Orson Welles, referring to Shoeshine (1946), expressed great admiration: “the camera disappeared, the screen disappeared; it was just life.” Few of us today would describe the effect of watching Vittorio De Sica’s film in quite this way, but Welles’s words might better suit Cătălin Mitulescu’s first feature, Cum mi-am petrecut sfârsitul lumii, from Romania and France. This extraordinarily beautiful film, set in the rural outskirts of Bucharest in 1989, captures the rich texture and breathing fabric of communal working-class lives as Communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu’s rule inches toward its revolutionary end.
The focus is the Matei family, especially Grigore and Maria’s two schoolchildren, 17-year-old Eva (Dorotheea Petre, excellent) and 7-year-old “Lali” (Lalalilu). Although she isn’t the offending party, Eva is transferred to a trade school after the toppling and shattering of her original school’s plaster bust of Ceaușescu; she dreams of fleeing Romania. Ceaușescu is scheduled to appear at Lali’s school. Representing Romania’s children, Lali therefore prepares a formal greeting for the opportunity to assassinate Ceaușescu.
Black-and-white television coverage of Ceaușescu’s fall, with everyone watching, is incorporated in the color film. Stunning image: Uncle Florică’s car, which Florică has set on fire to celebrate the occasion, burning. Mitulescu’s film here and elsewhere urges Romania to look and press ahead rather than rake the coals of the past. In this way the present and the future can redeem the past.
Mitulescu’s direction achieves a compelling naturalism, but a few passages, such as the symbolical one involving the fate of Ceaușescu’s bust, pass into surreal territory. A communal dream of escape (by coach) from Ceaușescu’s Romania resolves itself in Eva’s sparkling ocean liner voyage at night following the liberation of Romania. It is a touch of poetry, magic, mystery, eternity.
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