'The Last Day' ('Ultima Zi'): Transylvania Review

TIFF Romania
A fascinating setup peters out in a predictable second half.

Romanian director Gabriel Achim's low-budget feature won top honors at the Romanian Days of the recent Transylvanian Film Festival.

It’s a long night’s journey to a country barbecue in The Last Day (Ultima Zi), the second feature from Romanian director Gabriel Achim (Adalbert’s Dream). Made for less than $25,000 after being refused state aid several times, this is a surprisingly sturdy feature in the acting department and initially fascinates on a narrative level, though there'll be an increasing sense of déjà vu for arthouse patrons familiar with the films of the Romanian New Wave (such as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Police, Adjective and Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days).

A surprise winner of the best feature gong in the Romanian Days section at the recent Transylvania International Film Festival, where it competed against Cannes Un Certain Regard Fipresci winner Dogs, this should see interest from festivals looking to complement their overview of recent films from the Balkan country that also includes Cannes competition titles Sieranevada and Graduation.

“Around here, I am God and I am the law,” says a small-town Romanian mayor (Dorun Ana) in the film’s second half, though by that time viewers will be surprised he feels the need to even say this out loud. Spoiled, conceited and indeed walking around like he owns the place, this is a man who’s afraid of nothing. Well, except the ongoing investigation into misappropriated European funds for a local solar-panel project.

Last Day’s first act cuts back and forth between two cars that are speeding along a road in the Romanian countryside at night and during a blizzard. The mayor’s in the first car and in the driver’s seat, of course, and next to him is his longtime friend, Adrian (Mimi Branescu), a former engineer in a neck brace who hoped to find some peace in a monastery but who is now on the way back home with the mayor because the abbot — or “boss monk,” as the burgomaster keeps calling him — wasn’t available to yea or nay Adrian’s planned stay there. In one of the film’s most mannered and unnecessary twists, the mayor insists on filming their titular “last day” together when not driving, which yields very little in terms of either narrative meat or audiovisual material. (There is, however, a telling moment in which the self-important wannabe filmmaker compares himself to none other than Tarkovsky, when he says that “even he started his career with a monk.”)

In a second car close behind them are a local cop and friend/lackey of the mayor, Viorel (Adrian Vancica), the blue police lights of his car barely piercing the dark and the snow, and their mutual friend Lucica (Adrian Ciglenean), the president of the town’s Christian Youth League. The three men form a sort of unholy trinity, as they represent the political, legal and moral authorities found in most towns, with Adrian perhaps standing in for the people, badly hurt and looking for (inner) peace and absolution even though they’re not technically men of the cloth. Achim and his regular co-writer Cosmin Manolache (on whose short story the screenplay is based) establish the men’s relationships and the necessary backstories via sharp dialogue that’s often as telling for what is said as what’s left unstated. The dark and cold outside and the cramped, almost claustrophobic quarters of the cars further help consolidate the impression that life’s decisions (at least for this one Romanian community) are at the mercy of the whims of just a few men.

From the start, the mayor is clearly the standout character, in part because he’s got the biggest ego and the others derive their power from him but also because Ana — a character actor and theater veteran who has played bit parts including a neighbor in Lazarescu and a gas station attendant in 4 Months — is such an expert at authoritative delivery, withering put-downs and even more punishing silences. Paradoxically, it’s almost nice to see he’s also got a human side, which slowly emerges when it becomes clear he too is worried about the possible fallout of the European investigation that is clearly something beyond his reach. And this fear, in turn, is the motor behind much of what will happen in the film’s second half, which unfolds in broad daylight at the mayor’s countryside mansion, where he’s preparing a barbecue for his pals with meat of animals he’s shot himself (he passes around his rifle as if it were a magnificent hunting trophy).

Since large dinner-table scenes are practically a Romanian New Wave requirement — and there are glorious examples in everything from 4 Months to the recent Sieranevada — what transpires here doesn’t exactly feel fresh, with the writing and characterizations not quite sharp enough to offer any new insights into the country’s metastasized, every-level-of-government corruption and the ensuing, entirely gangrenous lawlessness. The previously established characters are boxed in here not only by clichés and a lack of unexpected twists but also the conspicuous introduction of a deadly prop, which makes the conclusion of this film an outcome foretold much too soon, robbing these daytime shenanigans of any suspense.

The standout technical contribution is the vivid soundscape, which often hums and rumbles with industrial jangles and clanks, which seem to produce a kind of white noise that might give the characters the impression they could get away with anything.

Production company: Green Film, C-Story Productions
Cast: Doru Ana, Adrian Vancica, Adrian Ciglenean, Mimi Branescu
Director: Gabriel Achim
Screenplay: Gabriel Achim, Cosmin Manolache, based on a short story by Manolache
Producers: Gabriel Achim, Daniel Burlac
Director of photography: George Chiper
Costume designer: Luminita Mihai
Editor: Stefan Ioan Tatu
Sales: Green Film

Not rated, 105 minutes

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