Carmen: Sarajevo Review

More happy-go-lucky tales of sickness, corruption and death from Romania.

Downbeat family drama exposes the rotten state of Romania’s health care system.

Crooked doctors and crumbling hospitals have become defining motifs in Romanian New Wave cinema, inspiring two notable Cannes prize-winners in Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. A minor addition to this medical-noir genre is Doru Nitescu’s Carmen, a quietly angry family tragedy set in contemporary Bucharest. The subject matter is painfully serious, but the dramatic treatment is prosaic and lifeless. Screened in competition at the Sarajevo Film Festival last week, former documentary maker Nitescu’s debut fiction feature seems unlikely to find much of a following beyond connoisseurs of vintage Eastern Bloc misery.

Iulia Lupascu gives a sweet, natural performance as the eponymous heroine, an angelic pre-teen girl suffering from an unspecified illness that the guarded script eventually reveals to be a brain tumor. But it is Rodica Lazar who dominates the film as Carmen’s mother, Mariana, exuding a constant low-level buzz of quiet desperation as she shepherds her daughter from their mountain village home to the hospital in the Romanian capital. Here the real dramatic tension begins, with Mariana reduced to pleading favors from kindly Doctor Sitaru (Adrian Titieni), who believes an experimental operation can still save Carmen’s life. But his boss, the fiercely unsympathetic Doctor Janos (Maia Morgenstern), insists surgery is futile and blocks further treatment.

Beneath its surface sheen of glum human drama, Carmen is an even bleaker piece of social critique, presenting Romania’s post-Soviet health system as inherently rotten. Besides routinely offering gifts of food and alcohol to hospital staff, Mariana and her husband, Puiu (Mimi Branescu), also beg for loans from relatives and friends in order to bribe doctors into opening a kind of late-night bootleg operating theater for Carmen. But their requests for money meet bitter resistance and inflame some old family antagonisms. Sympathy for the couple’s pitiful plight is in very short supply.

Nitescu couches Carmen in somber, subdued, minor-key tones sweetened by occasional glimmers of visual poetry and a mournful, sparingly deployed piano score by Cristian Lolea. Commendably, he does not milk potentially sensational subject matter for maximum melodrama. Less impressively, his on-the-nose approach to this somewhat generic story makes for an airless, cheerless, relentlessly gloomy experience. There are fine performances here, but little of the shrewd insight, dark humor and spiky complexity that characterizes the best of Romanian New Wave cinema.

Production company: Filmex Romania,

Producer: Titi Popescu

Starring: Rodica Lazar, Iulia Lupascu, Adrian Titieni, Maia Morgenstern, Mimi Branescu

Director: Doru Nitescu

Writers: Tudor Voica, Doru Nitescu

Cinematographer: Silviu Stavila

Editor: Dana Bunescu

Music: Cristian Lolea

Sales company: Filmex Romania

Unrated, 88 minutes

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