First of All, Felicia -- Film Review

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The title character of this deliberately paced family drama first appears in a makeshift bed -- an apt metaphor for the story that will unfold, one that's very much about being in between. With its long takes, quiet realism and fusion of dark humor and poignancy, "First of All, Felicia" bears the hallmarks of recent Romanian cinema. One of the film's writer-directors, Razvan Radulescu, is a leading screenwriter within that flourishing scene, among whose credits is Cristi Puiu's extraordinary "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu."

Repetitive and overlong, this first-time directorial effort by Radulescu and Dutch newcomer Melissa de Raaf hasn't the tensile strength or daring of that earlier film. When it clicks, though, it's a penetrating look at what it means to be the adult child of aging parents, caught between two cultures.

Unfolding over the frustrating hours of Felicia's struggle to make a flight, the film, which received its North American premiere at the AFI Fest, is sure to get mileage on the festival circuit. Judicious cuts could ease its way to international art-house action.

Felicia (Ozana Oancea) rises from the couch-turned-bed, an indeterminate character -- she might be 25 or 35. It turns out she's 40, has been visiting her parents in Bucharest for a week and today will fly home to the Netherlands, where she has lived for many years. The hip, understated elegance of her clothes and hair contrast with the Old World clutter of her parents' apartment. (The excellent, cliche-free production design throws in such unexpected touches as a Glen Campbell album amid the shelves of books.)

Felicia must dodge the constant intrusions of her disingenuous, controlling mother (Ileana Cernat). Her seriously ill father (a heartbreaking performance by Vasile Mentzel) is determined to maintain his purpose and dignity, to gently comic effect.

Getting to the airport turns out to be a challenge, one that Felicia meets with polite urgency bordering on resignation. When she misses check-in by a few minutes, unyielding airline employees do nothing to help her.

A few other characters enter the story, but essentially the film becomes a two-hander between the terrific lead actresses, as mother and daughter navigate the no-man's-land of the airport while circling land mines in their relationship.

The international way station, itself a place that feels caught between the 20th and 21st centuries, is a fitting -- if not always visually interesting -- place to strand a woman who returns annually to a place where she'll never again feel at home.

The hostility of customer service, the insult of roaming charges, the passive-aggressive maternal shadow all play out against the ambient airport murmur. The film's top-notch live sound comes to feel like the noise of the world, an indecipherable Greek chorus for a woman entering middle age, shuttling between East and West, past and present.

It becomes increasingly clear how unloved Felicia feels, especially when she must solicit the help of her ex-husband regarding their son. But as it progresses, the film depends too much on explanatory dialogue and self-evident observations. Felicia's big meltdown, as moving as Oancea and the silent, reacting Cernat make it, arrives with a predictability that's the most conventional thing about the movie. At its best, this meticulously choreographed work, devoid of improvisation, is alive with everyday anguish.

Venue: AFI Fest
A Hi Film Prods./Unlimited/Frakas Prods./Kinorama/Arte France Cinema production
Cast: Ozana Oancea, Ileana Cernat, Vasile Mentzel, Victoria Cocias, Gelu Nitu, Serban Georgevici, Adina Lucaciu
Writer-directors: Melissa de Raaf, Razvan Radulescu
Producer: Ada Solomon
Director of photography: Tudor Lucaciu
Production designers: Carmen Dima, Sorin Dima
Costume designer, Malina Ionescu
Editor: Dana Bunescu
No rating, 121 minutes
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