‘The Oak’: A Post-Communist Pinwheel
A frenetic farce about the last days of Romanian communism, Lucien Pintilly’s “The Oak” is set in a world so devastated that Hieronymus Bosch’s landscape might seem idyllic by comparison. I’m here.
First shown in 1992, nearly three years after the execution of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, and one year after the new constitution replaced a single-party system, “Oak” was released at the Film Forum 1 It was repaired and revived over the course of a week. In the decades that followed, its power hardly abated.
After the death of her father, a former secret police colonel, a deranged and seemingly insane Nella (Maia Morgenstern) departs from the dingy Bucharest apartment they shared, carrying her father’s ashes in a Nescafe jar. Enter and head to Copsamaica. A town in Transylvania where she was hired to teach.
The place is a citadel of pollution – industrial and other. Nella is sexually assaulted by a gang of drunken workers. After she is dumped in a hospital bed (her previous occupant unwittingly moved onto her floor), Nela meets her kindred soul in Mitika (Razvan Vasilescu). An equally unrestrained Mitika avoids her bribes and physically attacks her boss. The pair team up in a sporadic anti-authoritarian conspiracy.
As the highly impulsive Nella, Morgenstern delivers a performance that is as anarchic as the film. (It’s a bit of an irony in film history that this whirlwind actress is best known for her somber portrayal of Jesus’ mother in “Passion of the Christ.”) Her cohort.
Punctuated by sudden explosions, random mayhem, screams, swearing, and phone rings, “The Oak” is not only incredibly busy, but incredibly dark. Trains stall, bridges flood, trucks crash. The army is in constant training. The hospital doubles as an ossuary. Officials are also ineffective in self-treatment. Ordinary people are pointlessly belligerent.
Movies can be tiring at times, but never boring. Admittedly, the pace is confusingly dizzying. In his review for The Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “I don’t know which one is better.”
pintillyHaving passed away in 2018, he has been called the godfather of Romania’s new wave. ‘The Oak’ is the absurdity of the journey to the end of the night, found in Christy Puiu’s ‘The Death of Mr. provided a template. ”(2007). In addition, “Oak” is a reference to Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica’s Balkan uproar in “Underground” (1995), Alexei Jarman’s “Khrustalov, My Car!” (1998) and Armando Iannucci’s “Stalin Death” (2017) political slapstick.
However, unlike those three films, “The Oak” has a quality of personal exorcism. Created on Pintilly’s return to Romania after years of self-imposed exile, the piece is a piece of rage in a bottle. The film’s insane energy suggests that Pintilie, who had been personally banned in some of his earlier films by Ceausescu, is piercing the dictator’s heart so much that he’d be better off dancing on his grave.
At the Film Forum in Manhattan from April 28th to May 4th, filmforum.org.