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ARRAS 2019

Review: Cărturan

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- Liviu Săndulescu’s feature debut is a captivating meditation on mortality

Review: Cărturan
Vlad Popescu and Teodor Corban in Cărturan

After a world premiere in the international competition of the Warsaw International Film Festival and a domestic release last Friday, Romanian director Liviu Săndulescu’s feature debut, Cărturan [+see also:
trailer
interview: Liviu Săndulescu
film profile
]
, is currently competing in the European competition of the Arras Film Festival (8-17 November). The film is a flawed, somewhat repetitive, but still compelling meditation on mortality, with a very watchable performance by Teodor Corban (One Floor Below [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Radu Muntean
film profile
]
).

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We meet the film’s protagonist, Vasile Cărturan, in the very first frame. A tired 60-year-old, he returns to his village, and we soon find out from a conversation with his neighbours (Dana Dogaru and Cristina Flutur), who have been watching over Cărturan’s grandson Cristi (Vlad Popescu), that he went to the city in order to investigate some mysterious pains in his stomach. What Cărturan doesn’t say right away is that he has been given only a few months to live. The man sets out to put his affairs in order, with finding a foster family for his orphaned grandson among the biggest challenges he faces.

What is truly impressive in Cărturan is that the screenplay, written by Săndulescu together with Bogdan Adrian Toma, is completely devoid of fatalism. The quiet protagonist seems to have accepted his fate the moment the doctors gave him the diagnosis and proceeds to tick off each and every entry in his to-do list. There is something incredibly stoic, austere and serene in how he faces up to his mortality, and that is maybe the biggest strength of the story, with Corban’s discreet, honest performance giving depth and humanity to a character whose powerlessness in the face of death actually becomes his main asset as he relates to the other characters.

With its roots deeply embedded in the range of social-drama topics favoured by the so-called Romanian New Wave, Cărturan finds time to discuss corruption, bureaucracy and the system’s inability to cater to some of the bare necessities of its citizens. The film also explores a somewhat anecdotal conflict between the protagonist and the village priest (Adrian Titieni, probably the Romanian actor with the most impressive collection of supporting characters under his belt), who is reluctant to officiate an almsgiving ceremony while Cărturan is still alive.

Unfortunately, some of the directorial choices make the film feel too staged, as too many of the shots are irritatingly static, with two or three characters sitting at a table and talking. Even their lines are somewhat repetitive, as many characters state their inability to help Cărturan or understand his plight. More often than not, there is an exaggerated contrast between the extraordinary nature of the protagonist’s situation and the banality of his encounters, which might surprise and even frustrate the audience. When Cărturan receives the coffin he ordered from the village carpenter, he jokes: “Are you sure I’ll fit in it?” We never do find out if he fits, but the story definitely seems designed to fit certain pre-programmed requirements that clip Cărturan’s wings and limit what it could have ended up being.

Cărturan was produced by Mandragora (Romania), and co-produced by Swedish companies Film i Väst and Doppelganger. The film was released in Romania by Mandragora’s distribution arm, Iadasarecasa.

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