The Romanians – THE OAK
by J.B. Spins
According to this depiction of the dark, waning days of Ceausescu’s regime, a sort of double-negative principle applied in Romanian. The system was insane, so those who were mad were actually sane. This would describe Nela and Mitica to a “T.” They both have a knack for speaking embarrassing truths and making people around them feel awkward. It is hard to hide behind lies nobody believes when they are around in Lucian Pintilie’s classic The Oak, which screens during Film Forum’s new retrospective, The Romanians: 30 Years of Cinema Revolution.
Maia Morgenstern and Razvan Vasilescu are terrific as the unmoored but perfectly matched pair. They play off each other well (even for those of us relying on subtitles), while developing some effectively ambiguous chemistry. They run about and act out, but their quiet moments together really reverberate. On the other hand, the supporting cast, a colorful rogue’s gallery worthy of Daumier caricatures, provides no end of noise and chaos.
The Oak is a defiantly bold, chaotically head-spinning indictment of Ceausescu Socialism, but it is also deeply compelling cinema. This is definitely auteurist cinema from Pintilie that still connects on a profoundly human level. Nela and Mitica are not simply archetypes—they are very definitely their own characters. Along the way, Pintilie calls out the things that defined Ceausescu’s “Golden Age:” material scarcity, rampant corruption, and overt anti-Semitism.
Somehow, the film even manages to allow for the possibility of hope, which is quite the subtle twist. Very highly recommended, The Oak screens today (11/15) and tomorrow (11/16), as part of the Romanians series, now underway at Film Forum.