'Medal of Honor'

Six years after his impressive feature debut, "Maria," Romanian-born, German-raised helmer Calin Peter Netzer returns with a less stygian riff on his native country's post-Ceausescu woes. Buoyed, like "Maria," by strong lead performances -- here, theater vet Victor Rebengiuc and actress Camelia Zorlescu -- "Medal of Honor" recalls typical Central Euro yarns, as a pensioner finds he's suddenly awarded a decoration for a WWII act of heroism he hardly remembers. Drily humorous pic takes a while to work its spell but, as the ironies mount, becomes thoroughly engaging. Further fest kudos and smallscreen tributes loom.

Six years after his impressive feature debut, “Maria,” Romanian-born, German-raised helmer Calin Peter Netzer returns with a less stygian riff on his native country’s post-Ceausescu woes. Buoyed, like “Maria,” by strong lead performances — here, theater vet Victor Rebengiuc and actress Camelia Zorlescu — “Medal of Honor” recalls typical Central Euro yarns, as a pensioner finds he’s suddenly awarded a decoration for a WWII act of heroism he hardly remembers. Drily humorous pic takes a while to work its spell but, as the ironies mount, becomes thoroughly engaging. Further fest kudos and smallscreen tributes loom.

Film dominated the awards at the recent Thessaloniki fest, winning five gongs, including special jury award, script and actor (Rebengiuc) from the main competition jury.

It’s December 1995 as the country gropes around in a post-Ceausescu hangover and the heating still isn’t working in the apartment that the comically named Ion I. Ion (Rebengiuc) shares with his wife, Nina (Zorlescu). Apparently a born loser, Ion plugs on with his life, despite the fact that both Nina and their grown son, Cornel (Mimi Branescu), now in Canada, haven’t spoken to him in six years.

Everything changes when Ion gets a letter that he’ll be awarded a commemorative medal by the president to celebrate the 50th anni of the end of WWII. But when he tries to find out what the medal is for, the Veterans’ Assn. says it’s nothing to do with them and the Ministry of Defense says he has to submit a request in writing.

Lensed in wintry colors, but with a cinematic feel derived from producer/d.p. Liviu Marghidan’s effortless use of widescreen, the intimate film gently piles on the ironies as it portrays Ion’s everyday world of eccentric neighbors, stifling bureaucracy, drab city environs and Romanians’ bad behavior to each other.

At its midway point, the pic starts to open out as Nina, deciding Ion isn’t such a loser, starts to talk to him again; she had initially clammed up when Ion ratted to the secret police that Cornel wanted to emigrate illegally.

Even Cornel finally decides to visit his family with his Canuck wife and child, and the heating is fixed in Ion’s apartment. But then a bombshell is dropped.

Rebengiuc is terrific as the gentlemanly retiree who never had an unpatriotic thought; ditto Zorlescu as his sturdy wife. Their scenes together, as they start communicating again, are warmly shaded by both thesps, and the pic’s finale adds a last, touching irony.

Pacing is a tad leisurely in the first half, and could be improved by discreet nips and tucks.

Medal of Honor

Romania-Germany

Production

A Scharf Advertising, HBO Romania (Romania)/Pandora Film (Germany) production, in association with ZDF/Arte, Teleclub. (International sales: Hifilm, Bucharest.) Produced by Liviu Marghidan. Executive producer, Ada Solomon. Co-producer, Karl Baumgartner. Directed by Calin Peter Netzer. Screenplay, Tudor Voican.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Liviu Marghidan; editor, Catalin F. Cristutiu; art director, Mihnea Mihailescu; costume designer, Alexandra Ungureanu; sound (Dolby Digital), Cristian Tarnovetchi, Alexander Weuffen; associate producer, Gabi Antal. Reviewed at Thessaloniki Film Festival (competing), Nov. 15, 2009. Running time: 103 MIN.

With

Victor Rebengiuc, Camelia Zorlescu, Mircea Andreescu, Ion Lucian, Radu Gabriel, Radu Beligan, Costica Draganescu, Mimi Branescu.

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