The Oak Review: Lucian Pintilie’s Carnivalesque Almanac of the Romanian Fall

The film is concerned above all with capturing the mood of a pivotal historical moment.

The Oak
Photo: Making Waves

“That’s life” is often heard throughout Lucian Pintilie’s adaptation of Ion Băieșu’s novel The Oak. It’s such a sweeping response to the grotesqueries that mark everyday life amid the death throes of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s dictatorship, during which the film is set, that it practically becomes a shibboleth. The words may seem little more than a verbal shrug, but in the mouths of Pintilie’s characters, full to bursting with lust for life, they express a liberatory side of absurdism that goes beyond mere politics. That the meaning and the mechanisms of their lives are unknowable is as much cause for jubilation as despair.

Fittingly, The Oak opens with a death—that of Truica (Virgil Andriescu), former colonel in the Securitate (Romania’s secret police agency during its communist regime) and father to Nela (Maia Morgenstern), the film’s protagonist. As his caretaker, Nela projects for him a homemade film of her birthday party, in which a young Nela rejects several gifts before swiping her father’s unloaded pistol. She roves from room to room, pretending to shoot the party guests as they fake comically exaggerated deaths, one face-planting directly into the cake.

There’s a black humor to the film that’s already at work here, as not only can we surmise that Nela’s father is likely responsible for any number of state-sanctioned killings, he himself croaks before the film-within-the-film ends. This scene condenses the themes of The Oak: life and death, tragedy and comedy, and the power of film to shed light on their inextricability.

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Across The Oak, Nela flips from a state of lethargy to grief-fueled rage to manic exuberance. First she’s seen despondently chain-smoking cigarettes, before later doling them out at the slightest pretext to anyone she stumbles across. When Nela tries unsuccessfully to fulfill a stipulation of Truica’s will, that his body be donated to science, an administrator tells her, “It is not bodies we lack, but refrigerators”—one of the absurdities that abound under communism—so she has him cremated and, for the rest of the film, lugs his ashes around in a coffee canister.

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Truica then travels aimlessly into the countryside. After being raped by a group of factory workers, which seems hardly to faze her, she ends up at a hospital where she meets a surgeon, Mitică (Răzvan Vasilescu). The two are sympatico in their irrepressible liveliness and disdain for authority, moving in together without discussion. The plot becomes meandering and episodic as Nela involves herself in Mitică’s plan to give a former patient and dissident utopian, Titi (Ionel Mihailescu), a religious—therefore frowned-upon by authorities—burial.

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The flimsiness of the membrane separating life from death is the source, paradoxically, of the ebullience that courses through the film. Titi’s funeral, held in his home village, is an excuse for the buffoonish fop of a mayor (Victor Rebengiuc) and the adulterous, motorcycle-mounted country priest (Dorel Vișan) to carouse together, even spar philosophically over the role of the Romanian peasantry under communism, a doctrine that paints them as diametrically opposed.

The film’s characters, down to the police officers who hardly take seriously their crumbling authority, are manifestations of a pervasive mania. It may be that Pintilie and Băieșu are less concerned with finely shaded characterization than capturing the mood of a pivotal historical moment. The actors wholeheartedly embrace that mood, bursting into an uncontrollable laughter that’s emblematic of The Oak. If Pintilie’s style recalls Emir Kusturica’s and, by extension, Federico Fellini’s, it’s because all three channel a carnivalesque spirit rooted in medieval peasant traditions. And, like laughter, the film’s naïve utopianism is infectious, demanding that we live as though life were worth it in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

Score: 
 Cast: Maia Morgenstern, Răzvan Vasilescu, Victor Rebengiuc, Dorel Vișan, Virgil Andriescu, Ionel Mihailescu  Director: Lucian Pintilie  Screenwriter: Ion Băieșu, Lucian Pintilie  Distributor: Making Waves  Running Time: 105 min  Rating: NR  Year: 1992

William Repass

William Repass’s poetry and fiction have appeared in Bennington Review, Denver Quarterly, Fiction International, Bending Genres, and elsewhere. For links to his published writing, click here.

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