Daily Archives: April 26, 2012

BIFF 2012 #11: Adalbert's Dream (Visul Lui Adalbert, Romania 2011)

Iulica (Gabriel Spahiu) as the engineer in the coat on the factory floor with two of the machinists who he is persuading to do a little personal job for him.

For some obscure reason I seem to have missed all the major films of the Romanian New Wave, so I was pleased to get the opportunity to see this film. As far as I can make out, it isn’t typical and in fact seems to be a conscious attempt to create a contemporary version of the pre-1989 satires of East European communist states.

The plot (based around a real incident) follows a day in the life of a middle manager, a ‘comrade engineer’ in a Romanian factory. The date is precise and important: May 8th 1986, the day after Steaua Bucharest beat Barcelona in the European Cup. Our hero Iulica has videorecorded the match (in which the Steaua goalie made four saves in the penalty shootout) and hopes to show it for his boss at the factory and other colleagues after the ‘festivities’ for the 65th anniversary of the Romanian Communist Party. (The videorecorder itself being a rare and desirable object.) Iulica has a role in the festivities as well – as the producer of two films made in the factory, one a ‘health and safety’ documentary and the other an ‘artistic’ film, again about health and safety, which provides the overall title of Adalbert’s Dream. Things don’t go quite as planned.

I enjoyed the film which I thought came to life once we reached the factory and met Iulica’s boorish but entertaining boss. After a while, I realised that the tone of the film was familiar, combining elements from the Czech New Wave films of the 1960s such as Milos Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball (Czechoslovakia 1967) and also Dusan Makaveyev’s wonderful and surreal Switchboard Operator (Yugoslavia 1967). Gabriel Achim, director of Adalbert’s Dream, captures the absurdity of social relations in these particular communist societies. He does this both in the interactions of characters and in his decisions about formats. The film was shot on various video formats including S-VHS and Beta SP in Academy ratio to match the propaganda and health and safety films of the period.

I confess to a certain nostalgia in watching a film set in a factory with lathes, men with oily rags and overalls, smartly-dressed women from the office etc. By 1986 in the UK factories on this scale were disappearing – and with them aspects of working-class culture. Some of what was lost won’t be missed, including the sexism and the drudgery of some work patterns. But what the factories did provide was employment and a sense of community and belonging. The best factory systems also provided a social and cultural life for the workers and this is something that is important to recognise when watching Achim’s satire. All of those possible pluses are there but they aren’t allowed to be fulfilled because of the underlying problems associated with Romanian communism. Everything is focused on pleasing the political bosses, but because everyone’s individual desires (and beliefs) are very different – and because the system is ‘broken’ in terms of the quality of goods and services it produces – the sucking up to the party boss is doomed to failure. Achim brilliantly crystallises this analysis in his use of the Health and Safety Film, examples of which, with their bureaucratic pedantry, crop up throughout the film. I won’t spoil the film by listing all the ways in which the issue is presented – but Achim is able to end the film with a very striking sequence. I should say that several scenes are also very funny.

I’m not sure how the film will fare in the Bradford competition or how it will be read by younger audiences, but once I’d properly tuned in to the film I realised that it works very well.

A brief trailer:

BIFF 2012 #10: Volcano (Eldfjall, Iceland/Denmark 2011)

Hannes watches as the boat given to him by his father is lifted from the water with the hole in its hull clear for all to see – a metaphor for Hannes’ state of mind?

Volcano is a recognisable Nordic drama, harrowing in parts and occasionally uplifting – never sentimental, always intelligent. As several trade reviewers jokingly put it, this isn’t a ‘date movie’ – but for older audiences it will ring very true or perhaps start some re-evaluations of family relationships.

At the beginning of the film Hannes is experiencing the pain of his last day at work, aged 67 and after 37 years as a school caretaker and before that as a fisherman living in the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago. The 1973 volcanic eruption of Eldfell forced him to move the family to the mainland. Retirement does not come easy and it’s clear that for some time Hannes has become estranged from his wife and family. On a topical note, his daughter Telma has just been promoted as a loans manager in a bank – to the disgust of her father. His son Ari is divorced, but usually has his small son in tow. Most long-suffering is Anna, the matriarch of the family. After nearly sinking in his old fishing boat, Hannes begins to soften and he and Anna have a rapprochement – which is almost immediately halted by tragedy when Anna has a very severe stroke.

What follows is a deeply moving study of how Hannes comes to terms with what life has given him. Written and directed by Rúnar Rúnarsson as his first feature after several shorts, the film is a remarkable achievement for a young man in his thirties. Part of a Danish film initiative the film was shown in Cannes in 2011 and has won awards around the world. I wish I’d seen more Icelandic films because the handfull I have seen do have several recurring elements such as choral singing, windswept landscapes and of course, the sea. Although the film is essentially social-realist, there are many symbolic references and at first I assumed that the title refers to the two devastating events that change Hannes’ life so dramatically. At the end of the film he will find himself back in ‘the islands’ as he calls them – perhaps wondering if he should have returned earlier. I’m also wondering if the couple’s favourite ‘halibut soup’ means more than just a tasty dish. Googling it suggests that it is one of the oldest Icelandic dishes – here’s a recipe. In an interview available here, the director says that the ‘volcano’ is actually Hannes himself, a seemingly cold and grey man with his emotions in tumult within about to erupt. Certainly he is a classically masculine working man in his dealings with others. The performances in the film are universally good and especially the lead couple, Theodór Júlíusson and Margrét Helga Jóhannsdóttir.

Volcano is in competition at BIFF and alongside Arrugas it makes a strong case for films which deal with issues for older audiences, although there is no reason why they shouldn’t appeal to younger audiences as well. Can we have a UK distributor for this excellent film please?

Trailer with English subs: