Adalbert's Dream: Film Review

Tart 1980s-set black comedy is latest peak of Romania's ongoing New Wave.

Romanian director/co-writer Gabriel Achim's film is a wry and occasionally very funny slice-of-life set near the end of Nicolae Ceausescu's dictatorship.

CLUJ, Romania — A full decade after Cristi Puiu unofficially kicked off the Romanian New Wave with Stuff and Dough (2001), the movement, which has propelled the likes of Cristian Mungiu, Radu Muntean and Corneliu Porumboiu to international attention, continues to bear fruit.

A case in point is Adalbert's Dream, a wry and occasionally very funny slice-of-life set near the end of Nicolae Ceausescu's dictatorship. Unveiled to popular acclaim at the Transilvania fest which has proved such a solid launch pad for Romanian fare, this confidently-handled directorial debut from director/co-writer Gabriel Achim will be warmly received at festivals worldwide. It's also sufficiently accessible and distinctive to be considered for art-house play in receptive territories.

The use of soccer as a running theme certainly won't harm in that regard, especially as the movie is so sharp on how the sport can serve as vital social glue especially among men. It's set on the day after what remains Romanian football's finest hour, namely the underdog triumph of Steaua Bucharest over Spanish giants Barcelona in the 1986 European Cup Final. This culminated in a nail-biting penalty-kick shootout, with
Bucharest's diminutive goalie Helmuth Duckadam notching an unprecedented quartet of consecutive spot-kick saves.

Duckadam's heroics play out archive video under the opening credits, and provide a steady hum of euphoric background noise throughout all that follow. The Steaua "miracle" serves to distract the characters from the humdrum tedium of their factory jobs, and from the wider problems they face in what we now know to be the final years of Ceau?escu's oppressive rule as head of the Romanian Communist Party (PCR), which would conclude with his bloody execution in Christmas 1989.

Several PCR dignitaries are due to visit as part of celebrations to mark the party's 75 anniversary, a (forcibly) festive day for all, and an occasion annually marked by the screening of two short 8mm films made by members of the factory's Health & Safety department. These are always devised and directed by the picture's main protagonist, the moustachioed, balding, scrawny Iulica (Gabriel Spahiu), a decidedly happy-go-lucky chap despite his somewhat hangdog appearance.

Iulica's two shorts are, as always, an instructive documentary - the cumbersomely-titled An Industrial Accident and its Grave Consequences upon the Life of Mrs. Comrade Lidia Spataruand a more "artistic" endeavor. This latter is the movie's eponymous Adalbert's Dream (Visul lui Adalbert), a title selected by Iulica on the pretentious basis that it sounds like "a foreign film." Amusingly, the black-and-white documentary appears, from the brief glimpses we obtain, drastically more experimental than the larkish, theoretically carte blanche fictional effort, this being one of innumerable fleeting and uninflected ironies in the screenplay by Achim and acclaimed short-story writer Cosmin Manolache.

Their focus is very much on Iulica, who has a complex private life -- married with a young son, he's carrying on an affair with the aforementioned Mrs. Comrade, Lidia Spataru (Ozana Oancea). This isn't the only risky activity he undertakes: With his entrepreneurial spirit, he's always sailing close to the wind in terms of "prohibited" activities. He even (secretly) owns that emblem of 'decadent' capitalist domestic luxury, a Video Cassette Recorder and shrewdly curries favor with his grouchy, corpulent boss Lefardau (Doru Ana) by bringing it in to work on the day in question, along with a tape of the final.

Various droll complications ensue over the course of this one hectic day in what quickly emerges as a clever, economic little fable, darkly comic but with a serious undercurrent, and always based firmly around the vividly-sketched characters. It pays close attention to their dialogue, gestures, interactions and milieu with the factory background evoked in particularly effective, pungently grimy detail, right up to an eyebrow-raising violent finale which local audiences will recognize as a nod to a classic of Romanian cinema, Lucian Pintilie's Reenactment (1969).

But anyone who has spent time in any workplace will appreciate how Adalbert's Dream is notably strong on the way colleagues get by via shared jokes, dodges and gripes -- the unique historical coincidence of Steaua's victory and the PCR's anniversary here illustrating how ordinary folk cope with extraordinary circumstances.

While most of the actors are relatively familiar faces from Romanian New Wave movies -- Spahiu and Ana both had minor roles, for example, in Puiu's award-laden The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) -- behind the scenes Adalbert's Dream is a sterling showcase for new talent. It's a first feature not only for Achim and Manolache but also for co-editors Cristian Nicolescu and Stefan Tatu, likewise for cinematographer George Chiper-Lillemark. The Copenhagen-based Chiper-Lillemark realizes Achim's audacious concept of shooting the picture using old-school VHS technology -- all the better to capture the dingy tones of late-80s Romania. This reportedly involved tracking down a 20-year-old JVC camera and adapting it, after various trial-and-error mishaps, with special Zeiss lenses. The results prove well worthwhile, providinga highly distinctive visual texture and transcending the strictures of an evidently limited budget.

Venue: Transilvania International Film Festival -- Romanian Days
Production companies: Green Film, 4Proof Film.
Cast: Gabriel Spahiu, Doru Ana, Alina Berzunteanu, Ozana Oancea, Anca Androne, Mirca Andriescu
Director: Gabriel Achim
Screenwriters: Gabriel Achim, Cosmin Manolache
Producers: Gabriel Achim, Monica Lazurean-Gorgan
Director of photography: George Chiper-Lillemark
Production designer: Vali Ighigheanu
Costume designer: Luminita Mihai
Editors: Cristian Nicolescu, Stefan Tatu
Sales: Green Film, Bucharest
No rating, 101 minutes