Liviu Ciulei is a name you should know. A remarkable theatre director, he also turned to directing films and it is to his greatest merit that he was just as brilliant with the cinematic medium as on stage.
Ciulei directed only six films throughout his long career, and they are all very good. His most famous film is Pădurea spânzuraţilor/Forest of the Hanged (1965), a sombre adaptation of the 1922 novel by Liviu Rebreanu. The same group of critics naming Pintilie’s Reconstituirea/Reenactment best Romanian film of all time chose Ciulei’s film as the second best and I am sure that was no easy decision. What is indisputable though is that Ciulei’s film is beautiful and his direction superb.
Rebreanu’s novel is seen as a landmark of Romanian modernist literature, being unanimously considered to be the first psychological novel in Romanian literature. I’m usually skeptical of terms like ‘milestone’ or ‘landmark’ but this is a remarkable book indeed: technically brilliant, insightful, complex, and utterly haunting. You might call it THE Romanian anti-war novel.
Based on true events, the plot follows the moral awakening and the ultimate fall of its flawed hero, a Romanian intellectual who gets caught in a maze of dilemmas about nationality, ethnicity, morality and Christian values. Apostol Bologa is a Transylvanian intellectual who joins the Austro-Hungarian army to impress his childish fiancé. His active role in the hanging of a soldier who had try to desert his regiment triggers his moral and intellectual tribulations after he finds out his reasons. When Bologa’s regiment is later ordered to attack his fellow Romanians, he himself considers the same option. He is wounded though and has a time of relative peace while in recovery, after which he is again confronted with the absurdities of war when Romanian peasants are threatened with hanging after they had been crossing enemy lines to work their fields. This time Bologa refuses to participate in their trial, thus sealing his own fate.
Adapting a novel this introspective is a huge undertaking and Ciulei’s achievement is impressive: he manages to illustrate Bologa’s psychological turmoil with purely cinematic means – most of all a fluid camera movement and impressionistic play of light and shadows, an exquisite and painterly chiaroscuro – and all this without cutting down on the rich dialogue. In fact, Ciulei’s use of light in this film is so assured it deserves an article of its own.
Like its literary inspiration, Forest of the Hanged is a powerful plea for humanity, poetic and rough at the same time, and heartbreakingly haunting.
You can watch it on a big screen today (Tuesday, July 30) at 7pm and tomorrow (Wednesday, July 31) at 5 pm at Cinema Eforie in Bucharest (2 Eforie Street) and if you cannot make it, have a look the Youtube version below, albeit only in Romanian. And somebody please finally release a DVD of this masterpiece, with bonus material and foreign subtitles! It’s an embarrassment there isn’t one already.
By Ioana Moldovan, columnist, [email protected]