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CLUJ, Romania – The storm clouds that had spent the better part of the afternoon trundling across Transilvania couldn’t be kept at bay Friday night, though several hundred festival-goers – armed with umbrellas and ponchos – arrived for the opening of the Transilvania Intl. Film Festival hoping for the best.

“People are ready to go on. It’s unbelievable,” said TIFF artistic director Mihai Chirilov, as crowds continued to tramp down the soggy red carpet spread across Piata Unirii (Union Square). “They’re unstoppable.”

Nearby veteran director and festival founder Tudor Giurgiu worked a crowd sprinkled with Romanian stars of the big and small screen. A man dressed as the Pope posed for photos to commemorate the Pontiff’s contemporaneous visit to Romania, while dozens of corporate-branded balloons drifted past the Gothic spire of St. Michael’s Church. Between drags of his cigarette, Chirilov furiously worked his cell phone for the latest weather report. “It looks like it’s going to stop at a quarter to nine,” he said.

It didn’t, and the crowds repaired to a nearby cinema for the world premiere of “Parking,” the latest feature from the Cluj native Giurgiu, which opened the festival’s 18th edition.

As the night finally got underway, Giurgiu welcomed guests to what he dubbed “an improvised opening ceremony” before introducing Academy Award winner Michel Gondry, who earlier in the day launched his initiative L’Usine de films amateurs (the Amateur Film Factory). The interactive project allows audience members in Cluj to collaborate on the creation of their own movie.

“It’s not film school,” said Gondry. “I don’t think you’re going to learn much, but I think you will learn that even if you think you have no inspiration, you will realize you have a lot in your head.”

He added: “I believe that everybody is creative, especially people who have no idea they are.”

Nicolas Cage is also in attendance to be presented with the Transilvania Trophy for Contribution to World Cinema.

For 10 days in this scenic medieval city, festival audiences will be treated to Transilvania’s time-tested blend of provocative and counter-cultural programming, complemented by tributes to some of the greats of cinema past and present, and thematic sections meant to engage, enrage, and entertain. “In terms of selection…[we’re] always trying to be a bit provocative, but also diverse,” Chirilov told Variety on the eve of the festival.

Twelve films will be competing for the Transilvania Trophy, which is dedicated to first- or second-time feature film directors. The sole Romanian title in competition this year is director Marius Olteanu’s “Monsters.,” a gripping portrait of a couple’s fraying marriage, which premiered in the Berlin film festival’s Forum section. Also competing are two other Berlinale selections: Nora Fingscheidt’s “System Crasher,” which tells the devastating story of a nine-year-old girl fighting for her mother’s love and her place in the family, and Burak Çevik’s “Belonging,” an unconventional thriller that reconstructs the moment the director’s grandmother was killed 15 years ago.

Other festival players to grace the red carpet in Cluj include Russian duo Natasha Merkulova and Aleksei Chupo’s second feature, “The Man Who Surprised Everyone,” which won a best actress award for Natalya Kudryashowa after its Venice premiere last year. Icelandic director Hlynur Palmason’s “A White, White Day,” meanwhile, arrives in Transilvania shortly after the film’s Cannes Critics’ Week premiere.

The 18th edition could be seen as something of a turning point for the festival, but Chirilov insists, “It’s not a coming-of-age.” TIFF was founded at a time when Romania was still charting its rough passage from Communism toward a new democratic era, and the risqué programming that marked the festival’s early years was seen by its founders as a way to shock the country from its doldrums. “We were transgressive and precocious [from the start],” said Chirilov.

Yet this year’s curtain-raiser marked a shift from the 2018 edition, which opened with “Foxtrot,” Israeli director Samuel Maoz’s blistering portrayal of a grieving family whose son was killed in the line of duty. “Parking” is the story of a Romanian immigrant working as a night watchman at a car dealership in Cordoba, who falls in love with a Spanish singer after leaving his old life behind.

Giurgiu’s audience-friendly offering appeared to be in keeping with Chirilov’s decision “to focus on very intimate stories about relations and cinema” this year, during what he calls “suffocating” times marked by “political confusion.”

“It’s become part of our life, up to the point where our personal, private life doesn’t exist anymore. It’s only in relation to this bigger social and political picture,” he said. “I wanted to offer the audience a chance when they go see a movie in the competition to escape — to enter like a cocoon, where nothing from the world outside has access.” With a packed slate in Cluj this week, audiences will have plenty of chances to lose themselves in film.

In keeping with the festival’s commitment to promoting regional cinema, the popular Hungarian Days sidebar returns this year, along with a spotlight on the emerging industry in Focus Albania. Building on a partnership launched with the Shanghai Intl. Film Festival last year, Focus China will present an eclectic selection of award-winning contemporary titles and restored classics screening in Romania for the first time. And along with a mouthwatering taste of French fare presented as part of Focus France, TIFF will celebrate the life and legacy of iconic filmmaker Agnès Varda, who passed away this year, in its 3 x 3 section. Gondry will also be honored with a retrospective, while presenting a masterclass June 1 in Piata Unirii.

As the leading platform for established and emerging voices in Romanian cinema, 15 feature films and 22 shorts will unspool as part of Romanian Days, which kicks off June 6. Among the most anticipated titles in Cluj this year will be “The Whistlers,” Corneliu Porumboiu’s crime thriller about a crooked Romanian cop who gets tied up in drug trafficking, which arrives fresh off its Cannes competition premiere. Also screening will be Berlin Silver Bear winner Radu Jude’s (“Aferim!”) latest feature, “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians,” which was named best film at Karlovy Vary last year, and box-office hit “Moromete Family: On the Edge of Time,” director Stere Gulea’s sequel to a film that captured Romanian hearts 30 years ago.

Among an exciting crop of first- and second-time directors, Radu Dragomir’s provocative feature debut, “Mo,” and Andrei Cohn’s risqué sophomore effort, “Arrest,” are both expected to be standouts. TIFF will also celebrate two veterans of the Romanian industry by feting long-time costume designer Oana Păunescu, while film and stage star Marcel Iureș will receive the Excellence Award during the closing night gala, in recognition of his long and celebrated career.

The crowds who braved a steady downpour Friday night to walk the red carpet suggest that support for this audience-focused fest remains strong. Yet after 18 years, Chirilov acknowledges the need for TIFF to continually adapt and evolve. “Even though the festival is well-attended, there is not a single audience. That’s why in every edition, we try to have films that deal with various [themes],” he said. “It is a very difficult process, because you don’t know what these niches are. But you imagine that they exist, and you bring something for them hoping that it will click.”

The challenge is particularly pressing as Transilvania looks ahead to the next generation of moviegoers. “Just like all the festivals, the 18-20-year-old audience can’t be found,” said Chirilov. “Nobody knows what to do to attract younger audiences. Young people, they just don’t come to cinema.” The festival’s promotional materials and social-media campaigns this year feature 18-year-olds drawn from the host city: an effort, said Chirilov, to draw younger audiences “through the channels that they understand and use the most.”

Whether or not such efforts pay off will speak to the larger challenge for exhibitors in Romania, where both admissions and total box office dipped in 2018. “This is our [target] audience 20 years from now, too,” Chirilov said.

The Transilvania Intl. Film Festival runs May 31-June 9.