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A truly bad film
on 13 August 2014
ADVANCE WARNING - THERE ARE VERY MANY SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW
This film is hard to watch and not very enjoyable. As someone who prides himself on getting the most from demanding films, I was disappointed with myself and wondered why I struggled with it. Had I lost my Art House mojo? Was it time to rewatch some Jarman, Tarkovsky or Kieslowski? Thinking it over and reading reviews, I realise that, although the intentions of the film maker, cast and crew are no doubt sincere, the reason it is hard to enjoy is that it is quite simply a bad film.
These are the reasons, and I apologise for the spoilers in advance : if the film was attempting to show how a religious community loses its way and gets out of its depth when challenged by a vulnerable outsider, it fails (we don't understand anything about the dynamics of the monastery, its internal dysfunctions, whether it is a cult of personality, or just very poor, we get some vague hints about it being unconsecrated and at odds with the church authorities, but the central authority figure of the priest is a slightly weak, two dimensional character who fails to manage a difficult visitor).
If it was attempting to show a lesbian love affair going off the rails, it fails (there is next to no character development of the two protagonists, Alina has a major crush on her old girlfriend, Voichita isn't interested and only wants to be a nun, and that doesn't really change from the start to the end - Alina is clearly nuts, Voichita is clearly long suffering and unwilling to give it to Alina straight, that whatever it was that was on in their past, is now off. Period.)
If it was trying to show larger themes about Romanian politics, society or religion through the various characters and their relationships, it fails (we have tantalising glimpses of the orphanage background, the corrupt father, the psychatric hospital, the paramedics, the police, the ground-down brother, but very little of it goes anywhere or connects).
If it was trying to show us a portrait of poverty in a corner of one of Europe's poorest nations, it also fails (we have absolutely no idea of what the rest of the rural life around the monastery might comprise, again, an opportunity to get under the skin of rural/poor Romania just lost).
The many and various failures lie with the earnestness of the film, its worthy intentions, and consequent over indulgence with a script that makes the whole enterprise groan under the weight of its own unrelentingly grim and humourless drama. At 155 minutes, it is far far far too long, the crises with Alina's nervous breakdown are extremely repetitive and so for a very big section of the film, the dramatic pace lurches between brooding silence and near stasis to almost comic hysteria as Alina throws yet another fit and the nuns and priest are running around like Keystone cops trying to control her.
The dialogue, which is not all that well written, though that might be partly attributable to the subtitling, is long winded and revolves around nothing but the problem of Alina. This is a one trick pony. There are no subplots, nor very much that you could call light and shade nor discernable structure to keep your attention, nor relief, nor tangential characters, or even much action outside the confines of the convent. This makes for very tedious viewing, with occasional unfortunate lapses into unintended comedy. A scene in which there are so many nuns trying to strap the convulsing Alina to a makeshift stretcher you can't actually see the unfortunate girl is so long, so punctuated with incompetent reversals, panicky shouts for chains, it ends up being simply funny. The impatient doctor casually diagnosing Alina's death in a hurried rant while ticking off the weeping (and catastrophically miscast) paramedic is quite simply hilarious, if somewhat nightmarish.
The first couple of times Alina goes crazy you can just about hang on in there with the film. By the umpteenth time, you're really wishing she would get on with it and throw herself down the well, so you can go home. For film fans who are craving seriousness, this delivers gloom and despair in industrial quantities, unfortunately that is pretty much all you get and there is really no excuse for boring the audience. Its films like this that give the term 'Art House' a bad name. It's a great shame, because its an opportunity missed and there is talented acting from the two leads. About the only star I can award is for the cinematography, which is very good, as you would hope. If the script had been pruned to half its length, the dialogue sharpened up dramatically and the plot reworked to hold our interest, the film might have been tolerable. As it is, it's excruciating.