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April 11, 2021

Political immobility

Corneliu Porumboiu is among the few film directors associated with a so-called Romanian ‘new-wave’ in cinematography, whose films often receive awards at international festivals and who seem united by convergent aesthetic options. One of these is minimalism, which found in Porumboiu one of its consistent adepts.
His last movie, ‘The Second Game’, goes the farthest in this direction. However, for him, minimalism is not just a stylistic brand, but also what phenomenology calls ‘eidetic reduction.’ According to the Romanian director, the essential of life is reduced to few gestures which, in order to perceive their true meaning, must be cleansed of the deceptive scenarios of imagination. It is much more significant to film, for long minutes, the character repetitively sipping from a bowl of soup or waiting, almost immobile, at the same spot in the street (like in ‘Police, Adjective’), or to illustrate a sexual intercourse with a long-lasting fixed frame on a slightly open door that shows nothing (like in ‘When Evening Falls on Bucharest’ or ‘Metabolism’).

His launching film, ‘12:08 East of Bucharest’ even had as theme a ‘sordid’ reality, incapable to generate an ‘event’ that would break the existential monotony.
Porumboiu, a native of Vaslui, has a predecessor in Moldavian literature, the author of the novel ‘The place where nothing happened,’ Mihail Sadoveanu, himself the chronicler of an anonymous provincial town, imbued with an oppressive boredom and by a dryness of soul. What sets them apart is the director’s passion for the ‘nude’ image, which becomes autonomous from the subjectivity of characters. It is what transforms the modest minimalist experiment of ‘The Second Game’ in a unique symbolic suggestion. The spectator only witnesses the recording of a football match from the penultimate year of communist regime. This was the major event of the national championship, held in special conditions, against the background of a heavy and constant snow. The referee was the director’s father, one of the famous refs of those years, currently a prosperous businessman. The record misses the original sounds and is commented through a dialogue between father and son, who are watching it at home. As they watch the game, the father seems to ignore the directing intentions of his son, so he speaks freely, even answers calls on the cell phone. The dialogue is interrupted by many moments of silence. It is worth mentioning that the respective match illustrated not only a sports reality, but also a political one. The two teams that competed for winning the national championship represented the strongest institutions of the regime: the Securitate (secret police) and the Army. But what turns ‘The Second Game’ into a little cinematographic masterpiece is the suggestion of immobility, despite the arduous efforts of football players and the ambitions surrounding the game.
Immobility was admirably approached by an Italian novel, ‘The Leopard’ (which was made popular by a famous cinema adaptation), where a memorable phrase is said (by a young aristocrat who joins the progressive movement): ‘if we want everything to stay unchanged, then everything must change.’ Watching the record of the Dinamo-Steaua match of 1988 (which ended in a 0-0 draw), we may have the impression of witnessing a political game that goes on without bringing any obvious change. If we add to it the difficult weather conditions (that can be symbolically compared with the ‘turmoil of history’ – the excuse of choice when justifying the failures through the geopolitical context), ‘The Second Game’ seems to speak of a Romania incapable to really change, despite the many energies committed to this purpose. Something however changed between the first and second game. Football players – many of them – became prosperous stars, beneficiaries of capitalism. And the fans, very docile back then (this was the only possible attitude, as the massive presence of military uniforms was an effective guarantee against any disturbance of peace), are now free to behave more like hooligans every once in a while. What seemed only the immobility of a bankrupt regime could be a more chronic disease than it was believed to be.
This does not rule out the impact of over 4 decades of communism.

(To be continued)

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