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Combining the austere domestic realism of the Romanian New Wave with a timeless plot that should resonate across all cultures, Back Home is a slow-burn contemporary drama about the eternal frustrations and resentments lurking just below the calm surface of small-town life. World premiered in competition at Sarajevo Film Festival last month, director Andrei Cohn‘s feature debut is a low-voltage glumfest with no obvious hooks to snare overseas distributors. However, it feels tailor-made for further festival play with its no-frills look, bleak themes and nuanced performances.
The setting is a sleepy little port village close to Romania’s border with Bulgaria. Alexandru Papadopol stars as Robert, a local boy who escaped over a decade ago to earn modest fame as a poet and journalist in Romania’s faraway capital, Bucharest. Making a rare visit home three years after the death of his mother, this not-so-prodigal son instantly snaps back into sulky teenager mode, beginning a frosty war of words with his semi-estranged father (Florin Zamfirescu) and making clear his sense of betrayal over his father’s relationship with his new partner (Nataca Raab). While Robert remains cryptic about his motives for coming home, his phone rings constantly, but he pointedly refuses to answer.
Robert’s fraught family gathering is followed by a warmer reunion with his former best friend Petric (Andi Vasluianu) and one-time teenage sweetheart Paula (Ioana Flora). The ebullient Petric is now married with a young child, but clearly feeling trapped and drinking too much. Having fallen on hard times following a bitter divorce, Paula runs a small grocery store and lives alone in a modest little house. After a long afternoon of boozing and reminiscing, these three old friends share an evening meal which culminates in revelations of adultery, long-buried grudges and an excruciating failed attempt at sexual seduction.
Back Home eventually settles into an early midlife crisis story. Scared of the future, Robert retreats into the past, possibly hoping to fix his present by pinpointing where his life went wrong. But instead of the hopeful simplicity he condescendingly expects to find away from the big city, he encounters only envy and bitterness among those left behind.
It is unclear whether Cohn and screenwriter Mimi Br?nescu intended their chief protagonist be so unsympathetic, but Robert certainly comes across as entitled and petulant, especially in his boorish treatment of women. Still, at least the female characters here are rounded and believable, not ingratiating ciphers or passive victims. And in fairness, a key final-act twist helps to explain Robert’s childish tantrums, while not wholly excusing them. Back Home occasionally tests the viewer’s patience with its long, talk-heavy takes and somber, pared-down naturalism, but it ultimately proves to be another quietly impressive addition to the growing ranks of quality Romanian cinema.
Production company: Tandem Film Production
Cast: Alexandru Papadopol, Ioana Flora, Andi Vasluianu, Mirela Oprisor, Florin Zamfirescu, Natasa Raab
Director: Andrei Cohn
Screenwriter: Mimi Br?nescu
Cinematographer: Andrei Butic?
Editor: Andrei Iancu
Producer: Csaba László Eröss
Sales company: Mandragora srl, Romania
No rating, 91 minutes
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Warner Bros. Discovery