“The Rest Is Silence” comes like a breath of fresh air at a time when it’s easy to assume, from fests’ picks, that (currently “hot”) Romanian cinema is all grungy, DV-shot, miserabilist dramas. Lively, witty widescreen costumer, about the making of the country’s first feature-length movie, is an intelligent crowd-pleaser made with affection for its characters and era. Ill-served at its Locarno world preem by being in competition, rather than the more populist Piazza Grande, “Silence” should create beaucoup noise locally, plus attention in cinephile territories like France. However, market realities mean this big-budgeter probably faces an uphill struggle elsewhere.
Opus in question is “The Independence of Romania” (aka “The War of Independence”), celebrating the 35th anni of the war against the Ottoman Empire. Funded by landlord-cum-theater owner Leon Popescu, the pic was shot and released in 1912, and ran an unheard-of two hours. (This was two years before D.W. Griffith’s “Judith of Bethulia,” then considered outrageously long at one hour.) Title was sold to several countries within Europe, including the U.K.
Caranfil, who wrote the first draft of his script back in 1988, has fictionalized the characters but remained broadly true to actual events. Less a biopic than a romantic period dramedy about the eternal conflict between business and art, “Silence” can be enjoyed with no knowledge of the real story.
Central character is Grigore Ursache (Marius Florea Vizante) — repping real-life co-director Grigore Brezeanu — who’s part of the new guard at Bucharest’s National Theater in 1911. Son of a well-known legit actor who’s now turned to drink, Grig is obsessed with making “the longest film ever produced” and joins a nascent film academy run by a rich, half-mad boyar, Leon Negrescu (Ovidiu Niculescu).
Pic takes a while to get down to business, but it’s time well spent with the characters, as well as sketching the prevailing Zeitgeist in which cinema was seen as a declasse, passing fad. Script is also very good at showing how moviemaking was then learned through trial and error: with no real knowledge of how to helm an epic, geeky Grig gets by on his biggest asset — ambition.
When Leon learns that a major French company — here called “Gaumonde” — is shooting a movie about the war with the Turks, he gets the authorities to confiscate and burn the footage, on the basis that it’s not accurate. He then steals the idea and gets royal backing for the project. (A funny, and pointed, scene has him trying to explain to the king what a “director” is, as the word didn’t exist in Romanian at the time.)
Word soon gets around that this could be something special, with even a snooty legit actress, Aristizza (Iona Bulca), signing up.
After post-production in Paris, Leon is appalled to learn the picture runs two hours, claiming it’s unsellable. But the pic’s a hit with buyers. Only Grig believes in the lasting value of the film, though it’s not until five years later, under German occupation, that he finally gets his revenge on the bonkers boyar.
With the acting cranked up a notch, and the whole pic shot in saturated, ochry colors, Caranfil shoots for a big, widescreen entertainment that generally hits the mark. Changes of pace include an interlude in 1.33 showing Grig learning on the job and trying to track down a mysterious beauty, Emilia (Mirela Zeta), who threads through the yarn as the love of his life, plus another interlude, in the form of a colorful cartoon strip, for the production team’s sojourn in Paris. Excerpts from the actual 1912 movie — of which 37 minutes were recently restored by Romania’s archive — pepper the running time.
Tech package is very smooth, with every cent up on the screen in Calin Papura’s detailed art direction, Doina Levintza’s handsome costumes and all the milling extras. Major kudos, too, goes to young French composer Laurent Couson’s sweeping symphonic score, which gives the movie an extra feeling of size and occasion.