'Why Me?' ('De ce eu?'): Berlin Review

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Hard-hitting but heavy-handed portrait of power

Romanian director Tudor Giurgiu returns to the Berlinale with a bitter legal thriller based on a real-life case of political corruption

Kafka comes to post-Communist Romania in writer-director Tudor Giurgiu's third fiction feature, which premiers in Berlin's Panorama Special section this week. Why Me? is a thinly disguised dramatization of the life of Romanian state criminal prosecutor Cristian Panait, who died in shady circumstances in April 2002 after taking a stand against powerful vested interests. He was just 29.

A Romanian, Bulgarian and Hungarian co-production, Why Me? opens domestically at the end of February. Glossy-looking and solidly crafted, it will clearly have audience appeal at home and in the neighboring region, where the Panait case still has recent historical resonance. But it feels too local in theme and too conventional in style to generate much overseas interest, lacking the originality and bite that propelled the best of the Romanian New Wave onto the world stage over the past decade.

Darkly brooding hunk Emilian Oprea plays Cristian Panduru, a young college lecturer and hotshot prosecutor who is being groomed by his bosses for fast-track promotion. Offered the career springboard of a complex corruption case against Bogdan Leca (Alin Florea), a fellow prosecutor who had previously been involved in pressing smuggling charges against prominent political dynasties, Panduru initially seizes the chance. But he soon has doubts about the case, suspecting he is being used as a pawn in a murky power game orchestrated by the security services and crooked government insiders.

Panduru is an idealist with strong moral convictions, but also a cold-hearted womanizer who cheats on his partner Dora (Andreea Vasile) with his female students. When he withdraws from the Leca case on principle, he is frozen out of his job, slapped with trumped-up criminal charges and menaced with vague threats of blackmail concerning his colorful private life. Consumed by paranoia, he suspects everybody around him of being a spy or a traitor. His lone stand against injustice ends tragically.

A prolific director, producer and founder of the Transilvanian Film Festival, Giurgiu was also briefly in charge of Romania's state broadcaster before resigning under political pressure. This was part of his motive for dramatizing the Panait case, seeing in it a more tragic echo of his own, and a broader allegory for post-Communist Romania in general.

As a film-maker, Giurgiu does a competent job, though Why Me? feels more like an upscale TV drama than a fully realized movie: indeed, HBO Romania is listed as a co-production partner. Clunky exposition abounds, with too many table-thumping showdowns in smoke-choked, tobacco-stained rooms.

Panait's death was officially recorded as suicide due to schizophrenia, and Giurgiu takes the bold step of filming at the exact location where he died. Conspiracy theories still persist that he was killed by dark forces. In any case, soon afterwards, Romania finally disbanded its secret police and jailed dozens of politicians for corruption. Why Me? is not the full story, but a worthy attempt to tell part of it.

Production company: Libra Film
Cast: Emilian Oprea, Mihai Constantin, Andreea Vasile, Lucretia Mandric, Alin Florea, Dan Condurache
Director: Tudor Giurgiu
Screenwriters: Loredena Novak, Tudor Giurgiu
Producer: Oana Giurgiu
Cinematographer: Marius Panduru
Editor: Lemhenyi Reka
Music: Viktor Chouchkov
Sales company: Heretic Outreach, Athens
Unrated, 130 minutes