The Subtle Recipe of the Movie An Unforgettable Summer: Refusal of Melancholy
This article was given to “The Bridge of Friendship”, by its author – the Romanian film critic Marian Țuțui. The film “An unforgettable summer” is usually given by Romanians in conversations with Bulgarians as an example that the occupation of Southern Dobruja has been a mistake.
My favourite film by Lucian Pintilie was rejected by some Romanian critics who reproached the director for his lack of political correctness, relying on the subject and the source of inspiration for the film, a novel written in 1957. On the other hand, although it has been appreciated abroad, being even nominatated for the Cannes Grand Prix in 1994, several foreign reviewers did not understand some details and especially the historical context.
As in other films, but here more than ever, director Lucian Pintilie manages to reconstruct with lucidity, concision and talent a less glorious episode of the history of Romania and its army. Even if as Romanians we could suspect him of the lack of patriotism, even if we can be suspicious of the inspiration source we can not fail to notice the artistic instinct that made him lucid even with the epoch he admired most and to captivate us with a story we were inclined to reject. Although only Yugoslavia and the USSR have recorded interethnic wars after the fall of communism, the recurrence of nationalism has manifested itself all over, and Pintilie felt the need to provide an example of “post-communist re-balkanization of the Balkans”. This explains why the director was fascinated in 1993- 1994 by an almost forgotten episode of Romanian history.
I have serious objections to other films by Lucian Pintilie such as The Reenactment (Reconstituirea, 1970) and Why are the Bells Ringing, Mitică?/ Carnival Scenes (De ce trag clopotele, Mitică?, 1982). I like other films by Lucian Pintilie and my favorite one is An Unforgettable Summer (O vară de neuitat/ Un été inoubliable, 1994, France- Romania). Probably due its nomination for the Golden Palm in Cannes în 1994 it is also Pintilie’s most-watched film in France and abroad. On the other hand, although it has been appreciated abroad, being even nominated for the Cannes Grand Prix in 1994, I realized that several foreign reviewers did not understand some details and especially the historical context. That is why I shall have to explain some indistinct historical details to foreigners and even to Romanian youth.
We are dealing with a screening of a chapter of the autobiographical novel “Family Chronicle” (“Cronică de familie”, 1957) by Petru Dumitriu. The writer’s father was an officer while his mother, Theresa Debretzy was a Hungarian ethnic from Transylvania. In the novel and film there is a small change in the sense of embellishing the reality: Marie-Thérèse Von Debretsy was a Hungarian woman from a noble family in Hungary. The novel has been considered both a “masterpiece” and “one of the fruits of thaw (after Stalin’s death and the stopping of the works at the Danube-Black Sea Canal where many opponents of communism died)”, as well as a literary work according to the requirements of “the anti-nationalist communism of the authorities of 1957” and keeping some elements of “socialist realism”. Indeed, Petre Dumitriu attempted in some of his works to please the authorities in order to compensate the disavowal of having his father arrested for politics before the establishment of communism. In “Family Chronicle” hardly we can find such a thing. Unfortunately Petre Dumitriu and his novels are little known today due to the writer’s choices in life. Some Romanian critics have accused Pintilie of defaming the Romanian army, especially because his screenplay is based on a 1957 novel, an era of proletarian internationalism.
The film begins with a ball in Bucharest attended by Captain Petre Dumitriu (featured by Claudiu Bleonţ) and his spouse Marie-Thérèse Von Debretsy (Kristin Scott- Thomas). After his advances have been rejected by Marie-Thérèse, General Ipsilanti (Marcel Iureş) takes revenge on the captain by moving him to a garrison in Southern Dobrudja (Dobrudjan Quadrilateral) by the Romanian- Bulgarian border. The couple tries to adapt to the situation, but the captain confronts the enmity of his deputy, moreover the soldiers despise the spouses: him because of his monocle and her because of her Hungarian origin. After the murder and mutilation of eight Romanian soldiers, they take as hostages several local Bulgarians. Marie-Thérèse uses them for arranging the garden, serves them tea and insists to pay them. Finally, captain Dumitriu receives the order to shoot them. As there was no evidence of their guilt, he refuses to execute the order if not receiving it in writing. Consequently he was degraded. The story is told from the off by their son at maturity recollecting the events but, ironically for him, it has been an unforgettable summer, probably the most beautiful.
