Quod erat demonstrandum Review

Andrei Gruzsniczki's handsome black-and-white drama takes an involving look at two academics targeted by the secret service in 1980s Romania.

Not only the physical elements of mid-1980s Romania are captured in “Quod erat demonstrandum,” but also the intangible atmosphere of cautionary hope, fear, and betrayal that permeated that society. Andrei Gruzsniczki’s sophomore feature, handsomely shot on black-and-white film, takes a progressively involving look at two academics who have run afoul of the Securitate (Romania’s secret service), revealing the compromises of the soul that many were driven to under the regime. While more dynamism would improve its modulation and drive, this is a solid, rewarding picture that doesn’t feel like a retread. Rome’s jury prize could boost widespread fest play and possible limited Euro theatrical exposure.

Perhaps most remarkable is the way Gruzsniczki (“The Other Irene”) and his team re-create the period. Outwardly, there are the pitch-perfect production design and costumes, coupled with anything-but-casual glimpses of life at the time: lines of cars waiting to fill up with gas, periodic blackouts, people selling empty bottles to scrape by. Beneath the surface, mistrust and dissatisfaction reign; friends betray one another, and the possibility of connecting to the world outside Romania’s borders has the draw of a Holy Grail. It remains to be seen whether enough time has finally passed for audiences at home to want to revisit this period, always a stumbling block for local play.

Colleagues know that mathematician Sorin Parvu (Sorin Leoveanu) is a visionary, but he’s not a member of the Communist Party and is unwilling to play along with the establishment, so he’s still without a Ph.D. He’s also sent an article about a new theorem to an American journal without going through the proper authorities. The Securitate classifies him as “an individual who maintains deceitful relations with people in foreign states,” and Alecu Voican (Florin Piersic Jr.) is put on the case to dig around.

Elena Buciuman (Ofelia Popii), an old friend of Sorin’s, works in computers and is trying to join her husband, an academic who went to France for professional reasons and never came back. Despite reassurances that the government doesn’t stop family members from joining relatives abroad, it’s clear the Securitate is throwing up obstacles to prevent Elena and her son David (Marc Titieni) from emigrating. Alecu, a rigidly doctrinaire investigator who’s frustrated that he hasn’t been promoted, is also assigned to Elena.

Sorin’s former classmate Lucian (Dorian Boguta) is an informer enjoying the perks of collaboration, such as trips abroad, access to luxury goods, and a nice apartment. Alecu ropes him in to reconnect with Sorin, and also to secretly check on whether a new theorem Sorin wants to publish abroad is important. Lucian mentions that Sorin harbors feelings for Elena, just the kind of info Alecu can use as he looks for weaknesses to exploit.

No one thinks Sorin’s theorem has anything to do with national security; it’s an academic proof, pure and simple. But Alecu’s pursuit, backed by his superiors, speaks to the paranoia of the late Ceausescu regime, when personal bonds were played upon to weaken relationships and encourage betrayal. “Quod erat demonstrandum” — the Latin phrase, often abbreviated to QED, is used at the end of a mathematical proof to denote its successful conclusion — forcefully demonstrates the corrosive nature of the Securitate’s tactics, wearing away at peoples’ sense of friendship while offering Faustian rewards.

Gruzsniczki doesn’t condemn these characters, appreciating (in certain cases) how disloyalty could be rationalized; he’s also aware of the enduring psychological burden that results from such actions. His is hardly the first film on the subject, yet the theme continues to be compelling, and while comparisons will be made to “The Lives of Others,” this film takes a very different approach, distinguished by quiet characterization. Some may feel it’s too quiet, at least in the first half, but the sense of fateful compromise slowly builds, and a late scene at the airport is bursting with tension.

Leoveanu and Popii are known for their stage rather than cinematic work, yet they’re ideally cast and exhibit zero theatricality. Leoveanu’s initial colorlessness — the stereotypical math nerd — suits the role and disguises the strength of will inside, which comes out clearly without a shift in tone. Popii nicely captures Elena’s determination, along with the tension that increases each time Alecu slyly adds another obstacle, surmountable only by playing his game. She does what she has to for her family, yet it’s a difficult bargain. Few familiar with Piersic’s previous work (such as “Killing Time”) would have imagined him as Alecu, but his transformation is impressive, perfectly capturing the contradictory nature of a rigid man adhering to the system while frustrated he’s not rising further.

Black-and-white visuals have a suitable matte range, allowing for gradations in shadow and tone that wouldn’t have been possible on digital or color stock. Cristian Niculescu’s production design is uncanny, and Gruzsniczki does a commendable job integrating thesps with their surroundings in a way that feels completely natural. Svetlana Mihailescu’s costumes add another level of authenticity.

Film Review: 'Quod erat demonstrandum'

Reviewed at Rome Film Festival (competing), Nov. 11, 2013. Running time: 107 MIN.

Production

(Romania) An Icon release and production, with the participation of ABIS Studio, HBO Romania. Produced by Velvet Moraru.

Crew

Directed, written by Andrei Gruzsniczki. Camera (B&W), Vivi Dragan Vasile; editor, Dana Bunescu; music, Pedro Negrescu; production designer, Cristian Niculescu; costume designer, Svetlana Mihailescu; sound, Florian Ardelean; sound mix, Florin Tabacaru, Titi Fleancu; assistant director, Paolo Lagana; casting, Lagana.

With

Sorin Leoveanu, Ofelia Popii, Florin Piersic Jr., Virgil Ogasanu, Tora Vasilescu, Marc Titieni, Dorian Boguta, Alina Berzunteanu, Lucian Ifrim, George Alexandru, Ada Zamfira, Paul Ipate, Mihai Calin, Dan Tudor, Medeea Marinescu, Razvan Popa, Adina Cristescu, Ana Popescu.

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