Moldovans also know Russian, for obvious reasons). It is a sort of poetic memoir, a snippet of perhaps biographical reminiscence. Esenin refers to an incident in his youth when returned home with a broken nose. Upon arriving, his mother is horrified. He brushes it off, unscathed. But Esenin remarks that the impetuosity of youth has since calmed - his powers have waned, and his mother has gone. The text strikes home for a father whose powers have indeed waned, and whose children are without their mother. He turns to look at his sleeping daughters, and the story, like that of the book, comes to a close.
The story - one that could be spun as miserable poverty, but is instead a lesson on the working model of country life, bound to the seasons and to the earth itself. A trip to many of these villages may leave the visitor reeling at the level of poverty, struggle, and even seedier aspects like alcoholism and abuse. Ciulei touched on these issues in Asta E, but chooses to look elsewhere in The Flower Bridge, focusing instead on the rhythms of survival. The transformation from late winter to springtime is chosen wisely as the precipitous moment of countryside life - the time of renewal, certainly, but also the time of year upon which farmers and peasants depend for a season of prosperity. As spring dawns, hard work and diligent planning are an absolute necessity to ensure a successful year. And a father and his children are equal to the task.
Fall has arrived. But for me, the characters of The Flower Bridge reside in a perpetual spring.