'White Gate' ('Poarta Alba'): Transylvania Review

This historical drama lacks the specifics that would set it apart from its labor camp-set brethren.

Romanian director Nicolae Margineanu's latest follows two youngsters who end up in a labor camp and are forced to work on the construction of the Danube-Black Sea Canal in 1949.

CLUJ-NAPOCA -- A couple of youngsters who try to illegally swim across the Danube border end up in a grueling labor camp in White Gate (Poarta Alba), the latest film of 75-year-old Romanian filmmaker Nicolae Margineanu (Bless You, Prison).

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Shot in stark black-and-white, the resolutely bleak film details the wretched reality of the first attempt at the construction of a Danube-Black Sea canal in the late 1940s, during the early days of Communism, when political prisoners held at the eponymous Romanian labor camp where forced to work on the planned waterway. The feature, based on the books Cousin Alexandru from Adrian Oprescu and Explaining Torture from Florin Constantin Pavlovici, might interest history nuts based on a short synopsis but somewhat oddly, the film fails to include a lot of specific detail, resulting in something that feels like it could be set anywhere in Europe. After a modest festival tour, this will mainly be small-screen fodder.

A somewhat plodding prolog introduces the teenagers Adrian (Cristian Bota), Ninel (Sergiu Bucur) and Anuca (Madalina Craiu), who try to cross the border at night unseen by swimming across the river. However, the boys are intercepted by a patrol boat before they reach the other shore and Anuca tragically disappears.

Adrian and Ninel are taken to the White Gate penitentiary, where they are forced to become part of a labor gang made up of political prisoners that’s digging out a part of the future canal in an especially rocky stretch of terrain. To make matters worse, their direct overseers are actual criminals also held at the camp who like to indulge in cruelty just because they can.

The screenplay, written by Margineanu and Oana Maria Cajal, gives viewers the expected scenes of hardship, physical violence, lack of food and terrible hygiene and sleeping conditions in the barracks, all of which might underline what the prisoners had in common with countless others in labor or concentration camps elsewhere -- as seen in countless other movies -- but which have the unfortunate side effect of making this particular tale feel rather generic.

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There are only a few ideas here that feel pertinent to the experience as it happened in Romania in the late 1940s and early 1950s, including the introduction of a former judge who sentenced many of the people to labor in the camps and who in turn became a political prisoner, forced to do the same work -- it’s not a spoiler to suggest he doesn’t get a warm welcome but the director handles this subplot with tact -- and a breathtaking scene set during a rare visit of family members to the camp, where a young man can’t bring himself to answer a girl who came to visit him and who asks what they’ve done to him.

The latter is one of the precious few scenes that imaginatively plays with what’s off-screen and left unsaid and the result is both powerful and unsettling. The boy is speechless and can’t answer the apparently straightforward question from across the room -- they’re sitting on benches lined up against the opposite sides of the walls -- firstly because the guards wouldn’t allow him to suggest he’s being maltreated but secondly and more importantly, he simply can’t get himself to speak about what has happened to him and the longer his silence becomes, the more the off-screen specter of something truly horrible is allowed to grow in the minds of the viewers.

However, it’s never a good sign when a film’s most imposing scene involves a minor character and Margineanu has problems in finding the balance between the stories and welfare of his protagonists and those of the ensemble players that surround them. This has partially to do with young Bota and Bucur’s acting prowess, which isn’t bad but not very distinguished either, allowing them to blend in too much into the crowd.

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The convenient presence of a monk (Bogdan Nechifor) among the detainees allows Margineanu to work in some religious imagery -- also present in his earlier work -- and the story’s framed by a voice-over narration that explains the 2007 discovery of the fact that a fresco of Baby Jesus in a Bucharest church actually showed the Savior with a typical labor-camp attire. But even so, the religious material feels mostly tacked on and a potential discussion of the morality of labor camps or political prisoners is largely absent.  

The black-and-white photography by Mihai Serbusca is adequate though, unfortunately, not the same can be said of the film’s period recreations. Too often, there’s a sense that the makers were under the mistaken impression that, because the film’s in black-and-white, audiences wouldn’t notice that certain period details such as items of clothing or props aren’t correct. But not only are they very noticeable, they occasionally are so distracting the story starts to float in a kind of strange, ageless vacuum rather than reinforcing its historical veracity.  

Production company: Ager Film
Cast: Cristian Bota, Sergiu Bucur, Bogdan Nechifor, Ion Besoiu, Constantin Cojocaru, Virgil Aioanei, Madalina Craiu, Marius Turdeanu
Director: Nicolae Margineanu
Screenwriters: Nicolae Margineanu, Oana Maria Cajal, screenplay inspired by the books
Cousin Alexandru by Adrian Oprescu and Explaining Torture by Florin Constantin
Producer: Nicolae Margineanu
Director of photography: Mihai Serbusca
Production designer: Nicodim Dumitru
Costume designer: Cristina Milea
Editor: Nita Chivulescu
No rating, 100 minutes