The tidy connotations of its title notwithstanding, there is little about “Box” that invites categorization. A tight-lipped curiosity that vacillates between class-conscious social realism, brawny boxing drama and exceedingly dry romantic comedy, Florin Serban’s stylish sophomore feature shows significant formal progression from the Romanian helmer’s 2010 debut, “If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle”: There’s tactile sensory texture here (in rich 35mm, no less) to match its fine character detailing. As storytelling, however, the pic feels light on body and payoff, like a tight, irony-riddled short stretched to a point of gossamer fragility. Still, as a cryptic exercise in tone, there’s enough here to intrigue the boutique distribs who took a chance on Serban’s previous, less polished effort.
Austere miserablism may be the Romanian New Wave’s default setting in the minds of arthouse auds, but a lighter side is beginning to emerge. Arriving on the heels of Corneliu Porumboiu’s languidly droll caper “The Treasure,” “Box” also works in a mode of unblinking deadpan, even if the film never quite betrays its own sense of amusement. Charting the improbable mutual fascination that develops between a scrappy young amateur boxer and an older, married theater actress, the film doesn’t exactly guide the audience with its perspective: What might seem dangerously obsessive chemistry from one angle might be viewed as more playfully mismatched from another. Viewers might not even agree as to whether it’s a romance at all, however perversely passive; its protagonists may be more enticed by opposite lives than they are by each other. What binds them, however, is a shared variety of performance anxiety, with both out to prove themselves on very different stages.
This much we are told: 19-year-old Rafael (Rafael Florea, in his screen debut) is a tough-willed Romany car-wash worker with ambitions larger than the ramshackle cottage he shares with his ornery grandfather, Bunicul (Nicolae Motrogan). His pugilistic talent is spotted in a local boxing gym by persuasive coach Buzatu (Narcis Romulus Dobrin), though it’s not long before the corrupt strictures of that realm reveal themselves to the rookie. Meanwhile, 34-year-old actress Cristina (Hilda Peter) is struggling to focus in rehearsals for a turgid-looking revival of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.” At home, she seems similarly distracted, attending vaguely to her young children and husband George (Sorin Leoveanu), a fellow actor whose evidently greater degree of professional acclaim is an unspoken source of tension between them.
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Rafael’s and Cristina’s paths cross — or, more accurately, align — when they take the same walk home after their respective practice sessions. Immediately conscious of the brooding young man trailing her by several steps, she is simultaneously alarmed and allured by his attention, though several of these silent stalkings (and nearly an hour of screen time) pass before they exchange a single word. In the pic’s latter stages, the balance of power and scrutiny shifts between the nearly-lovers, as they consider each other’s lives from very different vantage points of class, age and experience. In doing so, they don’t so much embark on a relationship as hypothetically construct one. This is a witty, psychologically intricate setup, but it’s also something of a tease: After a luxuriantly slow-burning first half, the second hasn’t enough elbow room to develop its more provocative ruminations into satisfying drama. A gracefully engineered ending feels like the beginning of another act, though one suspects that is Serban’s intention.
Serban’s ensemble feels very much in on the joke, deftly underplaying the script’s prickling ambiguities and implications. Their coordinated understanding is all the more impressive given that most of the actors are non-pro recruits from the helmer’s own Bucharest acting academy, established in the gap between his two features. Florea has a lowering physicality that contrasts endearingly with the character’s more naive stabs at romantic gesture. Handed her most generous screen showcase since Peter Strickland’s “Katalin Varga” in 2009, the wonderful Peter is smartly cast — her status as the ensemble’s most experienced member effectively reinscribing the character divisions determined by the script — and cleverly attuned to Cristina’s fractured facades both on and off the stage.
In material this oblique and potentially slight, the images count for a great deal. Marius Panduru’s deep-toned celluloid lensing is fully sympathetic to the pic’s complex politics of character, probing tension and attraction alike via considered, deliberate composition and movement.