In fact, although the film is an accurate screening of an episode of Petre Dumitriu’s novel, director Lucian Pintilie succeeds to be quite objective in his the reconstitution of interwar Romania. The director confessed in an interview in Cannes in 1994 that he was a “monarchist” and that “The only historical epoch of Romania with which I identify myself a bit is this period of combining an economic boom, bourgeois liberalism and tolerance in thinking.” Although after 1990 we are witnessing a “post-communist nostalgia after the interwar period” of the majority of Romanian intellectuals eager to find historical and cultural landmarks, Pintilie does not have a “flattering perspective”, taking Petru Dumitriu’s historical episode less known and unfavorable to Romanian history. Looking for another case where a Romanian filmmaker has an accusative perspective on the history of his own country Andrei Gorzo concludes that “Aferim! has in common with An Unforgettable Summer the aspect of a “Balkan western”, the firm refusal of nostalgia, the focus on the description of a brutal-oppressive order and the compassion for the occupants of the lowest order of that society.” In this sense is significant the sequence in which a Bulgarian peasant, Petco (Ioan Gyuri Pascu) tells that when living under Bulgarian Tsar Ferdinand he was told that the Romanians are evil and now under the rule of Romanian King Ferdinand the Bulgarians are considered bad.
Even though we seem to be moving away from the analysis of the film, we have to detail a few chapters of Romania’s history. The first part of Romanian Communism, until 1957, was one of “proletarian internationalism” when the Romanians were taught that the Romanians had imperialist tendencies to conquer and exploit foreign territories, while during Nicolae Ceaușescu, in the era of “national communism”, the Romanians learnt to take pride in their historical past inclusively because they only defended their national territory and did not cling to conquests. Obviously, both arguments are exaggerated. For such reasons the episode of the taking of Southern Dobrudja from Bulgaria between 1913-1940 is less well known by the Romanians and even those who know it do not objectively evoke it. Even in 1938 the topic was sensitive as the sentimental comedy Bargekeepers Daughter/ Éducation de prince (1938, France, d. Alexander Esway) could not be screened in Romania although it starred the famous French actress of Romanian origin Elvire Popesco (1896- 1993) because she plays the Queen of Silistria. “Silistria” was an invention of dramatist Charles Maurice Donnay which bantered Balkan countries and its name reminds of “Silistra”, the biggest town in Southern Dobrudja.
Confusion also increases due to terms. The Vlachs colonists in Southern Dobrudja are often called “Macedonians” in Romania because they come from historical Macedonia. “Macedonians” are also named in the film the members of the Bulgarian nationalist gangs (“komitadji”) attacking the Romanian soldiers because at that time they were militating for the annexation of Macedonia to Bulgaria. Obviously, foreign reviewers and even some Romanians failed to understand who is fighting with who or why if Romanian soldiers are attacked by Macedonians, they are retaliating on Bulgarian peasants. Indeed, European and Balkan history are quite complicated, even more complicated when it comes to small nations.
Surely the novel about Dobrudja in 1930s awakened Pintilie’s memories of his native province Budjak, with a similarly burned steppe landscape and also a mixed population territory that has changed its rulers. However, unlike other Romanian intellectuals, Pintilie is hardly ruled by melancholy and remains lucid.
Although there is no reference when the action of the film takes place we can understand that from several details. Captain Dimitriu refers to the times when he fought in the second Balkan war (1913), mentioning that it was 10 years before. On the other hand the Vlach settlers came to Southern Dobrudja in 1925. Also somebody in the film reads in French the sixth volume of Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time that was published in 1925.
Captain Dumitriu, his wife, their children and little dog seem strange for the other people. The captain seems presumptuous due to his monocle while his wife is Hungarian, a representative of the nation that has constituted one of the traditional enemies of the Romanians. The captain had participated in occupying Budapest during the intervention against the 1919 communist revolution in Hungary. There he met his wife saving her from being raped. We find out about Marie-Thérèse’s background from an old woman who gossips about her while she dances at the ball. The 1919 events are quite fresh for the characters. Hungarian prostitute Erji (Beatha Fülop) shouts “Long live Béla Kun!” while General Cilibia (George Constantin) asks Dumitriu if his wife is a communist due to the fact that he heard that her family had given away their land to the peasants. When Marie-Thérèse uses the Bulgarian prisoner peasants to sow salad on a dry ground she is strange, but when she insists to pay them becomes even bizarre. The young woman plays the piano and speaks in French to her children in the middle of a barren landscape, so even her son, after many years, concludes that she was embellishing things, presenting them in an attractive light, so a modest hill nearby she called “Fujiyama”. She is a memorable character precisely for her resilience to hardship and her force to raise the morale of her children and husband, she behaves like a real mother although she looks like a fashionable townswoman, not adapted to life in an isolated place. On her turn Kristin Scott Thomas, although she does not know Romanian, proves she is a great actress because she has a remarkable role. We can say that her performance in the role of a Romanian woman in the 1920s equals that of an English woman involved in a fateful love affair at the time of the outbreak of WWII in Anthony Minghella’s famous film The English Patient (1996), for which she won an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. But Claudiu Bleonț as Captain Dumitriu is a bit too caricatured and unilateral, although the actor has shown in other films the ability to approach complex roles. As usual with Pintilie, the other actors are very well chosen. For example Marcel Iureș in the role of General Ipsilanti is perfect. Not accidentally, the actor will immediately become an international star with memorable roles of Russian in Mission: Impossible (1996, d. Brian De Palma) or Serbian terrorist in The Peacemaker (1997, Mimi Leder) or German Nazi officer in Hart’s War (2002, d. Gregory Hoblit).
