In Romanian helmer Adrian Sitaru’s “Domestic,” the intrusion of different animals into a domestic space — specifically, a dog, a chicken, a rabbit, a pigeon and a cat — sets off rapid-fire arguments, negotiations, recriminations and reconciliations. Sitaru, best known for his award-winning shorts (and 2011 Locarno prizewinner “Best Intentions”), constructs the film as a series of tragicomic vignettes set in the similarly laid-out flats of an apartment building. Filled with vivid characters (most thesped by Sitaru regulars) anxious to impose their confused vision on the chaos around them, the film finds both pathos and humor in absurdity. Its ambiguous tone, however, grounded in working-class Romanian mundanity, may nix wider distribution.
Largely shot from single fixed-camera setups within the relative intimacy of cramped rooms, the film revolves around the households of three men: Lazar (Adrian Titieni), Mihaes (Gheorghe Ifrim) and Toni (Sergio Costache). Lazar, a mild-mannered teacher and the designated building administrator, is introduced surrounded by angry residents all yapping at once, clamoring for the removal of a neighbor’s dog permanently housed in the hallway. Contentious overlapping dialogue continues on a smaller scale in Lazar’s kitchen when his wife (Clara Voda) brings home a live chicken. Joined by their 12-year-old daughter (Adriadna Titieni), they argue over who is going to kill it, financial and moral incentives flying back and forth until fowl blood spatters the adjoining bathroom wall.
Two close encounters of an animal kind trouble the dynamics of Mihaes’ family. The first involves a live rabbit destined for the Christmas stewpot, the bunny hastily explained away by Dad as a recuperating accident victim when his kid (Dan Hurduc) takes a shine to it. When the truth is revealed, it causes a rift in father/son relations, but a wounded pigeon improbably restores domestic equilibrium.
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The only family member who concerns Toni is the barely glimpsed Lidia, who appears to him in a recurring dream as a wife whom he no longer loves or recognizes since her accident — even though he has no wife, and doesn’t know anyone named Lidia. He puzzles endlessly over the dream. Meanwhile, he elects himself the pet problem-solver for the building, furnishing a cat for Lazar’s daughter and taking the troublesome dog to an animal shelter. But he regrets donating the feline, which indirectly causes a death, and when the dog escapes the shelter, Toni winds up with not one but three mutts.
Sitaru establishes a peculiar tone of matter-of-fact surrealism. The sudden, shocking death of one of the film’s main characters is casually announced in passing, while Toni’s recurring dream of an unknown person’s funeral is replayed multiple times, visually and verbally. And the rabbit-centric Christmas feast provides the occasion for Mihaes to expound at length on his theories concerning a Romanian Jesus Christ co-opted by Jews as a profitable tourist attraction for time travelers. Ifrim’s standout performance as the know-it-all, macho-posturing softie Mihaes grants particular fascination to his every pronouncement.
Pic’s modest production values befit the characters’ circumscribed existences. The fixed sobriety of Adrian Silisteanu’s camerawork, a departure from Sitaru’s usual p.o.v. pyrotechnics, lends a certain gravitas to the insanity transpiring within the frame.