A man’s obsession with the mystery surrounding his wife’s disappearance furnishes a fascinating study in denial in Romanian director Andrei Gruzsniczki’s oblique, near-minimalist feature bow, “The Other Irene.” Like a cross between “The Vanishing” and “Jeanne Dielman,” the pic follows its unassuming nice-guy protagonist through the minutiae of his rounds as night watchman, as devoted husband and finally as dogged seeker of an acceptable “truth,” steadily building emotion through detail and a tautly restrained perf by Andi Vasluianu. “Irene” may not be at the forefront of the new Romanian cinema, but it reps proof of its depth and vitality.
When Aurel (Vasluianu) discovers his wife Irene (Simona Popescu) has accepted a three-month job in Egypt, he impatiently counts the days until her return. Irene reappears — radiant, sensual and intent on duplicating the luxuries she knew in Cairo — only to suddenly rush off again, much to hubby’s bewilderment. Aurel is getting ready to meet her plane when he receives a phone call announcing his wife’s suicide. After a stunned moment, he proceeds to the airport as if nothing happened, waiting with flowers in hand for his no-show wife.
By night, a lone Aurel wanders the deserted shopping mall he patrols, telling no one of his loss, not even his misogynistic colleague (Dan Astilean). By day, he haunts the musty corridors of bureaucracy, buttonholing inspectors, diplomats, medical personnel and translators, unraveling the facts behind his wife’s case and growing increasingly angry when his improbable suspicions of slave trading and illicit business dealings are met with reports of drug abuse and love affairs. Even when her mummy-wrapped body is opened at her parents’ house, he refuses to accept that the woman in the coffin is Irene.
Aurel’s plodding progress through functionaries’ offices, while not dissimilar to the successive hospital rooms traversed by the character in “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” yields an entirely different dynamic: Just as he is dwarfed in the hollowness of his mall, Aurel is completely alone in his conviction that his wife is not deceased despite overwhelming evidence.
Yet as testament to the strength of the pic’s theme — and of Vasluianu’s perf — many in the audience will join Aurel in his denial to the bitter end; the fact that the film is based on a “true story” has led some to demand, in post-screening Q&As, what further steps have been taken on behalf of the bereaved husband’s claims.