Everybody in Our Family

It's time to coin a new phrase for a certain kind of Romanian cinema: the bathroom-sink drama.

With: Serban Pavlu, Sofia Nicolaescu, Mihaela Sirbu, Gabriel Spahiu, Tamara Buciuceanu-Botez, Stela Popescu, Alexandru Arsinel, Paolo Lagana.

It’s time to coin a new phrase for a certain kind of Romanian cinema: the bathroom-sink drama. Like its kitchen-sink cousin, bathroom-sink dramas are intimate affairs revolving around domestic disputes; the action needn’t take place in a toilet, but there’s a scatological edge that adds a piquancy to dialogue reflecting the maturity level of a toddler. Radu Jude’s sophomore feature, “Everybody in Our Family,” is an ideal example, thrusting auds into the bosom of a toxic household containing one actual child but many superannuated ones. Fests now have their required Romanian title of the season.

Other hallmarks of the genre are a volatile instability in family relations, outlandish passive-aggressive behavior and claustrophobic handheld lensing that traps viewers between characters whose high level of tension forces out laughs as the only means of awkward relief. The laundry being washed in public isn’t simply dirty: It’s soiled with years of corrosive animosities that have burned holes straight through the domestic fabric.

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As with his previous pic, “The Happiest Girl in the World,” Jude keeps the action (developed from his short “Alexandra”) restricted to one day. It’s an early summer morning and Marius (Serban Pavlu) wakes up in his pig-sty bachelor pad with swear words already on his lips. The smell of old clothes and slightly fresher beer bottles practically wafts across the screen as he hurriedly exits and cycles to his parents’ house where he’s picking up dad’s car.

Marius went through a caustic divorce that allows him limited access to his 5-year-old daughter Sofia (a stunning Sofia Nicolaescu). He’s using his parents’ car to take her to the seaside for the weekend, but first he has to negotiate the controlling egocentrism of his father (Alexandru Arsinel) and the food as love infantilization of mom (Stela Popescu).

Arriving at his ex’s house, he’s warm with her mother, Coca (stage legend Tamara Buciuceanu-Botez), and frostily tolerant of the new man in the house, Aurel (Gabriel Spahiu). Former wife Otilia (Mihaela Sirbu) is at the beauty parlor, and Coca and Aurel think Marius should wait until she’s back before taking Sofia away, especially as the little girl had a fever the night before. The girl seems fine and he’s eager to get going, but Aurel literally bars his way and fighting begins.

The point of no return is reached after Otilia gets back. The former husband and wife exchange horrifically nasty barbs, and she calls the cops claiming domestic violence. That’s when Marius loses all control, gagging and hog-tying Aurel in irrational desperation.

In the middle of this is Sofia, who’s picking up the mixed signals and playing games of her own. Coca tries to calm things down by saying they’re all grownups and should behave accordingly, but there isn’t a grownup in the entire pic, and Marius and Otilia are far more prone to tantrums than their daughter is. Never has Philip Larkin’s line about “mum and dad” been so on target.

Verisimilitude, one of the celebrated traits of Romanian cinema, is starkly on show, yet a snag with bathroom-sink dramas is their storm-in-a-teacup limitations and the complete absence of any sympathy for these monsters. Chuckles are generated by Marius’ ballistic breakdown, but it’s a cruel humor that stems from humiliation and misery.

As in “Happiest Girl,” Jude reveals a remarkable facility with the Romanian language’s potty-mouth flourishes; subtitles can only approximate the astonishing creativity of such vulgarity. As always, the thesps are frighteningly real, and little Nicolaescu more than holds her own. It’s truly astonishing how the helmer managed to draw out this kind of unself-conscious perf from so young a tot.

Andrei Butica’s lensing is always up front and personal, inserting itself into the family nexus where it tightly swerves from one dysfunctional figure to another. Like a curious kid pressed to granny’s chest, the camera has the freedom to take everything in but can’t escape her iron grip.

Everybody in Our Family

Romania- Netherlands Romanian dialogue

Production: A HiFilm Production, Circe Films, Abis Studio production, with the participation of SRTV, Teleclub, HBO Romania. (International sales: Films Boutique, Berlin.) Produced by Ada Solomon. Co-producers, Stienette Bosklopper, Gabi Antal. Directed by Radu Jude. Screenplay, Jude, Corina Sabau.

Crew: Camera (color), Andrei Butica; editor, Catalin F. Cristutiu; production designer, Elsje de Bruijn; costume designer, art director, Augustina Stanciu; sound (Dolby Digital), Dana Bunescu, Simone Galavazi; line producer, Valentino Rudolf; assistant director, Cristina Iliescu. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Forum), Feb. 12, 2012. Running time: 107 MIN.

Cast: With: Serban Pavlu, Sofia Nicolaescu, Mihaela Sirbu, Gabriel Spahiu, Tamara Buciuceanu-Botez, Stela Popescu, Alexandru Arsinel, Paolo Lagana.

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