Tag Archives: black comedy

Pirandellian black comedy set in 1959 Romania

Set in Bucharest A.D. 1959, “Closer to the Moon” (2013, written and directed by Nae Caranfil; released in the US in the spring of 2015,) is a Romanian, Polish, Italian, French, US co-production in English with handsome Brit Harry Lloyd (The Theory of Everything, Wolf Hall, Game of Thrones) as the innocent busboy, Virgil, who observes what is supposed to be a movie of a holdup of an armored car being shot. Except that it’s a real hold-up, and after its perpetrators, old-line (pre-WWII, wartime resisters of the Nazis) Jews, have been condemned to be executed, they are forced to appear in a propaganda film about the holdup they perpetrated. Yes, a movie about a robbery disguised as a movie. There are scenes from the 1960 Romanian black-and-white movie shown during the closing credits.


Before that, however, Virgil becomes a movie camera operator, and has a last-night fling with the woman of the group of disillusioned communists, Alice Berkovich (Vera Farmiga [Up in the Air, Goata]). The State Security official in charge of making the movie, who continues to investigate the crime even after five death sentences have been passed (Anton Lesser) has ordered Virgil to find out where Alice’s son is hidden and to find out why the robbers did it. The short answer to the second question is that they wanted to show that the state’s claim that crime had been eliminated in the worker’s paradise was false. Virgil goes with Alice when she escapes chaos on the movie set and visits her son, Mirel (very blond Marcin Walewski) but before Virgil can be pressed to provide answers to either questions, Holban is sacked by the minister (Darrell D’Silva).

The organizer of the heist, who becomes de facto director of the movie re-enactment, Max Rosenthal (Mark Strong, who reminds me of Jon Hamm; Strong played Jim Prideaux in the 2011 movie version of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) was married to the minister’s daughter, which led to an appointment as chief inspector of the Bucharest police. (The other conspirators to ridicule the Romanian state are history professor Yorgu (Christian McKay), newsman Razvan (Joe Armstrong), and astrophysicist Dumi (Tim Plester) who had been liaison to the Soviet space program in the Sputnik era, but had been replaced due to Russian/Soviet anti-Semitism. And Max is the father of Alice’s son.)

There is Pirandellian black comedy throughout the movie, especially in the re-enactment of the heist. The nominal director (Allan Corduner) is passed out drunk every day of the shoot (and, presumably, every day not of the shoot, too). Or, perhaps, it is Jewish gallows humor within a Pirandellian black comedy or is is Mittleuropa comedy?… The whole project is remarkably light-hearted a prelude to real execution, following a kangaroo court in which the defense attorney is barely allowed to complete a single statement or to question witnesses. The satiric comedy of the 2013 movie is definitely set within the tragedy of the Jewish communists disillusioned by the regime they were deeply involved in putting in power (tragedy both for them and for the people of the Socialist Republic of Romania, even before the predominance of Nicolae Ceausecu from 1965-89).

Noting that the Soviets had been able to launch a dog into orbit, but not bring him safely down, Max requested to be sent into space, rather than being shot by a firing squad, but his request is angrily rejected. (So none of the conspirators gets any closer to the moon than Dumi observing Sputnik launches in the Soviet Union.)

An effective soundtrack was composed by Laurent Couson, and Marius Panduru’s cinematography was top-notch, as was the acting, with Anton Lesser especially standing out as an oddly tragic functionary of the Romanian communist government.


©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Oscar-winning absurdist movie set in the Bosnian war

Filmed in Slovenia by Bosnian writer-director Danis Tanovic, “No Man’s Land” (Ničija zemlja, 2001) is set in Bosnia of 1993. A ragtag band of half a dozen Bosnian soldiers is lost in the fog with a guide who has never before tried to lead anyone to the Bosnian position at night. They decide to stop and wait for the dawn. The sun rises behind the Serbian (Yugoslavian) position. The Bosnians recognize the flag about the same time as Serbian guns open fire, seemingly killing all of them except for Ciki (Branko Djuric), whose uniform shirt is raffishly unbuttoned over a t-shirt with the Rolling Stones tongue.


Ciki dives into a deserted trench (the “no man’s land” between the Bosnian and Serbian lines). With the sun still low on the horizon behind them (and, therefore, blinding the main Bosnian force), a pair of Serbs — one experienced, one so new that no one yet knows his name — are sent out to check on the corpses. The veteran is soon a corpse himself, though not before booby-trapping the corpse of Ciki’s friend Cera (Branko Djuric). Nino (Rene Bitorajac), the novice Serbian soldier is captured by Ciki and Ciki is enraged that Nino does not know how to defuse the bomb that will be detonated by lifting Cera’s body – which, it turns out, is not lifeless after all. Cera was only stunned and now cannot move without blowing up himself and anyone nearby.

The situation of these three men provides plenty of absurdist humor of the Samuel Beckett kind. Enemy soldiers thrown together in Hollywood movies discover each other’s humanity or at least learn to co-operate (Hell in the Pacific, Enemy Mine), but this is not what happens in the former Yugoslavia (maybe it would have if Cera and Nino were on a roughly equal footing…)

Commanders from both sides can’t figure out what is going on out in no man’s land and call upon UNPROFOR, the U.N.’s military force, locally called Smurfs” because of their toy-like white armored vehicles and blue helmets (and their unwillingness to dirty their hands by doing anything). If Godot is at all like UNPROFOR, it is just as well the wait for him does not end in “Waiting for Godot.”


The UNPROFOR British commander (Simon Callow) wants nothing to do with the situation, but a French sergeant named Marchand (Georges Siatidis) close to the scene is tired of doing nothing and co-operates with a reporter for a CNN-like Global Television Network, Jane Livingstone (Katrin Carlidge), to attempt to rescue the three soldiers. One has to pay attention to realize the fullness of the catastrophe that results (since it is not shown).

The “locals” are far from reasonable, but they are babes in the woods in comparison to the profoundly cynical officers from NATO countries preoccupied with public relations. Livingstone (and Marchand) are after more than a story, but soon a herd of press jackals has assembled (echoing the media circus in Billy Wilder’s darkest film, “Ace in the Hole”). Ciki and Nino are united at least in contempt for the questions the reporters ask them.

I don’t want to reveal the insidious twists and turns of the confrontations of Ciki and Nino or how the outsiders’ presence plays out, beyond saying that no good deed goes unpunished.

Although it’s not my favorite foreign-language film of 2001 (“The Adventures of Felix” is that), this is the one that won the foreign-language film Oscar. (At least a quarter of it is in English, the lingua franca for communication to and among the UN forces.)

I think the swarming press is something of a cliché, but the rest of the film is brilliant black (very black) comedy. Tanovic notices natural beauty, but those familiar with the canon of films about trench warfare will remember what happens when the hero of “All Quite on the Western Front” reaches for a flower; that long-ago film was upbeat in comparison to this one.


©2002, 2017, Stephen O Murray