‘Pioneers’ Palace’: Sundance Review

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
'Pioneers' Palace'
This building is structurally unsound

The second film from Bobby Paunescu, best known for his work as a producer with Cristi Puiu ('The Death of Mr. Lazarescu'), tracks young people, prostitutes and gangsters in early 90s Bucharest

Producer Bobby Paunescu, best known for his work as a producer working with Romanian New Wave leading light Cristi Puiu (Aurora, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) follows up his 2009 directorial debut Francesca with Pioneers’ Palace, a shambolic look at life in Bucharest in the lawless, early 1990s years immediately following the fall of Communism. This all-improvised film (no screenwriter is credited) was reportedly stapled together from just seven shooting days spread out over six months, and cast from a pool of student and non-professional actors. Unfortunately, the result is just as sloppy and incoherent as you would expect under those conditions. Bafflingly included as a special event in the Sundance line-up, Pioneers’ Palace is unlikely to conquer more than a handful of further festivals beyond southeastern Europe.

In the first half hour or so, title cards displaying character names suggest a multi-strand structure, but an overall lack of clarity coagulates it all together by the end anyway in one big undifferentiated mess of stuff that happens. What is clear from the opening roller at least is that the events depicted take place around 1992, two and a bit years after the fall of the Ceausescu regime. The arrival of a free market has allowed prostitution to flourish, while gangsters have risen to power, high-school students are going on strike (for the right to open a disco on school grounds) and the police are massively corrupt, although that last one is pretty much par for the course.

High-school jock Veronel Milenkovici (Toto Dumitrescu), the closest thing the film has to a protagonist, is elated to learn he’s just been selected for national swimming team for the upcoming Olympics, or at least he will be if his mother (Ioana Pavelescu) literally rubs his coach (Doru Ana) the right way. Part of the gaggle of students who have started up the new disco at school, Veronel and his friend Mihnea (Costin Cambir) seek out protection from the local gangster Ion (Mihai Dorobantu), who insists on taking the boys to visit one of Bucharest’s newest brothels, run by Madame Geta (Cristina Juks). Creating a modicum of suspense in the rambling plot, Ion flaunts his possession of a hand grenade that duly goes off by the end.

Elsewhere, a conman (Bobby Marinescu) sells off stolen cars to gullible locals and arranges for a painter to make forgeries of well-known Romanian artists to service the nouveau-riche market. Mona (Maria Bata), one of the prostitutes in Geta’s stable, falls into the hands of a crooked cop (Florin Kevorkian) who extracts payment in kind before questioning her and her husband.

The scenes uncoil via long, handheld takes, and once in a while the dialogue musters some interest, for example when a bunch of kids discuss the dangers of AIDS, befuddled by misinformation, and black comedy ensues in a scene involving a caustic-tongued prostitute-cum-arms dealer who shows up near the end all too late to inject some energy into the proceedings. However, too many of the frayed story strands fail to knit together, and it’s hard to get involved when so many of the performances are stilted and inept.

Production companies: A Solar Indie Junction production in association with Mandragora Movies & Mandragora Film Academy
Cast: Mihai Dorbantu, Maria Bata, Toto Dumitrescu, Dragos Savulescu, Costin Cambir, Cristina Juks, Bobby Marinescu, Ioana Rucareanu, Cristian Malaele, Olivia Nita, Oana Paun, Sdina Stetcu, Robert Bumbes, Doru Ana, David Lipper, Alice Halpert, Ionut Simionescu, Alice Peneaca, Florin Kevorkian
Director: Bobby Paunescu
Producers: Bobby Paunescu, Viorel Sergovici, Dragos Savulescu, Liu Tee Shu, Mihai Dorobantu
Executive producers: Traian German, George Shu
Director of photography:Viorel Sergovici
Production designer: Mihai Dorobantu
Costume designer: Tora Dumitrescu
Editor: Mircea Olteanu
Casting: Raluca Eftimie
Sales: Mandragora Movies

No rating, 82 minutes