JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Philanthropy (Director/Screenwriter: Nae Caranfil) - January 20, 2003


3 3
148 min.

Reviewed at the 2003 Palm Springs International Film Festival
Charity too close to home

Director Nae Caranfil wasn’t short of Romanian anecdotes and stories before the screening of his fourth feature film: Q: What’s the difference between a Romanian pessimist and optimist; A: “The pessimist says, ‘Things couldn’t possibly get worse;’ the optimist says ‘Oh yes they can.’” And when those attending revealed their knowledge of his native country was confined to the birthplace of Dracula, we were assured—with a knowing grin—that the film to follow would be “a dark, hopeless, miserable comedy.” Well, three out of four isn’t bad!

Using stray dogs as metaphorical bookends, the film purports to send up greed, education, governments and a host of social ills using charitable scamming as its glue. Unfortunately, in today’s climate of real stories of charities making front page news through scandal (“Canadian Diabetes Association Loses Millions on Lottery”) or mismanagement (“We will take steps to ensure that more than ten cents of each dollar is spent on ‘good works’”), the plot’s major joke (fake married couple on the 10th anniversary in expensive restaurant, have no cash, big scene with on-the-take-waiter, do-gooder patrons pay off the inflated bill) seems more of a documentary than fiction, thus killing the satire.

But the hero as failed writer provides a much better vehicle for black humour that sets up the funniest moments: the railway poet who recites for vodka, only to reveal that he has just two poems and neither of them are his; and the wonderfully believable Philanthropy Foundation where writing the lines the for percentage-based fund-beggars on the cash-only payroll brings in a steady flow of charitable donations. Their motto is bang on: “An outstretched hand with no story to tell doesn’t work.”

And so its savvy chairman (Gheorghe Dinica) writes the scripts that include a violinist (who’s never played a note but has been coached on how to hold the instrument) that has given up playing in his despair (best to beg near government cultural institutions) and climaxes with beating the literature-teacher-by-day Ovidu (played with charming naivety by Mircea Diaconu), which leads to a television appearance where a special account is set up for the public to contribute to this unfortunate couple whose only crime was to try and have one night out for their anniversary.

Even the sub-plot of the literature teacher trying to seduce one of his most belligerent student’s sister is filled with false-front shallowness. But, it forces him to agree to the scamming so as to have the cash to artificially improve his lifestyle and attempt to bed her when, inevitably, his deception is revealed just on the point of entry.

Like the too-forgiving Philip in Of Human Bondage, Ovidu keeps going back for more, finally stealing from the foundation to pay the debts of his wayward student only to discover he’s given the dough to the sister that wasn’t (quelle surprise!). Oh well, at least he gets to keep the girl he’s been fictitiously married to for the past decade, forever proving that lies can be lived into reality!

Nevertheless, the film is thought provoking, blessed with a knowing camera and a gypsy-esque score composed and performed by Marius Mihalache that adds much to the pace.

At our screening when the film broke—just fifteen minutes from the end—there were not a few of us who could have left then and there with enough of the story resolved to our satisfaction. However, being charitable, we dutifully stayed until the last ask was made. JWR

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