NOT often does a Romanian movie travel from its native land to a major film festival in the West. And it's downright rare for such a picture to appear in a regular American movie theater.
This makes "The Oak," a new film by Romanian director Lucian Pintilie, something of a news item quite apart from its qualities as an energetic "road movie" and a scathing social satire about life in Romania before the recent revolution. The first official co-production between Romania and France to be completed in the past 14 years, it was shot in Romania with French financing and technical aid. After showing at the Cannes filmfest last spring it played the New York Film Festival a few months ago and has
now made its American theatrical premiere.
Mr. Pintilie has described "The Oak" in terms recalling Dante's extraordinary "Divine Comedy," summarizing the picture as "a journey through infernal circles, through successive catastrophes." Yet while the film indeed contains more than its share of catastrophes, it also has a furiously sardonic edge, seeing its chaotic events through the eyes of a Romanian woman who can scarcely believe the bizarre realities of her own society.
The heroine is Nela, a young teacher who lives with her father - a former officer in the secret police - in a ramshackle apartment. Her first adventure comes after her father's death, when her attempt to donate his body to science (in keeping with his wishes) is thwarted by bureaucrats who inform her that they have enough cadavers at the moment.
Nela heads disgustedly for a new home in Bucharest, only to be attacked and badly injured. The good that comes from this is a new friendship with Mitica, a physician who cares for her, and whose own rebelliousness becomes clear when he insists on saving an eccentric old patient after the bureaucrats have declared he should be abandoned. When he dies despite Mitica's help, Nela and Mitica decide to bury him in his hometown, and set off with the police hot on their trail.
Their journey culminates in a burst of violence more explosive than anything they have seen before, but ends on a note of hope as the companions meet under the branches of an oak tree and look ahead to the next stage of their relationship.
The combination of savagery and satire in "The Oak" has its roots in Pintilie's outrage at conditions in Romania under former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who ran the nation with an iron fist and a good deal of sheer incompetence.
Under that regime, Pintilie's artistic career was as strange as Nela's odyssey in some respects, since a number of his films and plays were banned and then unbanned by censors who apparently didn't know what to make of them. Pintilie also spent many years working in Western Europe, where he relished the freedom to follow his inspirations. He returned to Romania when the authorities softened their hostility and invited him home - only to ban his subsequent movie for a decade, until the revolution allowed
it to be shown and to become a hit with the Romanian public.
Pintilie is not pleased with the situation in Romania, even after the revolution; he has criticized the people for reverting to their communist leanings and showing an unhealthy taste for submission to authority. His anger shows through every scene of "The Oak," which paints a portrait of unrelieved national and personal craziness. It is not a smooth or diverting movie to watch, and its metaphors are sometimes hard to follow. As a document of artistically expressed social rage it is quite fascinating, ho wever, and the passion of its feelings is unmistakable. One hopes Pintilie's latest project, a film adaptation of "The Penal Colony" by Franz Kafka, arrives promptly on American screens once it is completed.
* `The Oak' has no rating, but contains a good deal of mayhem as well as moments of sexual violence and a frequently squalid and unsettling atmosphere.