Principles of Life -- Film Review

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SAN SEBASTIAN -- Barely six months after making his controversial feature debut with sprawling post-WWII drama "Portrait of the Fighter as a Young Man," Romanian writer-director Constantin Popescu delivers his sophomore effort, "Principles of Life" ("Principii de viata").

Considerably less ambitious than its cumbersomely overlong predecessor but also despite its faults decidedly more satisfying, this look at 24 hours in the irritation-plagued life of a middle-aged schlub is middling festival-oriented fare, elevated by a strong lead performance from skilled character-player Vlad Ivanov.

Given the perilous state of Romanian cinema within its own borders, domestic box office may be patchy, but international art house distribution is an even dicier proposition.

Though hardly a household name, Ivanov, who�s still only 41 but looks a decade older here, has achieved significant renown among worldwide cinephiles via incisive supporting contributions to award-magnets "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" (Cristian Mungiu's 2007 Palme d�Or winner) and Cristi Puiu�s "Police, Adjective" (2009). Here he�s very much front and center throughout as Emilian Velicanu, a beefy, pot-bellied, balding guy who passingly resembles a bearded James Gandolfini.

A successful printer, twice-married with two children, he�s planning a seaside holiday in Bulgaria with his wife and sons: baby Sorin and surly 14-year-old Catalin (Gabriel Huian). Both kids cause problems -- Sorin with a minor illness, Catalin with his generally uncooperative attitude -- but these are just part of a catalogue of major and minor distractions, annoyances and work-related issues that stand between Emilian and his much-needed holiday.

"What's everybody giving me a hard time for?," wails our hero at one point, unable to see that the fault lies mainly with his own square-peg attitude. A superficially cheery sort whose bonhomie proves somewhat flimsy under pressure, Emilian is visibly a volcano building towards some kind of explosion, which duly arrives in the penultimate scene, when Catalin's disconnect from family life (the lad prefers texting his friends or playing on computer games) drives Pop over the edge.

Up to this point, "Principles of Life" has been a quietly absorbing, deadpan-droll character study of a man at odds with the modern world, much too stubborn to just go with the flow. Emilian's big blow-up is, however, the least satisfactory part of the movie, partly because of Huian's hammy reactions and partly because the sequence seems to suggest that the best way to deal with wayward kids is old-fashioned physical violence. Or is this one of the "Principles" of the pompous-sounding title?

The figure of the harassed, short-fused middle-class Dad is hardly new subject-matter for TV or movies. Apart from Ivanov�s nuanced work, there's not that much in Popescu's direction or script (co-written with Alexandru Baciu) to make this effort stand out from the pack.

Venue: San Sebastian International Film Festival
Production companies: Hi Film Prods., Scharf & Tandem
Cast: Vlad Ivanov, Gabriel Huian, Rodica Lazar
Director: Constantin Popescu
Screenwriters: Ragzvan Radulescu, Alex Baciu
Producer: Ada Solomon
Director of photography: Liviu Marghidan
Editor: Corina Stavila
Sales: Coach 14, Paris
No rating, 87 minutes
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