Romanian Film Review: Of dreams and experiments: BIEFF & Mammalia
Against all odds. This is the hopeful motto of this year’s BIEFF, the Bucharest International Experimental Film Festival, happening until Sunday, 1 October. As always, the ambitiously and lovingly curated programme is attuned to our current times, troubles, and this time chance and change, looking into the ways in which rituals, spiritual beliefs and dreams are informing and shaping the imaginary of globalised societies.
The selected films explore the relation between magical thinking and cinema, reflecting a potential to generate collective and individual emancipation. Against all odds indeed.
There is so much to recommend here, from the International Features' Competition (do not miss Selma Doborac’s chilling De facto or Melisa Liebenthal’s playful The Face of the Jellyfish) to the Romanian Experimental Films Retrospective, but the absolute highlight must be Pedro Costa’s attendance to discuss his films and hold a masterclass.
The Portuguese director has been making non-compromising, austere, challenging films about the dispossessed and marginalised, often of immigrant origin, and living in Lisbon’s slums. I remember exactly how transfixed I was watching Vitalina Varela (2019), visually exquisite, painterly, slow and dream-like, making the sorrows of the eponymous Cap Verdean widow discovering her late husband’s life in Lisbon achingly beautiful to watch. Truly unlike anything I have seen.
To stay within the realm of dreams and experiments, Sebastian Mihăilescu’s Mammalia also hit the screens last week. One of the most awaited releases of the year, this is the young director's second feature in just two years. His debut Pentru mine tu ești Ceaușescu/ You Are Ceauşescu to Me was an ingenious mix of fiction and documentary that stood out, and now he has also made his fiction debut, again hard to pin down, and again impossible to ignore.
It is hard to describe Mammalia without making it sound even more eccentric than it already is, but here goes: When anxiety-ridden, overworked Camil finds out his girlfriend has joined a female community performing mystical, ancient rituals, he follows her to the woods surrounding a lake, and this turns out to be quite the trip, to put it mildly. What we see is also that, a sort of horror-y, surreal tale of masculinity (in crisis) in which gender roles are turned upside down.
Camil’s self-worth seems to have had better days, he seems to struggle with literal and figural impotence, so when he crashes the community performing rites that look very much fertility-related, you can only imagine the drama. More often though, you do not have to put much work in imagining because Mammalia will just show it to you, like Camil’s penis in a close-up, or the women worshipping his crotch.
Yep, Mammalia is neither as subtle or subversive as it might think it is, and the ending could not be more in-your-face, a logical continuation of having said crotch in our face, but I have to admit it does have such a rebellious joy in doing so. This is assured, I-do-not-care-what-you-might-think-I-am-having-fun-with-this filmmaking, and often infectious, despite all the pretension. You can find a lot of joy among the head-scratching, especially in the grainy, eery beauty of the images, the precise framing, the perfectly conjured atmosphere of mystery and imminent dread. Mammalia looks and sounds distinctively different, that is for sure.
The deadpan humour is another feat: I laughed out loud when Camil suffers at the office, more specifically at the indignity of managing a film production (always an absurd thing), and I laughed even louder when I spotted a portrait of real-life Romanian producer Claudiu Mitcu on a wall.
Subtle this may not be, but boy, what a cheeky jab at the local industry (Mitcu is definitely in on the joke, having produced Ceaușescu). Mihăilescu is one to watch out for, and I do hope his next film is a downright comedy, it could be a hoot.
By Ioana Moldovan, film columnist: email@example.com
(Picture info & credit: still from Mammalia, courtesy of TIFF)