Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Lucian Pintilie, "The Oak" (1993)

Pintilie’s The Oak (1993) is a film made to reflect the memory of Communist Romania. Set in the 1980’s, a time when Romania was one of a very few countries to remain Stalinist, it provides a fragmented, yet telling (perhaps somewhat through exaggeration, though I would have no way of knowing to what extent) view of a country in which, as mentioned in Caufman-Blumenfeld’s article, anything could happen from one moment to the next.

Though there is no real sense of a cohesive plot in the narrative telling of the film, there are elements which are consistent throughout. For example, there is anger in the main female protagonist, Nela, which cannot be tamed. It is the anger of the lack of proper medicine under the Stalinist regime; the anger of her father’s death and the questions of his heroism it invites; the anger and resentment for her sister and for the condition of her world, where even civilian children were not spared from violence and death as long as their deaths served some broader political purpose, such as stopping protestors at any cost. Nela’s grief often illustrates some irony of or conflict between the competing notions of communism and capitalism throughout the film. For example, she cremates her father when she discovers that due to lack of refrigeration facilities under her current government (as there was lack of nearly everything necessary to survival and health maintenance), her father’s wish to donate organs to medical research could not be fulfilled. Directly before we see detailed sequences of her father in the fire, the camera focuses on a sign which reads: “Eternal glory to those who died, fighting capitalism.” However, in the first scene during which we see her father’s ashes, they are contained in a glass Nescafe instant coffee jar – a glaring example of capitalism (as pointed out by Caufman-Blumenfeld as well).

It is as if the main crisis for Nela throughout the film lies in discovering who her father, who she had absolutely adored growing up, really was. Along her journey, which finally leads to uncovering the truth of what kind of man her father really was, she viscerally experiences the worst her country has to offer in terms of violence and corruption. Nela is raped and treated as less than human at times; she is also treated well when discovering connections to those in power, but is frustrated by limitations on the exercise of individual power within such a strictly ordered Stalinist system.

Near the end of the film Nela visits her dying mother in search of answers that her sister promises her she needs to hear. Her father was a member of the secret police, who, while working for the underground resistance, began looking for traces of Jewish ancestry on her mother’s side. The most devastating truth of all, however, concerns why her father put his arm on the train tracks to avoid going to the front to fight during WWII. Nela had believed, and told others that if her father didn’t want to go to war it was because he held onto his ideals so strongly and must have had a deep reason for avoiding it; she finds out that in reality, he was simply a coward. These disturbing facts illustrate that Nela has never really known her father, yet she is and continues to be extremely emotionally tied to him. At the film’s close, we see Nela burying her father’s ashes under an oak tree, along with burning pictures of her sister and the gifted children she has been working with as a psychologist, who we assume may have been the children who perished in the school bus hostage situation, during which the local party secretary gives orders to open fire on the bus, without any concern for the children aboard. It is as if she is burying the myth of justice and honor along with the innocence of the children who have been murdered; none of these qualities can describe the Ceausescu era in Romania. In addition, the burial of these specific people and the memories of them may allow Nela to move past this period as communism begins to decline and there is something to hope for.

This idea of there being something to hope for may be more clearly expressed by the final statement Nela and Mitica make about having children together – that with the two of them, they are bound to have either a genius or an idiot, but that the worst thing that could happen would be for them to have a child who was average. Perhaps this may be their final statement as they turn their backs on communism and ideals of social equality that can never be successfully achieved in reality. After all, under communism, the goal was to be “normal”, on equal par with everyone else. And, since during this time increase in birth rate was extremely important to the Romanian nationalists, Nela’s baby could represent a new generation for Romania, one with a drastically different political vision.

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