What a Wonderful World (2014) | 30th Warsaw Film Festival

October 18th, 2014
Author: Meredith Taylor

Director/Writer: Anatol Durbală

Cast: Igor Babiac, Igor Caras-Romanov, Tudor Ţărnă

Moldova Drama 73mins

Born in 1970, Moldovan actor and television personality Anatol Durbală has taken his time to write and direct his first feature film, but the wait was worth it. World-premiering at Warsaw Film Festival – where it received the FIPRESCI Prize – ironically-titled WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD is as gut-thumping a debut as any.

April 7, 2009. Petru (Igor Babiac), a student in his early 20s, arrives for a short visit to his native Chişinău from Boston, USA, where he has been studying for two years. Being taxied from the airport to his aunt’s home, he calls his Dominican Republican girlfriend Elizabeth, with whom he arranges a Skype conversation later that evening. Upon sorting through his old bedroom, however, Petru remembers that he loaned his computer monitor to a friend, Slavic. He goes to retrieve it from the latter’s grandmother.

Anyone familiar with the civil unrest that rocked the Moldovan capital and other major cities following accusations that its unannounced parliamentary elections had been rigged (in favour of the incumbent Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova) will have been forewarned by in-scene news footage anchoring the film to April 2009. For others—and they’ll be numerous, for too little western coverage was given to such news—the narrative switch at this point will come as a surprise. Uprooting the previously established emphasis upon the quotidian—such as his protagonist simply walking from one place to another—Durbală has Petru, computer monitor in hand, suddenly attacked and arrested in the street by masked men.

Other ominous signs were present. The book on Petru’s lap as his plane lands in the opening scene is Harry Dolan’s Bad Things Happen. Indeed: whereas the film had teasingly suggested before this point that it might follow one lad’s dogged, neorealist quest to have an online video call with his girlfriend, the narrative thereafter brutally precludes any notions of romance. In the scene immediately following what looks like his random kidnapping, Petru is dragged out of a van and brought to lie face down with other detainees of similar age and appearance.

As a kind of statement of intent, the scene unfolds in one take, a De Palma-style crane shot that begins as a rooftop aerial view of shenanigans before descending with clinical precision to settle upon a helplessly limited ground-level perspective. Hereafter, cutting is sparse and misery is prolonged. Here, the end of a long take will afford the characters some kind of relief from the dreary, claustrophobic compositions in which they are trapped. “You want to turn us into Romania?” one character asks late in the film, which is presumably meant to double as a sly nod to Durbală’s neighbours, who have, with the likes of THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU (2005) and POLICE, ADJECTIVE (2009), pointed unrelenting lenses at their own nation’s crippling post-communist bureaucracy.

Petru is caught up in the violent police crackdowns that followed protestors attacking and looting governmental buildings. His computer monitor is mistaken for the government’s. Similar to Steve McQueen’s own debut feature HUNGER (2008), Petru’s arrest initially gives way to a more ensemble feel, as protestors are collectively held in close confines, in the cold and without water. In an office along the corridor, two police officers enjoy humiliating one prisoner by having him elevate a TV aerial so that they can watch Barcelona’s football team hammer Bayern Munich.

Though such scenes risk caricature, Durbală’s unflinching portrayal of police brutality makes it clear which side he’s on—though opening his film with the vague gambit that it’s merely ‘based on facts’, and ending with a muddled dedication to ‘all victims of violent protests’ may dampen the blow in the same way that an amateurishly flat sound design detracts from scenes in which young people are truncheoned along a corridor by swing-happy coppers.

The suitably gruelling qualities of Durbală’s long takes, however, make compelling set-pieces out of increasingly doomed scenarios. Again recalling HUNGER, and perhaps also POLICE, ADJECTIVE, the climactic showdown here is a conversation-cum-interrogation between Petru and a tea-sipping police major (Igor Caras-Romanov). While the former naively persists with the only truth he knows, the latter, a simmering pot of inherited prejudices, deeply-embedded fascistic paranoia and ad hominem accusations, bubbles cartoonishly as he erupts into nostalgia about Stefan the Great and spits with incoherent venom about some kind of national degradation.

Though Durbală’s chosen, fictionalised vantage point often lacks dramatic insight, his writing and directorial talents are evident. Taking its title from the Louis Armstrong number, WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD is unapologetic in its deployment of such an overused but somehow never unmoving musical choice. Clichés can be effective too: in its artistic depiction of a painful episode in Moldova’s recent history, the film is all the more unremittingly gloomy for using a song whose beauty always felt melancholic to begin with. MICHAEL PATTISON


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