The movie starts with a point of view shot in which the spectator swings with the rider on the galloping horse. The off-comment is the child who has become mature and remembers his mother and the hill Fujiyama. After that one can hear the voice of the rider who calls his horse by its name. A few minutes while the horse runs to the Danube we see the credits of the film. During that time we hear a sprightly music of harpsichord, an inspired choice of musician Anton Șuteu. We see the rider only after the credits. Surprisingly, it is not a main character, but lieutenant Turtureanu (Răzvan Vasilescu) who had galloped to catch the ferry in order to arrive in time at the ball. It is a sign that the filmmaker does not retrieve either the child’s naive perspective or the conclusive one after many years from the events, as the director of photography Călin Ghibu sometimes plays with various perspectives, so the camera remains ubiquitous and objective. The narrator’s voice is only heard again in the end. On the other hand, the lieutenant’s words anticipate the theme and the whole story of the film: “You can imagine that I am sick of the Bulgarian peasants, the frogs, the Danube, and the komitadji! I am also longing for an hour of civilized life.”
The novel offers to Pintilie a lot of poignant details which give to the text enough ambiguity for a noteworthy writing. If we consider some of them we might notice both a kind of melancholy for the interwar period when Romania was at its maximum economic and political development, as well as elements of social criticism. In fact, even if we can suspect writer Petre Dumitriu of these trends, it is not the case here of director Lucian Pintilie. The director takes over from the novel the images with the execution of the Bulgarian peasants while a ladybug drowns in the salad dressing. He adds a very concise and complex scene in which Marie-Thérèse calls them to pay for their work and then they go to the interrogation. At one point a peasant is summoned by the lady, but hears his name called by a soldier for interrogation. He hesitates, not knowing where to go. Pintilie thus manages with minimal means to suggest the absurdity of the peasants’ condition and the inadequacy of the woman’s charity. Another example of multilayer image with overwhelming effect upon the audience is that where Captain Dumitriu leaves the building where he had been taken the command of the company and goes to his house. He moves together with the camera and one can see in the foreground the Bulgarian prisoners sapping in the garden, while in the third plan one can see the Romanian soldiers doing rifle exercises. The chosen landscape, music score, sets (Paul Bortnowski and Călin Papură) and costumes (Miruna Boruzescu) have a significant contribution to the faithful reconstruction of 1930 Romania. We can add a possible symbolic image for the Romanian intellectuals: it is the one in which Marie-Thérèse (Kristin Scott-Thomas) sleeps in the field wrapped in a blanket, her arm under her head slightly oblique, reminiscent of Constantin Brâncuși’s sculpture <Sleeping Muse>”. A recent study looks for such symbolic images in some recent Romanian films and considers that in this case Pintilie realizes “a figuration of endangered (European) values” or that such “artistic references … reveal the tension between an external and internal image of Romania, the aspiration of the <other Europe> to connect with the European cultural tradition, in a complex demonstration of a <self-othering> process.”
As in other films, but here more than ever, director Lucian Pintilie manages to reconstruct with lucidity, concision and talent a less glorious episode of the history of Romania and its army. Even if as Romanians we could suspect him of the lack of patriotism, even if we can be suspicious on the inspiration source we can not fail to notice the artistic instinct that made him lucid even with the epoch he admired most and to captivate us with a story we were inclined to reject. That is why we can talk about an unforgettable story, a screen magician and catharsis.
The 1989 bloody revolution and some unfavourable TV broadcasts about orphan children’s homes in the 1990s brought Romania to the attention of the world. Subsequently, Romania’s accession to NATO (2004) and to the European Union (2007) undoubtly contributed also to a better understanding of Romanian culture. It can be said that the New Wave filmmakers contributed to this by making remarkable and intelligible films for the foreign audience, but also benefited from a context in which Romania became a more interesting country.
We can conclude that the case of the movie An Unforgettable Summer is somewhat significant for the older generations of Romanian directors who have benefited less from a favorable context or who have approached difficult topics and have used a less intelligible language for foreign audiences. Although only Yugoslavia and the USSR have recorded interethnic wars after the fall of communism, the recurrence of nationalism has manifested itself all over, and Pintilie felt the need to provide an example of “post-communist re-balkanization of the Balkans”. This explains why the director was fascinated in 1993- 1994 by an almost forgotten episode of Romanian history. Suddenly, given the ethnic conflicts in the neighbors, Romania again became a Balkan country that is unstable and vulnerable, if not more than that.
Photo: Screenshot from the trailer of “An Unforgettable Summer”
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