Ion Popescu-Gopo, Romania’s premier maker of animated films, tried his hand at a live-action feature, and it proved to be a winning hand. De-aş fi Harap Alb is loosely based on a Romanian folk legend—the film’s postmodernism underscores the “loosely”—that achieved a classic retelling by nineteenth-century Moldavian-born author Ion Creangă. The story’s title, “Harap Alb,” translates as “The White Moor” or “The White Slave.” This refers to the tale’s hero, a prince who is impressed by a villain into masquerading as the latter’s servant for a spell. The opulent and fantastical 1965 film won for Popescu-Gopo the directorial prize at the Moscow International Film Festival.
Early on, and again near the end, a woman reads aloud the tale of Harap-Alb to eagerly listening children—in particular, three young boys who may be (although they look impoverished), in a time warp, the three currently grown sons of the Red Emperor. The scene is further complicated in its time elements by the presence, also, of the youngest son, as I stated fully grown, who is listening in. It is plain that he remains engrossed by the tale, and much of the film revolves around his wish-fulfillment fantasies of being “the White Moor.” Around and behind the sendentary woman who is reading the tale, the tale is translated into imagery and action.
Which of the Red Emperor’s sons will reach the castle of the Green Emperor, the Red Emperor’s brother, in order to claim the throne of the Red Emperor, whose only offspring is a daughter? The eldest son tries first, but he returns promptly, having been frightened away by a snarling bear by a bridge: unbeknownst to him, his father in a bear-suit and -head. As the storyteller discloses the Red Emperor’s plot to thus test his eldest’s mettle, we see the Red Emperor going behind the storyteller’s back and snatching from a creaking trunk his two-piece bear disguise. All the same happens with the middle son. When the youngest declares his intention to claim the throne of the Green Emperor, his father’s deflating laughter sets the boy into a nervous tizzy—the film is full of gay elements and gay sensibility—but also steels the boy’s determination to prove himself to his father. He is off. By the bridge, his father is there, dressed like a bear; but our hero must wrestle with a real bear, which, long familiar with the story, the hero wrongly presumes is his father. The film is now proceeding without the accompaniment of the storyteller. We cannot help but wonder whether the “story” is actually happening or the boy is dreaming himself into the story. Fairy tales become the empty pipe dreams of impotent men if children, as adults, choose to be continually engrossed by them rather than committing themselves to purposeful action. We wonder whether “the hero” here can ever really “prove himself” to his father or himself.
Real or imagined, the exploits of “the White Moor,” the Red Emperor’s youngest son, are what the film follows. Apart from a dry patch involving the Wizard’s daughter (who is played by a ringer for Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s wife), the film amazes. There are imaginative special effects, song and dance (the bit of dancing girls is pure 1965, not “Once upon a time . . .”!), Ion Oroveanu’s production design, and Grigore Ionescu’s gorgeous color cinematography—and two splendid performances: Florin Piersic, hilarious, as Harap-Alb; Fory Etterle, concentrated and grim as the Verde Imparat, the Green Emperor.
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