Gone Wild: Film Review

Accessible Romanian documentary on an imperiled herd of wild horses provides a stimulating travelogue.

Dan Curean's documentary follows the free-roaming "mustangs" of the Danube Delta on Romania's Black Sea coast.

CLUJ, ROMANIA - A contemplatively beautiful but ultimately alarming dispatch from one of Europe's last unspoiled frontiers, Gone Wild chronicles the free-roaming 'mustangs' of the stunning Danube Delta on Romania's Black Sea coast -- along with their remaining two-legged neighbors. Of obvious zoological, ecological and ethnographic interest, this debut feature-documentary from writer/director/cinematographer Dan Curean -- which premiered in Cluj as a work-in-progress -- would grace any festival or TV-channel specializing in non-fiction material.

The film is an expansion of Curean's 52-minute Blue Danube and Wild Horses from 2009, updated to include highly dramatic developments from the last couple of years. The horses in question -- descended from farm-stock left to their own devices after the collapse of Communist state collectives in 1989 -- became the subject of national attention after their numbers were judged threatening to protected forests adjoining their wetland habitat.

This prompted drastic government action, and harrowing images of the horses' rough handling make for some difficult but necessary viewing - a climax all the more potent for after an hour that mostly consists of the horses at glorious liberty in magnificent surroundings.

Covering an area of 2,000 square miles -- roughly one and a half times the size of Rhode Island -- the Danube Delta provided the setting for Ruxandra Zenide's fine 2005 drama Ryna and, more prosaically, 2008's TV-movie Anaconda III starring David Hasselhoff. Such external incursions are rare, however. Curean's main focus is on the area around Letea, a settlement whose human population has dwindled rapidly over the past two decades -- "the village is falling off, irreversibly... people are becoming extinct."

The remnants are either senior citizens such as Dochia, a toothless lady given to rambling pronouncements and gloomy ruminations ("I'm very sad. My life is wretched"), or children like laconic, outdoor-loving 'nature boy' Ivan, who earns the trust of the skittish equines. The third key figure in Curean's episodic, slightly meandering narrative structure, is an outsider: middle-aged Mugur, a grizzled, skilled 'horse whisperer' in the Buck Brannaman vein whose impulse it is to protect what he sees as "raw, naked nature."

Curean -- his first-person script spoken by well-known Romanian actor/director Florin Piersic Jr in tones of subdued, calm wonder -- evidently shares Mugur and Ivan's appreciation of the animals and their unique environment. And while it would have been useful to hear from representatives of those keen to protect the flora and fauna of the horse-threatened forests, Gone Wild -- assembled in no-nonsense style by editor Eugen Kelemen -- functions nicely as a small-scale, personal essay expressing Curean's particular four-legs-good perspective.

With elegaic, sparing accordion accompaniment from local musician 'Mr Vanicioc', Curean's pungently-colored video images -- featuring the umber-hued steeds at gallop or at rest -- conjure the far-flung, bygone atmosphere of this special place. And they form what may turn out to be a valuable historical record as mankind steadily recedes over the horizon towards the ever-growing towns and cities.

The impoverished fishermen of the district are, we're told, "smothered with restrictions" -- Romania having joined the European Union in 2007 -- and just as the horses' experiences can be seen as emblematic of much wider human/natural interactions, Curean's picture quietly poses tricky questions about the meaning and consequences of liberty in twenty-first century Europe.

Venue: Transilvania International Film Festival
Production company: Fundaţia Arta
DirectorScreenwriter/Director of photography: Dan Curean
Producers: George Bucur, Ton Okkerse
Music: 'Mr Vanicioc'
Editor: Eugen Kelemen
Sales Agent: Rec Productions, Bucharest
No rating, 88 minutes.

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