Eight and another one

Concurs, Dan Piţa, 1982

Dan Piţa’s Contest hit the screens only in 1982, after 2 years of confrontations with the Communist censorship, in a cinematographic atmosphere that had as parameters Mircea Daneliuc’s The Cruise (1981) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). The Contest is neither of those 2 and a bit of both. With the idea having followed the director since his college years when the script had a different name, “The Forest”, the film reified more than 10 years later, with an impressive soundtrack by Adrian Enescu, a screen piercing cinematography by Dan Păunescu and memorable performances by the well known Ştefan Iordache, Gheorghe Dinică, Marin Moraru, less renowned names, coming from the theater’s stage, and Claudiu Bleonţ in his first main role in a feature film.

A social critique, a parabola, a spiritual journey, a film metaphor, that came when the Communist Party was doing everything possible to put its people into boxes. As a few other cinematographic productions, The Contest drilled a hole in that box, just enough for a ray of light to break in. Comparing to Nicolae Steinhardt’s chronic, maybe no other lines ever written on a paper, or virtual paper for that matter, could do justice to the film. But this review is not about justice, is more about the film’s 35 years from its premiere and its universality when put face to face with the ageing process. About how the social critique of a specific regime can be understood still as a social critique of our contemporary society, even after more than 20 years from the Revolution; and maybe not even a critique, but more of a radiography of the human condition.

The film plays with silence and noise, with natural and industrial, with leafs, feathers, and concrete, with pure and corrupted, with sacred and profane love, with life and death, revealing the faces behind the masks, the grotesque behind the norms, with black and bitter humor.  Using an outdoor orientation competition as a pretext to throw the competitors in the middle of a labyrinthine forest, and in the middle of their own souls, Dan Piţa challenges the viewers not only to decipher the multiple symbols (the white horse, the forest, the compass, the hens, the wedding, the snake, the tunnel, the dead body in the end), but to confront themselves with something that they might become, or already are, without noticing. It’s not that they aren’t “good people, but they have no qualities” or on the contrary, they aren’t “good people, but they have qualities”. It could be a journey of purification, an awareness process, a map to one self, to one’s soul, but they lose their compass; so the participants return exactly the way they left, or maybe they do rediscover themselves, but their souls had already been corrupted.

They’re told the forest is hospitable, that its gates are open for everyone, yet people have died in the forest, a rape is happening, there are mad dogs, snakes, and after 7 pm mines start detonating, turning the scenery from idyllic to apocalyptic.

One of the members is ill, so a young man has to fill the gap, even though he doesn’t know the signs, their signs. The Kid is set from the start as an outcast, as the one who is not (yet) a member of the amorphous mass of the corrupted souls. He carries their bags, he jumps over gulfs, he saves them from dangers, he almost drowns, he brings them back from the abyss, and he leads them to the right path without any compass because his interior compass is still intact. He does not speak more than it’s absolutely necessary, he doesn’t complain, argue, or lose his temper, while the others run around in circles, yell at each other, accuse one another, eat like they have never seen food before. They lose their compass and with it, every sense of direction. Out of their usual working habitat, they start to show their frustrations, their fury, their obsessions, their anxieties, their true selves behind the dutiful image. And they are human… They are human typologies (e.g. Mitică – the crook), which makes it possible for them to be the person before us in a queue, the person next to us on the bus. They once probably were as innocent as the Kid, but the constant insecurity, the lack of direction, the rules that they were too afraid to break, the image that they were too afraid to stain changed that. The universality of the film stays exactly in the fact that it could be anyone, anywhere anytime, they don’t have to be Romanian or Communist, the same symptoms of repression and emotional outburst be felt by anyone when mundane needs and pseudo-values weight more than spiritual ones.

And then they scream. The rape’s victim’s horror screams, which the group only tries to find only to say that they tried, but still be able to write in the report that there is “nothing new on the West front”; Lavinia’s hysterical scream, the silent scream of Tatiana and the Kid’s final scream when finding the woman’s dead body. After being silent for the whole film, this is not a spontaneous reaction, but an interior scream of helplessness so intense that it cannot be contained anymore.

It might be a film about hope, or faith, only … not for the group. The young figure of the Kid comes from nowhere, on its bicycle, followed by a white horse, and leaves the same, fading into a cloud of mist with his gold rain coat waving behind him. He tried to save them, but they refused to be saved. Yet, his sole existence could be a sign of hope, maybe the next group will be saved, or maybe the next group will corrupt him as well.

Review by Maria Mantaluta

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