Demetrios Matheou



On screen, on stage, out and about

Demetrios Matheou

The wearing of 'masks' is richly metaphorical in timely, challenging Romanian satire 

The Romanian director Radu Jude invariably serves spicy satire that challenges his compatriots to face historical crimes and present failings. The latest is an erudite and daft, raunchy and knockabout, endlessly provocative film that, for sake of brevity, we’ll call Loony Porn.

The film has not only been made during the pandemic but fulsomely features the life of a city outdoors – namely Bucharest – as its citizens routinely engaged in social distancing, face covering and the rest. Accompanied by a plot that touches on parenting, the worse aspects of social media and cancel culture, the result is at once pointedly local and universal.

One of the more flavoursome films in competition at this year’s online Berlinale, it opens with a bang – pun intended – as a married couple engage in energetic, role-playing sex. They’re effectively pretending to be porn stars, with racy commentary and S&M, all of which they’re filming.

For Jude’s audience, it’s a disarmingly hardcore opening, which hopefully won’t affect the film’s chances of being released; for the female character, the private moment becomes career-threatening, as the private video is leaked online. Embarrassing for anyone, but Emilia (Katia Pascariu, pictured below) happens to be a teacher at a posh school. Oops. She is duly summoned before the parents.

Jude’s films (Aferim!I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians) invariably involve a novel structural conceit. This one is presented in three parts, each very different, the whole dressed in a thin coat of whimsy that only sharpens the barbs beneath.

The top and tail deal with the fall-out for Emilia. The first is where we get a walking tour of Bucharest, the camera following the beleaguered teacher as she runs errands, shops and prepares for the parents meeting that will determine her fate. It’s an intriguing snapshot of a city living with COVID, a volatile place in which every foul-mouthed argument comes with the threat of a mask slipping in anger, while Jude’s camera hungrily scours for incidental detail.

The third part, the meeting cum kangaroo court, is played as farce. Emilia puts up a doughty defence before a pack of baying hypocrites, who first delight in re-watching the video in front of her, each revealing their assorted prejudices. In this highly charged, two-faced, point-scoring context, the very idea of a “mask” becomes metaphorical.

Jude’s middle section, not as wilfully incongruous as it may seem, is titled “a short dictionary of anecdotes, signs and wonders” and is an A-Z of pithy items charting Romania’s less salubrious side, from WWII atrocity to Ceausescu, church corruption and the appalling treatment of women. I particularly like Jude’s reference to children as the “political prisoners of their parents” and his application of the Medusa myth to his notion of the value of cinema.

“We do not and cannot see actual horrors, because they paralyse us with blinding fear,” his caption reads. “Cinema is Athena’s polished shield.”

 

This review first appeared in The Arts Desk