'Box': Karlovy Vary Review

Box Still - H 2015
Courtesy of KVIFF
Doesn't quite pack the desired punch

Romanian director Florin Serbian follows up his debut, 'If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle,' with another film in which a young man finds it hard not to act on his impulses

A 19-year-old pugilism prodigy becomes obsessed with a married theater actress in the stripped-down Romanian drama Box. This is the second feature of If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle director Florin Serban, and as in his debut, the writer-director follows a young protagonist who almost solely acts on instinct and impulses, propriety being an entirely alien concept.

This potential love story of sorts is set in and around the picturesque Transylvanian town of Sibiu and stars moody but impressive Rafael Florea, a non-professional newcomer of Roma origins, which helps set this film apart from its other Romanian New Wave brethren, though the film is shot in an observant and not very loquacious manner. Whether this’ll be enough to get it noticed beyond the festival circuit, remains doubtful, however, though this Karlovy Vary world premiere did bag the Fipresci critics’ prize at its first festival stop.

Rafael (Florea) is an adolescent but eager amateur boxer scouted by a demanding boxing-school owner (Narcis Romulus Dobrin) who sees potential in the young man and wants to invest in his future (or, at least, that’s what his motive seems initially). Rafael has no problems putting in the work, since his life at home with his grandfather (Nicolae Motrogan, a former boxing champion himself) doesn’t amount to much in terms of love or affection.

In the same provincial town but what feels like a parallel dimension, theatre actress Cristina (Hilda Peter) is rehearsing a Hungarian-language play -- over 1.2 million people in especially northern Romania are ethnically Hungarian -- with an equally demanding director (Catalin Mitulescu, the co-writer of Whistle and a filmmaker in his own right). Her high-culture profession is not the only thing separates her from Rafael, as she’s also got a home front that includes an actor husband (Sorin Leoveanu), who’s more famous than she is, and their small child. 

The way in which Serban gently juxtaposes the duo’s heavy “training schedules” in preparation for their “performances” is one of the film’s quiet pleasures, with editor Eugen Kelemen never blatantly making the connection. Instead, it arises organically from switching back and forth between the apparently very different worlds of the twin protagonists that seem to have a lot in common on closer inspection.

Unfortunately, this sort of natural cross-pollination of the material doesn’t extend to the film’s main narrative motor, namely the fact that Rafael becomes somewhat irrationally obsessed with the 34-year-old actress. Day after day, the muscle head trails her as she walks home from the theater, and though he doesn’t speak to her, the act doesn’t go unnoticed by Cristina. The act of following her is almost shown in real-time, in long takes in which veteran Romanian New Wave cinematographer Marius Panduru, like in Whistle, again overdoses on shots of the back of the head of the walking, testosterone-addled male protagonist.

While some films can make this kind of wordless, slow-burning and slow-footed chase across a city’s pavements thrilling and substantial -- Jose Luis Guerin’s In the City of Sylvia comes to mind -- Serbian doesn’t quite manage to do that here. Since Rafael isn’t much of a talker and doesn’t have much of a backstory beyond the simplistic notion he’s a Roma kid who got lucky because he’s good in the ring, his obsession with this particular woman remains largely unexplained. Cristina also isn’t given any specific characteristics that set her apart from all the other women walking down the street; like many of them, she’s a working mother whose day-to-day life doesn’t seem very interesting, though it keeps her busy. Since it is not even clear whether Rafael likes her because she's an actress, ideas of performance in public, when walking home for example, don't come into play either. Indeed, instead of feeling enigmatic, thrilling and full of possibilities, most of these scenes feel simply drawn out and self-consciously arty.

There are a couple of well-choreographed scenes, including an encounter on a bus that marks something of a turning point, when Rafa decides to sit down right behind his object of affection though the bus is half empty and she then gets up and sits down right behind him. The film could have used more of this kind of non-verbal sparring that at least advances the story somewhat for the two strangers, as here, for example, it becomes clear and irrevocable that Cristina has acknowledged his presence and might even be taunting him. A forced talk over coffee doesn’t reveal so much what Cristina and especially Rafael really want as how little the audience actually knows about these two. Here too, a more experienced hand might have found a better balance between saying too much and not suggesting enough.

That said, theater actress Peter, who burst onto the international film stage as the title character in 2009 Berlin competition title Katalin Varga, and Florea are both engaging screen presences who manage to at least partially compensate for the fact we know so little about their characters (at least they don’t feel like cardboard cutouts).

Besides the cinematography, the sound work reps the film's technical standout.

Production companies: Fantascope, Augenschein Filmproduktion, MPM Film

Cast: Hilda Peter, Rafael Florea, Sorin Leoveanu, Nicolae Motrogan, Narcis Romulus Dobrin, Marian Simion

Writer-Director: Florin Serban

Producer: Florin Serban

Co-producers: Jonas Katzenstein, Maximilian Leo, Juliette Lepoutre, Marie-Pierre Macia

Director of photography: Marius Panduru

Production designer: Mihaela Poenaru

Costume designer: Augustina Stanciu

Editor: Eugen Kelemen

Sales: The Match Factory

No rating, 94 minutes