(2016; writer/director: Ana Felicia Scutelnicu; language: Romanian; co-production with Germany; original title: Anişoara)
Ostensibly a coming-of-age film, Anishoara documents a year in the life of the titular 15 year old, as she finds first love and eventually forges a path towards independence and adulthood. But while the girl Anishoara is the visual and narrative focus of the film, it feels instead like a chronicle of a way of life, a time capsule of rural Moldova as yet forgotten by the march of modernity.
Moldova is another entry on the list of countries which are not exactly renowned for their cinematic output. The Soviet era did see the production of well-received films such as Emil Loteanu’s 1972 romance Lăutarii, but when Anishoara was listed in my local film festival the choice of Moldovan film for the blog was an easy one; the film is beautifully shot and confidently produced, with an ethnographic perspective that offers a rich window into village life in one of Europe’s most neglected corners.
The plot, as such, is minimal. The film opens with the telling of a folk tale about a beautiful princess who fell in love with the sun, forgoing all other suitors. Mortally burned by her lover’s embrace, she regenerates into a starling, forever trying to reach the sun before falling to earth again. Enter Anishoara (Anishoara Morari), possessed of an unselfconscious beauty and a quiet but palpable presence. The film follows her through four seasons of her teenage life in a small Moldovan village, with each season culminating in a proposal and a rejection, before she gains the means to strike off on her own. The folk tale is thus more of a thematic frame than a literal metaphor: Anishoara, like the starling-princess, is a beautiful girl who rejects all suitors in search of an (unattainable?) ideal, a girl who wants to fly.
While the shifting of the seasons and Anishoara’s coming of age offer the semblance of a linear narrative, the film is more concerned with capturing a fixed time and place. Director Scutelnicu is openly captivated with the raw, self-contained beauty of both Anishoara and her village, having featured both in her previous short feature Panihida. A testimony to Scutelnicu’s enthrallment, the film is immersed in sensory details of the village life: the sounds as Anishoara uses hands and feet to apply mud to her home’s walls. The texture of mist, of cigarette smoke, of the steam from a horse. Anishoara’s grandfather’s wizened, toothless face. The ripple and rattle of wind through a field of bobbing sunflower heads. The sounds of birds, of frogs, of insects. The processing of corn by hand.
And yet, although richly evocative, the camera’s intense gaze is also impassive, keeping the viewer at a psychological remove. We may be offered a window into Anishoara’s life, but little is revealed about the inner workings of her mind or the emotional currents of the village. It is as though the fleeting moment director Scutelnicu seeks to capture – a girl on the brink of adulthood, a way of life in a remove village – has been cast in amber, preserved and observable, but temporally sealed off.
This temporal displacement is discernible in Scutelnicu‘s intention to “[share] with the public an almost silent and introvert sight on the human ages, the passing of time and the importance of moving out of the weight of existence.” And while time may pass in the film, it is a pre-modern time, governed by the rhythms of the seasons and the cyclical logic of folk-tales (such as that of the starling-princess, ever rising and falling). Anishoara acts to mythologise the present as though it is already long past.
The film presents a world rooted in the old, on the cusp of the new. Tractors, motorbikes and buses have not entirely taken over from bicycles, horses and pony-carts. Traditional costumes are worn at Easter, and young people still turn out for village celebrations with traditional folk dance and songs. There are no televisions. The carousel at the funfair is rickety, and Anishoara is the only passenger. Church spires are the sole vertical challenge to the vast empty landscapes.
And yet this is not a world outside of our own – modernity exists simultaneously, just elsewhere. Why, otherwise, are there no working age people in the village? Have they disappeared to jobs in the city, or to larger farms as demanded by the march of industry? A jarring intrusion of the modern into the village occurs when a German tourist (William Menne) sets his sights on Anishoara. His visit to a salon to get his grey dyed a synthetic black, wearing a leopard-print hairdressers cape, could have been anywhere in today’s Europe, and is a reminder of both Anishoara and her village’s vulnerability.
