Roxanne: Locarno Review

By-the-numbers Romanian drama lacks sting.

Serban Pavlu stars in Romanian writer-director Vali Hotea's feature debut, a drama premiering in a competitive sidebar at the Swiss festival.

As William Faulkner once wrote, the past is never dead - it's not even past. This is the lesson painfully learned by the hapless protagonist of director/co-writer Vali Hotea's belated feature debut Roxanne, one of the more underwhelming attempts by Romanian cinema to deal with the Ceausescu years and their lingering aftermath. Commercial prospects at home look quietly promising for this accessibly MOR, Hungarian co-produced affair, but elsewhere this is basically filler material for less choosy festivals.

It should at least find some favor with fans of UK/US rock legends The Police, whose single "Roxanne" was a top 40 hit on both sides of the Atlantic back in 1978. A major influence on Bruno Mars' recent worldwide smash "Locked Out of Heaven," the moody original here plays in regular and slow versions over the opening titles and end-credits respectively.

Hotea and co-writer Ileana Muntean's screenplay hinges on a romantic request for the song sent to Radio Free Europe in 1989, when the US-funded station broadcast out of Munich to Eastern Bloc countries. This request brings its sender Tavi to the attention of Ceausescu's dreaded secret police, the Securitate, who open files on him and the song's dedicatee, girlfriend Roxana. "Listen to the lyrics, baby!" Tavi exhorts - a rather odd choice of words, as the ditty famously concerns a prostitute being told she no longer has to "sell" her "body to the night..."

20 years later, Tavi (Serban Pavlu), now a moderately successful small businessman requests to see his files, and learns that he may well be the father of Roxana's son Victor (Anghel Damian), rather than her husband Sandu (Mihai Calin). Roxanne's plot pivots on two mysteries from 1989: Victor's parentage, and the identity of the informer who ratted Tavi out to the authorities.

The latter isn't exactly much of a puzzle, given the restricted size of the picture's dramatis personae, and the former is much less intriguing for us than it is for Tavi. We grasp that Tavi becomes fixated on his relationship with Victor as an escape from the more mundane pressures in his life - i.e. dealing with his long-suffering girlfriend Oana (Corina Moise) and his mother Coca (Valeria Seciu), who at 67 shows early signs of Alzheimer's. But Hotea and Muntean's screenplay doesn't manage to cohere as a properly three-dimensional character-study, nor does it elevate its melodramatic revelations beyond the level of TV soaps. 

Tavi is presumably intended to be emblematic of Romania as a whole, obsessed with unresolved recent history but wary of digging too deep lest painful wounds are reopened. In terms of allegory, however, the story is too flimsy to carry the freight of such weighty import and buckles under the burdens of increasingly blunt irony, implausibility and scriptwriting contrivance.

With Pavlu - star of Radu Jude's even more far-fetched festival-circuit hit Everybody In Our Family (2012) - monotonously hangdog as Tavi and Dania Dumbrava largely glacial in the quasi-title role, it's left to supporting players Damian and Adrian Vancica, as our hero's phlegmatic drinking-buddy Cretu, to inject what energy and humor the picture can muster. Technical credits are meanwhile unobtrusively functional in a film which exudes a small-screen air at pretty much every turn. No surprise to learn that Hotea, who's in his mid-40s and reportedly drew heavily upon events in his own early life for the screenplay, has a stack of TV work in his resume. 

Venue: Locarno Film Festival (section), 15 August 2013
Production company: Hi Film Productions
Cast: Serban Pavlu, Mihai Calin, Anghel Damian, Diana Dumbrava, Adrian Vancica, Corina Moise, Valeria Seciu
Director: Vali Hotea
Screenwriters: Vali Hotea, Ileana Muntean
Producers: Ada Solomon, Ioana Draghici
Co-producers: Emoke Vagasi, Gabi Antal
Director of photography: Alex Sterian
Production designer: Malina Ionescu
Costume designer: Ciresica Cuciuc
Editor: Eugen Kelemen
Sales: Films Boutique, Berlin
No MPAA rating, 98 minutes