The hallucinatory, contradictory musings of a young man’s mind are the jumping-off point for Bogdan Mustata’s intriguing debut, “Wolf,” a mood piece of intermittent potency that still manages to get under the skin. Made with assistance from a dream team of workshops and funds — Sundance Institute, Cannes Cinefondation Atelier and Torino Film Lab — the pic is the antithesis of Romanian realism in the way it plays with levels of reality, weaving in and out of the teen’s active, haunted imagination. Consciously Nouvelle Vague at times, with echoes of Polanski and Bertolucci, “Wolf” will prowl around fest sidebars.
Mustata leaves unclear what’s actually happening and what’s inside the mind of Lupu (impressive newcomer Mihai Vasilescu), a 16-year-old struggling with the usual hormonal urges. He’s got eyes for Clara (Ada Condeescu), a vixenish flirt whose interests lie elsewhere. Added to the mix, his father’s death just over two years earlier still hits him hard, and now his mother (Carmen Ungureanu) is seeing another guy.
Within this fraught atmosphere, the air made heavier by the summer heat, Lupu imagines his father (Costel Cascaval) among the living, at times as if they’re all still a complete family. The boy also fantasizes about Clara lounging around in panties or putting her head flirtatiously on a level with his crotch. Other possible imaginings include an elderly couple (the late actor/director Sergiu Nicolaescu in his last role, and Camelia Zorlescu) who live upstairs and seem to be falling apart in equal measure with the building.
“Wolf” (the translation of the boy’s name) toys with perception in feverish ways, with Lupu’s desires transcending reality and his longing for paternal stability creating fantasized states. Repetition forms a key element, such as recurring scenes of Lupu watching David Attenborough’s “The Life of Mammals,” always at the same spot, when a hunter pays tribute to the animal he’s just killed. Could this tie in with his dead father? Or perhaps it feeds a potential Hamlet-like scenario in which Lupu contemplates his mother as Gertrude. According to the director, all interpretations are valid, since he wants audiences to enter into the film with their imaginations firing.
The experiment works on some levels, especially in the way Mustata captures the hothouse atmosphere inside Lupu’s mind and outside in the scorching streets and heat-filled apartment building. It’s not clear, however, that the director knows how to close his story, shifting into heightened emotions and an antiquated confluence of orgasms and death that make the finale feel forced.
Condeescu’s unattainable, erotic Venus doesn’t have much scope for character development, but the fast-rising actress has the teasing swagger down pat and knows the power of her physicality. Vasilescu, looking like a Bruce Weber model, has a screen presence that’s at once forceful and soft in the manner of a boy just exiting adolescence. In a largely wordless role, he captures the confusion of Lupu’s situation while always maintaining a sense of interiority. Visuals are stylishly lit, with moody shadows and an emphasis on the troubling spaces of the apartment building, which Barbu Balasoiu’s elegantly restrained camera glides through as it encounters the unexpected. An impressive website offers the possibility of revisiting the locales.