'Meda or the Not So Bright Side of Things': Film Review | Sarajevo 2017

MEDA Still 1 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of FamART
A diligently dreary debut.

A newly widowed farmer fights to retain custody of his adopted daughter in Romanian director Emanuel Parvu’s Sarajevo Film Festival prize winner.

Making the switch from actor to director, Emanuel Parvu has struck it lucky with his debut feature. An emotionally knotty slice of downbeat social realism set in a remote wooded corner of contemporary Romania, Meda or the Not So Bright Side of Things won the top awards for best director and best actor at the Sarajevo Film Festival last week.

A regular screen presence in his native Romania, Parvu recently appeared in Cristian Mungiu’s Cannes prize winner Graduation, though his credits also include trashy Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme action thrillers. For his lean but cumbersomely titled debut, he has chosen a fairly conventional slice of festival-friendly misery porn, which has thematic and stylistic echoes of Danis Tanovic’s flinty 2013 docudrama, An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker. The intent is admirably serious and the overall package stringently crafted, but commercial prospects will be very modest.

Serban Pavlu stars as Doru, a downtrodden middle-aged everyman struggling to hold his life together in his ramshackle rural farmstead. Still shell-shocked from his wife’s recent death, his luck keeps going from bad to worse. Because he never signed official adoption papers for his 14-year-old daughter, Meda (Ana Radu), Doru now needs to prove to the authorities that he can support her financially in order to remain her legal guardian.

Sadly, Doru is also flat broke and drowning in unpaid tax debts, his income drastically squeezed by government rules on selling cattle and quotas on collecting wild timber. And while he has no qualms about poaching small woodland animals with unauthorized traps, he declines the chance to join a lucrative but strictly illegal bear hunt. As the deadline looms for Meda’s enforced return to the orphanage, however, Doru is faced with a harsh choice: either compromise his principles and risk a prison term or lose his daughter barely a week after losing his wife.

Meda or the Not So Bright Side of Things is a forensically stern close-up portrait of a remote Eastern European backwater where stifling bureaucracy meets routine lawlessness. The curdled old Communist culture of bribery and cronyism lingers here, often bolstering an equally inhuman new set of European Union regulations imposed from Brussels. But Parvu does not slip into glib monochrome moralizing here, offering instead an agreeably nuanced slant on petty corruption, which can sometimes serve the greater good. When his prospects look especially bleak, Doru is aided by a sympathetic orphanage boss and a kindly policeman, both of whom helpfully agree to bend the rules a little.

In case it is not clear yet, Parvu’s wintry drama does not qualify as a fun date movie. The overall style is as austere as the story, the camerawork mostly handheld and artless, the muddy color palette painted in 50 shades of brown. Nor does the final act console viewers with anything as obvious as emotional closure or even a clear narrative resolution. Outside the title credits, music is notably absent. Such puritanical severity will be a turn-off for some, a potential selling point for others.

Pavlu’s prize-winning performance is the key bright spot here. Brooding and haunted, he conveys a stoic air of quiet desperation with minimal fuss. Fine work, but not fine enough to spice up a story that remains almost obstinately joyless from start to finish. Meanwhile, Radu gets way too little screen time. Given that her name sits prominently in the title, more of Meda’s inner and outer life might have brought some much-needed tonal variety to this purgatorial kingdom of scowling, hairy, cantankerous old men. Parvu has proved his mastery of muted tones. Next time, he can afford to splash a few more colors on the canvas.

Production company: FamArt
Cast: Serban Pavlu, Ana Radu, Adrian Titieni, Florin Zamfirescu, Costel Cascaval, Ion Sapdaru
Director-screenwriter: Emanuel Parvu
Producer: Miruna Berescu
Executive producer: Domnica Predoiu
Cinematographer: Silviu Stavila
Production designer: Cezara Armasu
Editor: Dan Stefan Parlog
Music: Mihai Pocorschi Sr.
Venue: Sarajevo Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: FamArt, miruna.berescu@gmail.com

In Romanian
82 minutes