The film’s almost documentary-like quality does raise questions about the reality of the way of life portrayed. While some of the actors are professionals, many are non-professionals from the village, whose ‘characters’ share their actual names. Scutelnicu describes the screenplay as “an open form… developed while shooting and reacting to the real life happening in front and behind the camera. The editing was also long and special, as the film had to be recreated and found new out of the material.” This certainly suggests a degree of genuineness to the culture and practices depicted, rather than an attempt to exaggerate a bygone pastoral simplicity for romantic effect.
Indeed, the impassivity of the film’s gaze has been praised for neither romtanticising nor debasing Anishoara or her village. Moldova has the lowest GDP of any country in Europe, and is the only European country ranked below ‘high human development’ in the Human Development Index, and it shows. Anishoara and her family are poor. But they are not abject. The shops have little in them, but the village and surrounding countryside is beautiful. Anishoara seems to take pleasure in many aspects of her life and culture.
On the other hand, Scutelnicu does not shy away from hinting at some grimmer undercurrents to the girl’s life, particularly at the hands of men. Her grandfather threatens to “thrash her little bum”, and his drinking buddies joke about forcing themselves on her while she listens, rigidly upright in her bed in the next room. German visitor Mr. Schmidt leeringly places a wedding veil on her head, and even boyfriend Dragos (Dragos Scutelnicu) turns out to have a wife and kids back home in the next village. But despite the lingering threat of assault, it never occurs. As Variety‘s Jessica Kiang writes,
“more often than not the dramatic thing does not happen, merely the truthful one. And the truth here is that these lives are neither ennobled nor impoverished by the lack of werewithal; they simply are, as they have always been.”
This lack of drama could easily have made for a dull film, particularly as the film’s removed and observational quality means very little is actually revealed about Anishoara’s thoughts and emotions. There is minimal dialogue, and such as there is is desultory, as meaningful as silence. And yet Scutelnicu nevertheless achieves a charged atmosphere. Glances, environments, and even non-events come to take on a deeper significance: Dragos takes her on a trip to the ocean for the first time (Moldova is landlocked), but the chilly desolation of the wintry beach and the boredom of simply hanging out undercuts the romance. A visit to a cliff-side with ancient carvings while clouds speed in the blue sky overhead is an echo of the dreamy, mystical peril of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. And even if none of the men’s threats actually eventuate in assault, the matter-of-factness of their existence would itself be enough to understand Anishoara’s decision, at the end of the film, to get into a yellow bus and drive it off into the sunrise.
The film reminds me of a style I associate with Sofia Coppola – luminous, visually rich but with a firm emotional separation between viewer and characters. In Anishoara as in The Virgin Suicides or Marie Antionette there is a similar impression of surface beauty and implied threat, where the viewer can neither touch nor intervene; there are hints of an interior life that can be guessed at but never fully known. (Are there films like this about men? Or is it always women, young women, who are beautiful, ephemeral, vulnerable with their penetrable bodies but sphinx-like with their impenetrable minds? A stray thought, I digress…)
Scutelnicu has created a beautiful, subtle film in which her gaze is a presence almost as tangible as those it observes. She shares with the viewer a young girl’s confrontation with her surroundings, without drama or explanation, offering witness to a way of life and a youthful innocence that is on the brink of being lost. The film was a great way to learn about Moldova – “a regional film without kitsch” (as Scutelnicu’s previous film was described), with detailed and dignified depictions of folk customs, agricultural practices, and what young people do (or don’t do) for fun. It was a particular privilege to see, in such detail, the beautiful Moldovan landscape throughout all four seasons – the clusters of run down houses in rocky valleys, the buttery sun on rolling fields in the steppes, the thick layers of snow in the winter.
But I can’t help wishing that the viewer was allowed more access to Anishoara’s inner life. What does she dream of? What makes her happy? Who is she really? Who are any of the villagers, when you scratch the surface? In this sense I don’t feel like I really got to know Moldova – I know what it looks like now, but not what makes its people tick.