The anthropologically inclined coming-of-age story, something of a staple on the arthouse and festival circuit, gets a sensitive and confident makeover in Ana Felicia Scutelnicu’s literal and thematic follow up to her 61-minute-long “Panihida.” Dovetailing with her experiences shooting that film, which was set in the same small village in Moldova, “Anishoara” is the real name of her lead actress, whose unselfconscious, taciturn magnetism captivated the director. Of course, things rarely come together instantaneously in the film world, and there is a sense that the ephemeral moment that so fascinated Scutelnicu, of Anishoara’s transition from girlhood to womanhood, has already (though recently) passed for the young non-professional actress. But rather than scuppering the film’s already diffuse storytelling, this quality lends a somewhat overfamiliar story its freshest notes.
The graceful yet honest, unvarnished performance from actress Anishoara, being just that moment older, gives character Anishoara a beyond-her-years wisdom, looking out from behind those unflecked eyes. Her eyes do a lot of the work here since Anishoara herself barely speaks at all — that we can hear, anyway. Instead, Scutelnicu’s camera observes her with a removed but intense interest as she dashes through fields or listens to the sounds of night or does her chores, always with a strange, self-contained single-mindedness. It’s rare that a film about such a disenfranchised and isolated world can observe it with neither condescension nor romanticism, but it’s a line Scutelnicu walks deftly.
Because as much as the director is fascinated by her star, she is perhaps even more so by the circumstances of Anishoara’s life, presenting the Moldovan countryside as an ancient place, almost a time capsule of customs and rituals and folklore forgotten by the rest of the world. Indeed, Scutelnicu’s one showy directorial flourish is to have the film open with a folk tale, told straight to camera. A beautiful girl rejects all her suitors because she’s in love with the king of the sun, but she is burned by his embrace and turned into a starling, ever wheeling up back to him in the sky, only to drop down to earth again. It has its desired effect: Throughout the rest of the film, which is divided into the four seasons of a single year (necessitating several different d.p.s) as Anishoara engages with or gently rebuffs each of three potential suitors, we feel her story come into and out of phase with that of the starling-girl.
The men who flit on the fringes of Anishoara’s life (and the film’s gaze is so intent on her that they are mostly only peripheral) are glimpsed in brief interludes: the smitten older German tourist (William Menne) who makes himself ridiculous by getting his gray hair dyed unnaturally black, and brings her a wedding veil; the farmboy and probably childhood playmate who gives her and her friend rides on his tractor; and the out-of-towner (Dragoş Scutelnicu) in a classic bad-boy leather jacket whom Anishoara first spots at a watermelon picnic and simply, unashamedly ogles. The next time we see him is sometime later as he takes her to the sea (Moldova is landlocked) on a brief lovers’ trip that is remarkable in the way Scutelnicu shows it to be made up of as much boredom as romance.
And elsewhere we have moments of simple, almost documentary interest (though the controlled camerawork never feels like it’s aiming for vérité, and Niklas Kammertöns’ sound design is exquisite). It’s to Scutelnicu’s credit that despite the considered, almost drowsy pace of the proceedings, she still manages to evoke a sense of almost animalistic peril. When one of her grandfather’s fellow carousers comes in from the revelry outside and sits heavily on Anishoara’s bed, she may pull back into almost complete shadow but you can sense her alarm, her alertness. But more often than not the dramatic thing does not happen, merely the truthful one. And the truth here is that these lives are neither ennobled nor impoverished by the lack of werewithal; they simply are, as they have always been. In some ways, “Anishoara” evokes a world remote from our own times — we scarcely glimpse so much as a television, let alone a cellphone or a Starbucks to orient us to the modern, Western world.
Anishoara’s life is not the stuff of thrilling drama, and it’s hard to see the film gaining a huge amount of traction outside of specialty and festival outlets. But as her graduation film from Berlin film school DFFB, it marks out Scutelnicu as possessing confidence beyond her experience. Her watchful gaze over Anishoara is quietly enriching, giving us a clear-eyed, unsentimental, and very gently liberating homage to all the girls of times gone by and all the girls of times to come who, in the words of Thomas Gray, would otherwise blush unseen and waste their sweetness on the desert air.