I recently had the chance to see Morgen, the debut feature film by Marian Crişan, at one of Bucharest's cinematheques. Though the film came out in 2010, I jumped at the chance to see it on celluloid, a rare departure from the bulk of my reviews. Crişan won the Short Film Palm d'Or at Cannes with his film Megatron in 2008 (a year in which all-things-Romanian were basking in the limelight of international acclaim). He has now delivered a well-articulated appraisal of cross-border politics in Europe as his first full length film.
As the film begins, the new wave sensibility is clear. The style should not be surprising as this is, after all, a film produced by Mandragora, Cristi Puiu's fledgling company. All the characteristics of a Romanian New Wave film are present: hand held camera, tracking shots, long takes, available light, etc. Take for instance the beginning of the film, which opens with an extensive tracking shot of a motorcyclist as he approaches and arrives at a border crossing between Hungary and Romania. The long take continues as the cyclist, a Romanian, quarrels with the Hungarian border guards about his right to take a live fish he has caught back to Romania. He tries to convince them on the basis of EU membership, which they scoff at, an attitude that could be expected given the sometimes tense relationship between Romanians and Hungarians. Ultimately, the cyclist dumps out his fish and leaves it flopping about at customs. The altercation sets the stage for the entire film, which, as it turns out, is about illegal immigration in Europe.
When Nelu, the cyclist in question, goes on a routine fishing trip a couple of days later, he accidentally bears witness to a Turkish illegal immigrant diligently evading the border patrol. Nelu is then accosted by the man, who pleads with him for "Germania." Nelu reluctantly agrees to take the man home, on a temporary basis, but finds himself increasingly sympathetic to the man's obvious humanity and desire to be reunited with his family in Germany.
The country of Romania presently finds itself in a bizarre position. In 2007, the country attained European Union status, and the endless lines at the Italian and Spanish embassies vanished quite literally overnight. Romanians could travel with no more than an ID card. Those immigrants formerly despised by Italians and Spaniards were now card carrying members of the EU; students and workers poured out of Romania. But Romania had not gained entrance into the free travel area known as the Schengen Zone, of which Hungary provides the final outpost even today. Romania was just denied Schengen entry for 2012, along with its neighbor Bulgaria with whom it entered the EU four years ago. Corruption was cited as a top reason. So it remains in a strange limbo as an EU member state without an open border to its Western counterparts.
As such, it seems there are two political commentaries in this film. One has to do with illegal immigration in general within the EU, and the other with Romania's unique and transitory role as an EU country without Schengen status. The sarcastic comment of the Hungarian border guard seems to state this reality out loud: "Yeah yeah, we're all EU…"
It begs the important question: what does it mean to be part of the EU? While Europeans can debate this at length (as they already have), for those outside its boundaries, a country even as solidly in transition as Romania has suddenly become the foothold for economic opportunity in the West. In the case of the film's Turkish immigrant, it is certainly strange that he enters the EU but must face the final stumbling block of the Hungarian border.
Nelu empathizes with the plight of the illegal immigrants, and is willing to overlook the law in order to help. While such an attitude may not be as prevalent in the United States or Western Europe, it certainly rings true in a country like Romania, where so many people have perhaps never worked so hard to help each other cheat the system. A leftover sentiment from communism, the reticent nature of the protagonist when it comes to divulging information to the border guards should come as no surprise in the context of Romania.
However, xenophobic tendencies do manifest themselves in other ways, as the wife comically (but not so unrealistically) decries her husband's decision in taking in a man who could be a terrorist, diseased… who knows! The police provide even further evidence of a callous attitude to outsiders.
Judging by the license plate numbers, principal photography was completed in the frontier county of Bihor. The county does not have the Hungarian majority that plays an often contentious role in Romanian politics. Nevertheless, the Hungarian population is substantial, and Oradea, the county seat, is a bilingual city much like Cluj. In choosing to film there, Crişan makes another comment about the piecemeal nature of Romanian society, particularly in the western portion of the country, where in addition to the Székely (Romanian-born Hungarians), minority communities of Serbs, Bulgarians, and Germans also exist. Consequently, Crişan also draws analogies to the EU itself, which may find exclusionary policies increasingly difficult to justify as its membership grows ever more diverse.
Like many of the Romanian New Wave, the cinematographer exercises an almost cold restraint, affording the spectator very few closeups. Off-screen action is persistent, as in the closing of the film in which the presence of a helicopter is implied but never visually confirmed. In this case, the stripped-down style is certainly effective as it underscores the veracity of the film. So too, does the banal nature of the script augment the film rather than detracting from it; the Székely actors deliver their lines with agility and ease. The effect is stark and realistic, with the exception of the Romanian border patrol, who provide brief, bone-dry comic relief. After all, who doesn't like a jab at the bureaucracy?
For me, the film was not exactly gripping, but it was interesting nevertheless. It serves to highlight an issue of illegal immigration that otherwise is relatively understated or unnoticed: entry to Europe through the nascent EU countries of the former Eastern Bloc.
As a young Romanian woman sitting behind me at the theater pointed out, there is a double meaning to "morgen"; in German, it means not only morning, but also tomorrow. In the film, the meaning is clear. What tomorrow will hold for Romania and its growing population of illegals, is increasingly unclear.