5 December, 2023
Review of the Romanian movie Metronom
The Romanian Securitate person from Metronom interrogates the main character, who is a high school student (source: YouTube)

Alexandru Ionașcu

Winner of the Directing Award in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, Metronome is Alexandru Belc’s debut into the world of films over an hour. Alexandru Belc says he made the film both for young people born after 2000, also known as zoomers, and for those who lived before 1989 and have a nostalgic view of their youth – and his film “shakes them very strongly.” A film, so to speak, that contradicts the way love was portrayed in cinema before 1990, but also shows people of recent generations that whatever you did in those days, even if you were in love, it was all likely to be stopped by communist state security. As is usually the case when dealing with prolonged eras of the past, we can’t be sure whether cultural productions can change certain views of those past eras.

I must say that the plot of the film is appealing for its simplicity – high school classmates meet at a colleague’s home to listen to music broadcast on Free Europe, but their party is disrupted by the secret police. The reason? One of them sends a letter to Free Europe, but not just for musical dedications, but also to publicize the fact that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find books and music in socialist Romania, especially as party propaganda “slowly spreads its tentacles over our lives.” 

Leaving aside discussions about the veracity of such events (anti-communist partisans might point to the fact that in 1972, when the film is set, the theses of July 1971 had not yet had their full effect, which would happen in the following decade), it seems obvious to me that any reconstruction of the past is done from the perspective of the present. From this perspective, it is ironic that Alexander Belc does not notice that his film is ideologically oriented like The High Schoolers of the 1980s, which he says is based on ”erroneous” references and has many ”untruths.” A telling example of this is the scene in which Ana, despite learning that her friend Sorin is the one who sent a letter to Securitate, initiates a sexual act with him – what might be considered the ”sex in communism” category, one of the odd sensational continuities in anti-communist films. Due to the censorship and conservatism of pre-1989 society, how to have sex in communism became a topical issue for a number of filmmakers who attempted to represent the period with its changed signs and in terms of the sexuality of different social categories. Filmmakers are interested in the pressing question of how secretaries, students or workers had sex. And in “Metronome” we can find out how high school students had sex before the high school maturity exam. Interest in the subject in literature as well, see the first volume of Mircea Cartarescu’s Orbitor.

The film is also a partial resurrection of the figure of Cornel Chiriac and his role as a popularizer of Western music in socialist Romania in the late 1960s. “Metronom” is a film about the possibility of surviving love in the context of a closed society. Forced to seek refuge in the West, Cornel Chiriac remains as the man who, through his show also called Metronom (hence the film’s title), introduces local audiences to bands such as The Beatles and The Doors, as seen in the scene where youngsters listen to Light My Fire. The difference between films of this type and Alexandru Belc’s feature film is in the aesthetics of the interiors, and we can see what a typical home in a big city of this period (the biggest, in fact, as most Romanian films are set in Bucharest) looks like. We see how a communist home was decorated, the arrangement of the furniture and now forgotten decorations like trinkets or huge apartment bookcases – another now forgotten element of the apartment. But also lampshades, heavy old radios, black and white TVs. And let’s not forget the rotary landline telephone, a technology from the last century that is now on its way to becoming a museum piece. 

Alexandru Belc may find that while he wants to change the narrative of life under communism, to shake up nostalgic generations, the development of our mass culture and mentality is going in a different direction. Apart from the widespread nostalgia among the generations that lived most in the previous society, which is understandable given the social shifts of the transition, if we look generally at the emerging culture of the new generations after 2000, we can observe a curious landscape: the emergence of leftist publishers such as Dezarticulat, a publishing house that is far from the elitism that characterizes our cultural discourse, literary works that adapt the image of communist industrialization for Zumba lovers (cf. “Young and old alike enjoy watching the TV series Brigade Miscellaneous), as well as all the comedies of that period filmed in urban settings, and all say that no comedy actor or actress of today will ever equal those of the past. New films with an anti-communist bent don’t seem to make much inroads into the popular memory, which means they are easily forgotten once they appear in cinemas. You can meet people who reject four decades of authoritarian socialism wholesale, but who appreciate the New Year’s programmes filmed on public television at the time on the principle that communist humour has no vulgarity. It so happens that we see the reality of contradictory anti-communism.

My review is not only critical and I must say that I appreciate Mara Bugarin’s acting, her restrained performance fits like a glove into the stage minimalism of Alexander Belc, while Mara Vikol is on the opposite side – expansive and ready to combine learning with fun, as all high school seniors should do. Roxana (Mara Vikol’s character) doesn’t know what might ensue if you insert political allusions when writing about Free Europe; Ana’s dilemma is whether to sign the document of cooperation with the securitate, for which she is urged by the securitate played by Vlad Ivanov. And Vlad Ivanov is perhaps the best actor to specialize in negative roles since Gheorghe Dinica. Here he combines the good and bad securist in one character when dealing with youngsters. “Metronom” is the first Romanian film to criticize the past regime through the minimalism of the interiors, the rooms of the apartment that betray the emotions and moral issues of the female character. But an interior that can also be a place of freedom.

Foto:‌ Cuplul de la ”Metronom” (sursă:‌ IMDB)

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