Hot-button issues of U.S. immigration and inappropriate sexual contact are empathetically explored in Lemonade, a strong debut feature from Romanian writer-director Ioana Uricaru. Built around an excellent, harrowingly sensitive lead performance by Malina Manovici, it was one of the standout world premieres at this year’s Berlinale, where its combination of quiet style and provocative content played well with audiences. The presence of leading Romanian auteur Cristian Mungiu will open further international doors for this bittersweet fable of optimistic dreams coming up against the realities of an often cruel world.
Co-produced with Canada, Germany and Sweden, the picture is set in an unspecified American city but was mainly shot north of the border in Montreal. It’s a testament to the skills of location manager Lauriane Rognie that this geographical doubling is so seamlessly achieved, the film taking place in liminal, anonymous corners of Anywheresville, USA.
The focus of Uricaru and co-writer Tatiana Ionascu’s script are marginal folk struggling to make a living in a worsening economic climate, many of them recent newcomers to the country. Thirtysomething Mara (Manovici) works in a healthcare industry struggling to find experienced, competent staff. Like many from eastern and central Europe, she has found employment opportunities in the U.S. Keen to stay, Mara toils to give her young son Dragos (Milan Hurduc) better educational chances and the possibility of a brighter future.
Shortly before the expiry of her visa, she marries one of her patients, Daniel (Dylan Scott Smith), and as the film begins she is engaged in the bureaucratic intricacies of obtaining her green card. Her interviews with immigration officer Moji (Steve Bacic) are at first conducted with friendly professionalism — until circumstances conspire to place Mara in a vulnerable situation, which sleazy sexual predator Moji wastes no time in exploiting.
The line is crossed during a long, dialogue-heavy sequence in Moji’s car, parked under a busy bridge. The loud trundling of traffic overhead is emphasized via the insidiously oppressive sound design by Kai Tebbel, a veteran of the German film scene whose many credits date back to 1991. This sequence displays the strengths of Uricaru and Ionascu’s writing, as the conversation between Mara and Moji becomes a tense power game of linguistic domination.
Some of the screenplay’s later developments are executed with a less sure hand. The sheer pileup of unfortunate and grim events that Mara experiences on a single day stretches credulity, and her husband’s transformation from soft-spoken, supportive nice-guy to abusive heel takes place over a matter of seconds. But these are only passing distractions. Mara’s relationship with Dragos (Milan Hurduc), is convincingly detailed, and Uricaru — whose hilarious contribution to Mungiu’s 2009 portmanteau Tales of the Golden Age was the standout segment — commendably resists the temptation to pile misery upon misery.
The chief source of positivity is veteran Goran Radakovic as a spry and shrewd Bosnian-Serb lawyer, his supporting performance pulled off with a droll, light touch. But this is very much Manovici’s show, the near-unknown (her sole previous credit was in Mungiu’s Graduation) holding the screen with her large, expressive eyes, bringing to three-dimensional life a fragile character ill-equipped to play the tough hand destiny deals her.
The title points towards embattled optimism, referring to the adage about what to do if life gives you lemons — a sentiment which reached wide public renown via Beyonce’s 2016 album and accompanying 65-minute film. Beyonce’s Lemonade proved to be a genuine cultural phenomenon, and continues to reverberate; indeed Uricaru and Mungiu would do well to devise a more original moniker for their paean to feminine resilience.
Production companies: Mobra Films (with Peripheria, 42film, Filmgate Films, Göteborg Film i Väst)
Cast: Malina Manovici, Steve Bacic, Dylan Scott Smith, Milan Hurduc, Ruxandra Maniu
Director: Ioana Uricaru
Screenwriters: Ioana Uricaru, Tatiana Ionascu
Producer: Cristian Mungiu
Executive producers: Yanick Letourneau, Eike Goreczka, Christoph Kukula, Sean Wheelan, Anthony Muir
Cinematographer: Friede Clausz
Production designer: Sylvain Lemaitre
Costume designers: Jenn Pocobene, Dana Paparuz
Editor: Mircea Olteanu
Composer: Oliver Alary
Casting directors: Rosina Bucci, Catalin Dordea, Nadia Rona
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)
Sales: Pluto Film, Berlin (email@example.com)
In English and Romanian