A farmer and his three children cope with unending workloads as they struggle to preserve a normal family life in Thomas Ciulei’s gently compassionate and beautifully composed docu “The Flower Bridge.” Shot between January and April in the Republic of Moldova, pic follows Costica Ahir, whose wife went abroad three years earlier to help pay for a better life for her husband and kids. Ciulei presents lives of constant toil, yet his is no downbeat assessment but a moving, dignified look at a proud family shaped by the land. Fests will do well to link up with this “Bridge.”
Winner of the Romanian feature award at the Transylvania Film Festival, Ciulei’s docu begins with snow on the ground and chicken pox in the house. First to succumb is the youngest child, Alexie, but soon the two daughters, Maria and Alexandra, come down with the disease and Costica worries that he, too, may get ill. Under normal circumstances, such a prospect may not seem disastrous, but as the sole adult on a working farm far from the nearest doctor, such a scenario could have major ramifications.
Luckily, he’s spared, but it’s a forceful indication of the fragile nature of their lives. Perhaps the situation was easier before his wife left for Italy to get a decent job so the children could be sent to a good school; Ciulei makes her a constant offscreen presence, though he keeps her situation oddly mysterious: Auds understand she’s waiting for documents to return to Moldova, but no further explanation is given.
While the family has a phone and a computer, the house itself is starkly furnished, and the farming techniques haven’t changed for centuries. Costica assigns the day’s chores like a coach addressing his team, painfully aware that, “in a way, I’m stealing their childhood.”
Still, within this life of cyclical labor, Ciulei shows the warmth of the family’s interactions, whether in the solicitousness with which Costica asks the children every afternoon about their school grades, or in the roughhousing between Maria and Alexandra. Fully conscious of the burdens he’s placing on his kids, Costica miraculously infuses his home with a sense of familial affection and support.
While Ciulei’s previous docu, “That’s It,” took a more generalized view of the harsh realities in a small town, his intimate portrait here allows for a greater buildup of identification and emotion. Though he’s not heard, he doesn’t attempt to hide the filmmaking process; Costica occasionally addresses the camera directly, giving a rundown of recent events and concerns. The device works just fine, though viewers wanting more information than the immediate focus provides may feel frustrated.
Besides Ciulei’s terrific feel for the landscape, itself a vital element of the Ahirs’ lives, the helmer has a marvelous compositional eye, finding simple beauties to achieve a balance between the often overdone dreariness of Balkan life and the opposite tactic of making impoverishment look quaint.