Seemingly untouched by the 21st century, the Romanian farming villages at the center of Stream of Love are jewel-bright, verdant places, and their aging population is more than willing to discuss their sex lives, past and present, to director Agnes Sos. She searched far and wide for communities forgotten by progress (or indifferent to it) and found them in remote Hungarian-speaking regions of Transylvania.
In North America, her intimate and vivid documentary, a selection of L.A. Film Fest and a production of HBO Europe, is strictly a festival and small-screen item, its unglamorous subjects not likely to make the theatrical grade. But their faces, captured in tight close-ups, as well as their sturdy bodies and kinship with the land, is the true story coursing through this Stream.
While the film avoids cutesiness and mawkish sentiment — much like its interview subjects, whose ages range from 75 upward of 90 — it does rather insistently hinge on the supposed shock factor of oldsters’ straight talk about sex and romantic love. But their frankness is only natural; these are hardy peasants who have no qualms about calling a body part by its colloquial name.
With clear affection and appreciation for the rhythm of their days, Sos and cinematographer Zoltan Lovasi, shooting over a two-and-a-half-year period, observe the planting of fields, the tending to animals, the kneading of bread dough, as well as the randy and sometimes painful reminiscing and, for some, the present-day courtships.
Her chief protagonist is Ferenc, who dons a spiffy hat and rides through town in a cart drawn by his new horse — the village equivalent of a look-at-me Camaro. The women giggle after he passes, calling out “Hello, my little lovelies!” To Sos, he declares that of the area’s 25 or so widows, only two or three are “really fine,” and when he visits those chosen few, he arrives at the gate clutching a fresh-plucked flower.
Among the women, there’s talk of wedding nights, foreplay, marital duty and, for one, the late-in-life, accidental discovery of orgasm, no man involved. They trade stories and sometimes graphic tips as they sit together making stuffed cabbage or picnicking in the place where, in their youth, it was necessary and desirable to roll down the hill with a man.
Opinions vary on old-school sexuality. A woman notes, with clear-eyed certainty rather than wistfulness, that her generation “missed out on so many good things” in its sheltered approach. Expounding on the “proper place” for a man (on top), a widower bemoans the directness and crassness of contemporary sexual encounters, insisting on the romance and beauty of love.
There are poignant and difficult revelations, too. A widower who put up with his wife’s infidelity throughout their marriage is still glad when she appears in his dreams. A woman’s capsule autobiography makes unexpected turns from semi-comical boasting — when she recalls her youthful popularity, her breasts get special mention — to mournful sorrow over her deceased husband to the matter-of-fact admission that she killed a man when she was 80. Another woman acknowledges, almost offhandedly, that she didn’t tell a woman who was experiencing a dangerous breach childbirth that the baby was female, out of fear that she would stop pushing.
Admiring her subjects’ toughness and establishing the kind of trust that encourages openness, Sos wisely doesn’t force their disparate stories into a neat, overarching conclusion. That can give the film’s progress a scattered, desultory feel. What binds the characters and their stories is the very specific feeling for place and its seasons — that and the strong sense that Sos has chronicled a bygone way of life that probably won’t outlast the villages’ inhabitants.
Production companies: Szerelem Patak Produkcios Kft., HBO Europe, Hungarian National Film Fund
Director: Agnes Sos
Producers: Agnes Sos, Julianna Ugrin
Director of photography: Zoltan Lovasi
Editor: Thomas Ernst
Music: Janos Masik
No rating, 72 minutes