The advent of moving pictures has seldom been better chronicled than by Nae Caranfil’s long-time coming labour of cinematic love.
In his pre-screening remarks, Caranfil explained that he’d written the script two decades ago. After fortuitously being read by David Putman (many writers’ work never gets to even that stage) the project was deemed “too big for Enigma [Films], too small for Columbia [Pictures].” The irascible director/writer cheekily opined that if only Columbia had made his film they would still be in business today [the famous brand was purchased by Sony in 1989]. He dreams too much in Technicolor®, methinks.
Fortunately for Romanians and audiences worldwide, the financing was finally arranged (mercifully before the current credit crunch, cross-reference below).
The result is a fascinating tapestry of clips from the 1912 original The War for Independence (its director, Grigore Brezeanu, provides the model for Caranfil’s protagonist) a quasi-documentary of the earliest days of filmmaking Romanian style. Its full of a marvellous undercurrent of fading theatrical legends-in-their-own-minds coming to grips with the end of their reign as the much wider distribution of their previously private domain (attended only by those affluent enough to pay homage to these gods of the stage) for a comparable pittance deigned to admit, well, commoners.
Man-about-town, failed-actor, Grig (Marius Florea Vizante in a first-rate performance) opts to abandon his father’s career (Romania’s favourite comic actor) and embrace the merging silent-movie technology after he doesn’t make the cut for the national acting school.
To avoid the humiliation of becoming a cloakroom attendant in Dad’s workplace (the National Theatre of Romania), Grig creatively bamboozles the wealthy Leon (Ovidiu Niculescu plays the conniving financier in a totally convincing manner) who is cinematically coerced into funding the unheard of screen time of two hours required for the wily director’s first major feature (Caranfil comes in with all of that plus 15 minutes more). This early epic will recreate Romania’s uprising and banishment of the Turks in 1877.
The recreation of the recreation provides many of the film’s funniest moments—not the least of which are four dotty generals (retired) with selective memory being hired to redirect the long-past campaign. But since none of them are Turks, no “orders” are provided to the hundreds of extras eager for their moment before the temperamental camera. Their dithering drives the frustrated Grig to mount an assault of his own, forcing his banker to fire the hapless commanders even as Leon brandishes a gleaming sabre—foreshadowing of a high order.
Emilia, the love interest, comes in the alluring, fictional form of Mirela Zeta. At times a life-drawing model, social climber and doomed actor she captures Grig’s libido early on but has to endure a long-running cold water gag that loses steam by its last splash.
Even as the cans of film are being edited in Paris (the three-dimensional images depicting the troupe’s journey to the City of Lights is both economically sound and visually pleasing), Leon is treacherously busy proving his mantra that “an investment is not a gift.” Producers of all stripes will either relish his cunning or bemoan his unscrupulous treachery—something for all moralists here.
Caranfil has done a remarkable job in this intriguing production that offers insight, invention and fantastic images at the dawn of feature-length film. Like so many “threats” to live performances of all disciplines, the initial novelty of moving pictures then their entrenchment into the mainstream of cultural life has only enhanced and improved the work of those who—night after night—prove again and again that all the world still loves the stage. Look no further than to Christopher Plummer as just one magnificent example. JWR