'Toto and His Sisters' ('Toto si surorile lui'): San Sebastian Review

Toto si surorile lui Toto and his Sisters Still - H 2014
Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

Toto si surorile lui Toto and his Sisters Still - H 2014

A steely but sympathetic look at squalor and family dysfunction

International Emmy winner Alexander Nanau documents the lives of children and teenagers in a tough suburb of Bucharest

Dereliction of duty is the underlying theme of Alexander Nanau's Toto and His Sisters (Toto si surorile lui), a harrowing but necessary glimpse into existences eked out among the grimy bottom rungs of the European Union's social ladder. Following several months in the tough-knock lives of three siblings in a crime-ridden corner of the Romanian capital Bucharest and made in collaboration with the country's Policy Center for Roma and Minorities, it benefits from a remarkably high degree of access and trust between the film-maker and his economically marginalized subjects.

Well-received on its San Sebastian bow in the eclectic New Directors section, the fly-on-wall eye-opener looks set for a long festival life with small-screen play also assured in the wake of Nanau's International Emmy award for The World According To Ion B (2010). And while such grim milieu, afflicted with drugs, disease, garbage and general squalor, aren't going to be to all audience's tastes, there's also humor and moments of genuine, hard-won uplift here, suggesting that edgy distributors in receptive, social-minded territories like France, Germany and Scandinavia should at least check it out.

With the hour-long World According to Ion B, Nanau chronicled a homeless artist's gradual ascent to national and international renown. Here he again is intimately concerned with the situation of "outsiders" in Bucharest, as illustrated by the three children of Roma woman Siminica, who when the film begins has served more than four years of a seven-year sentence for drug-trafficking. During this period her kids Ana (17), Andreea (14 going on 15) and Gabriel, aka Totonel, aka Toto (10) are in theory being cared for by two uncles, but as the latter are lackadaisical junkies it's immediately obvious that the trio have gotten used to fending for themselves.

The only mention of any father(s), meanwhile, is a passing, perhaps jokey comment by Toto about his dad, supposedly named "Cheetah", supposedly residing "abroad". A chaotic domestic situation has a predictably deleterious impact on Andreea and Toto's education, with the latter finding the best outlet for his youthful energies via an after-hours hip-hop dance-class. Toto's preparations for and participation in a body-popping tournament provides a certain narrative structure to the episodic picture, which begins and ends with Simnica's parole-hearings.

Nanau and his camera are right in among events in the children's crowded flat, a hazardous environment whose most immediate dangers include drug-users' needles and a home-made cooker constructed from a block of concrete and some coils of wire. What emerges is a briskly informative portrait of Bucharest's notorious Ferentari neighborhood, a zone which has evidently been overlooked by the relevant authorities for years, perhaps decades. There's also the issue of parental and quasi-parental responsibility, of course, and while some will feel little sympathy towards the undemonstrative Siminica and her rather livelier clan (she mentions that all of her relatives, bar one, have served jail sentences), the film provides quietly eloquent evidence against the imprisonment of single parents who have minors in their care.

As Ana declines into a painfully inevitable cycle of drug-abuse, self-neglect and illness, Andreea and Toto decide to relocate to an "day and night shelter for children" — sometimes referred to as an orphanage — as a short-term solution until their mother is finally freed. The ensuing footage of Andreea and Toto's new home doesn't match up to the internationally notorious reputation of Romanian "orphanages", Nanau's 2:1 widescreen images effectively combining the intimacy of close-ups with more discreet, telephoto-style sequences, as when Toto is spied happily practising his dance-moves.

This nice, unfussily observational little interlude is typical of Toto and His Sisters, which is all the more effective for never needing to underline the severity of its protagonists' plight. Strings are briefly heard on the soundtrack when the kids are playing in the snow near the end of the film, but Nanau clearly understands the concept of "less is more" — even if for the world's countless, poverty-blighted likes of Toto, less is never anything other than less.

Production companies: Strada Film, HBO Europe, Alexander Nanau Production
Director / Screenwriter / Cinematographer: Alexander Nanau
Producers: Bianca Oana, Valeriu Nicolae, Catalin Mitulescu, Marcian Lazar, Hanka Kastelicova, Alexander Nanau
Editors: Alexander Nanau, George Cragg, Mircea Olteanu
Sales: Autlook, Vienna

No Rating, 93 minutes