Elegiac docu "Close to Heaven" proves originality isn't necessary for a good nonfiction feature when the helmer has a great visual sense and a sympathetic subject.

Elegiac docu “Close to Heaven” proves originality isn’t necessary for a good nonfiction feature when the helmer has a great visual sense and a sympathetic subject. Fortunately, Titus Faschina has both in spades as he follows a shepherd family through the seasons in a remote area of Transylvania’s Carpathian Mountains. Observational rather than informative, the docu records a way of life on the brink of extinction, making for a valuable as well as moving record. Attractive black-and-white lensing (with a final color shot) would have been even richer on celluloid, though fests and ancillary won’t fuss much.

Two majestic crane shots that practically bookend the docu capture the locale, spreading out across the hilly pastoral landscape east of Sibiu. Sheep farmer Dumitru Stanciu lives with wife Maria and 16-year-old son Radu on a large property which they only partly cultivate, since they lack the manpower necessary to fully exploit the fields. The Stancius are practically the last of a breed, using methods and implements more likely to be found in a heritage village than on a working farm. Most of the neighbors sold their land, and the family is now fairly isolated in the mountains; Radu is one of only four kids left in the local school.

Faschina divides the docu into seasons, beginning in summer with sheep shearing, cheese making and the like. Autumn sees Dumitru and Radu standing guard over their flocks, dressed in enormous traditional woolly coats and sleeping in huts next to their animals. Winter is the most difficult period, as harsh weather further isolates the Stancius, who all sleep in the same room to keep warm.

The outside world makes only fleeting appearances, such as at religious festivals (probably the only times Maria eats a meal she hasn’t cooked herself), or when Dumitru gets his horse shod at the blacksmith’s. Auds are likely to feel a hole in the material, given the lack of scenes showing Radu at school or Dumitru selling his wares in town, though this choice serves to highlight the family’s self-sufficiency and isolation.

Lenser Bernd Fischer gets as much texture out of the digital black-and-white as he can, but it’s hard not to imagine what it would have looked like on film. Still, Faschina has an eye for memorable compositions, which occasionally recall the work of master landscape photographers. Music, influenced by folktunes, is well adapted to the moods of each season.

Close to Heaven

Romania-Germany

Production

A Ma.Ja.De Filmproduktion, Europolis Film, MDR production, in association with Arte, in collaboration with SRTVA. (International sales: Deckert Distribution, Leipzig.) Produced by Thomas Ciulei, Heino Deckert. Directed, written by Titus Faschina.

Crew

Camera (B&W/color, HD), Bernd Fischer; editor, Martin Eberle; music, Alexander Balanescu. Reviewed at Transylvania Film Festival (Romanian Days), June 10, 2011. Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Dumitru Stanciu, Maria Stanciu, Radu Stanciu.

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