'Acasă, My Home': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
'Acasa, My Home'
A memorable variation on a timeless theme.

A Bucharest family is forced to give up its off-the-grid way of life in a debut film that received the Sundance fest's World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Cinematography.

Lyrical and provocative, Acasă, My Home brings an intimate slant to age-old questions about the value of conformity, the pleasures and challenges of the natural world versus the comforts and distractions of modernity, and the amorphous but essential matter of what constitutes a good life. And it does so with laudable concision.

The first feature-length film by investigative journalist Radu Ciorniciuc — who also serves as a producer, co-writer and one of two DPs — was shot over nearly four years, a period that would prove transformative for the unconventional family at its center. Edited with eloquent precision by Andrei Gorgan, the powerful vérité footage reflects an extraordinary level of trust between the filmmakers and the Enaches, who are forced off their bucolic patch of land in the name of their children's welfare and, more urgently, in the name of an eco-conscious form of gentrification.

Timeless and of-the-moment, vividly specific and universally resonant, this portrait of poverty, displacement and social engineering is sure to strike a chord with fest programmers and international art house audiences.

As the film opens, Gică Enache and Niculina Nedelcu have made their home for 18 years on a stretch of abandoned wilderness that's technically within Romania's capital but worlds removed from its urban congestion. They share an unrushed life with their nine children, the kids swimming and fishing in placid Lake Vacaresti, the younger boys roughhousing on the shore like a pack of puppies. These establishing scenes are punctuated by the implausible sight of high-rises in the near distance, and the pre-title sequence ends with what may be the most expressive use of a drone shot in recent memory: Lifting from ground level to a bird's-eye view, the camera reveals how close this verdant arcadia is to the city proper. 

Gică, a laid-back patriarch with an old-school authoritarian streak, is a former chemistry lab assistant who rejected "wicked civilization" and opted for a life close to the land. But the Enaches' story isn't one of upper-middle-class professionals cashing it all in for a home in the heart of the country; they're squatters, living in a tar-paper shack. Their off-the-grid existence is hand-to-mouth.

It's also idyllic. But Social Services and the police are circling — whether out of concern or rule-bound paternalism depends on who's confronting the Enaches. Acasă follows the escalating targeting of the family for eviction, monitoring and assimilation. The plans are fast-tracked in 2014, when, after decades of failed government and private-sector plans for the wetlands of the so-called Bucharest Delta, the area that the Enaches call home receives the official stamp of approval as a nature preserve. Enter the heavy machinery.

And enter the prime minister and other government officials, not to mention Prince Charles, who indulges in a bit of ceremonial shovel work and photo ops for a project that's hailed as the largest urban nature park in the EU. At press conferences and other promotional events, Gică hovers watchfully. Bureaucrats in sunglasses and activists in state-of-the-art bicycle helmets listen to him, admonish him, shine him on. They acknowledge his role as a caretaker of the land, but the die is cast. In one of the most heartbreaking sentences uttered in the film, Gică faces one of them and declares, "I have nine children, I'm not a nobody."

This narrative, however challenging, is rich with humor and moments of delight, keenly observed in the patient camerawork of Mircea Topoleanu and the helmer. There's an Olympian exchange of insults between Niculina and a post-relocation city neighbor, the sweetness of an Enache boy's first haircut, and the self-conscious sense of absurdity for four of the brothers when they're wedged into their first classroom desks.

The kids learn to read and write and do math, and they learn the rules of the game, at the same time as their father is forced to play by rules he's long since scorned. He's wise, he's hurt, he cries and threatens childishly. He wants to go back to his Eden on the lake. So does second-oldest son Rică, who, in a tearful confession to firstborn Vali — one of several wrenching, incisive scenes late in the doc — likens the city to a prison. One of his younger siblings, clearly moved by Rică's emotion, concurs: "Even the food tasted better there."

But Ciorniciuc and co-writer Lina Vdovîi have structured something far more complex than an ode to paradise lost. The Enaches' poverty clearly has had a detrimental impact on the parents' health. The family's connection to the natural world, which includes Vali's knack for catching birds barehanded, likely would not win PETA's blessing. A pig's slaughter occurs offscreen, but the kids' lunging attempts to catch it, and its squealing attempts to escape, make for distressing viewing. Then again, pre-butchered grocery store meat offers nothing morally superior to this ultimately bloody scuffle.

Building toward the poetic image of ambivalence that closes this potent film, director Ciorniciuc moves through a series of remarkable exchanges. In their personal detail and their universal push-pull, these conversations have a literary poignancy: parents arguing about child rearing; a son, on the verge of adulthood, rejecting his father's authority. That son, Vali, embodies a specific generational shift in this saga, one that zeroes in on its conflicts: In the Bucharest Delta, where he once lived and played and eked out a living with his family, he's working construction on the new nature park and its Urban Biodiversity Trail.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition)
Production companies: Manifest Film, HBO Europe, Corso Film, Kinocompany
Director: Radu Ciorniciuc
Screenwriters: Lina Vdovîi, Radu Ciorniciuc
Producers: Monica Lăzurean-Gorgan, Radu Ciorniciuc
Executive producer: Hanka Kastelicova
Directors of photography: Mircea Topoleanu, Radu Ciorniciuc
Editor: Andrei Gorgan
Composers: Yari, Codrin George Lazăr, Gaute
Sales: Autlook Film Sales

In Romanian

86 minutes