The white-hot moment of the Romanian new-wave film renaissance is long in the past. “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” came out in 2005, “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” in 2007. Other landmarks of Romanian cinema also now go back quite a ways, like “Police, Adjective” (2009), “If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle” (2010), and “Graduation” (2016). That’s not to say there haven’t been good Romanian films of late — earlier this year, I championed Two Lottery Tickets, a kind of droll Romanian Jim Jarmusch film. The bitter truth, though, is that over the last decade the profile of international impact and acclaim that Romanian cinema once held has radically diminished.
It might jump-start again with the appearance of “Miracle,” one of the best films I’ve seen at the Venice Film Festival. It’s the third feature written and directed by Bogdan George Apetri, and it shares many of the classic qualities of Romanian cinema. It’s an offhand and sardonically bleak portrait of the country as a place of disgruntled souls mired in the burnt embers of “socialism.” It features long, winding, digressive conversations. But it’s also a crime drama of absorbing authenticity, and if that entity once known as “the art-house audience” were still concretely there, watching movies in brick-and-mortar theaters like New York’s Lincoln Plaza Cinemas (can you really have an art-house audience without…a house?), I have little doubt that the movie would make its mark. Maybe it will anyway. “Miracle” is staged with an inexorable skill that tugs you along like a Patricia Highsmith novel. It’s a tale of mystery, of scalded innocence, and of the staggering evil that ordinary men can do.
The movie is the second part of a trilogy, and it features a sprinkling of characters from the first film, Apetri’s “Unidentified” (also a crime drama). But it expands on that film’s edgy mood of everyday dread. In the opening scene, Cristina (Ioana Bugarin) is preparing to take a trip out of the convent where she lives. Watching her in her black cloth habit, we assume she’s a nun. Actually, she’s a novice, who has been at the convent for only two months; she won’t be considered a nun for several more years. Just communicating that seemingly minor-but-maybe-not-so-minor detail is, in a sense, a spoiler — not because the film presents it as such a surprise, but because Apetri reveals crucial things throughout “Miracle” in a different order than you’d expect. The information spills out, at times almost at random, placing us in the position of a detective who has to keep re-assessing what he sees.
Cristina, her lips parted in a gaze of dolorous anxiety, walks out of the convent and gets into a taxi, so that she can visit a hospital in the nearby town. The driver has a sister who is Cristina’s friend in the convent; that’s how the ride was arranged. But the driver is a prickly pill who won’t even call his sister by her rechristened nun name. Cristina explains that she’s going to the hospital because she suffers from a chronic headache, and there’s no reason not to believe her. But when she arrives, she walks into the Ob/Gyn clinic. We can guess why she’s there.
She’s arranged to meet that same driver at 5:00 p.m., so that he’ll return her to the convent. Instead, long after her appointment ends, she walks over to a line of taxis and gets into the next available one. This driver seems nicer: a nerd with a tersely sympathetic manner. He relaxes by lighting up a cigarette, and says that he has a wife and daughter. But appearances can be deceiving. When he stops the car so that Cristina can change back into her habit, she has a flash of nerves. And so do we. But she lets it pass, walking off to a wooded section near a bridge in order to change. Then we spot the driver through the trees, ambling toward her…
Apetri, who is 45, has lived in New York City for the last 19 years, and while he has said that he still identifies as a devoted citizen of Romania, you can sense an underlying trace of American immediacy in his work, the way you could in the early films of Denmark’s Nicolas Winding Refn. “Miracle” feels like it could almost be a second cousin to Refn’s “Pusher” trilogy. A police inspector arrives, named Marius, and the actor who plays him, Emanual Pârvu, in his trim haircut and owlish specs, looks like a handsome young literature professor. We assume that he’s going to be the civilized face of the law. But Pârvu, who appeared in “Graduation,” is a wily actor who throws curveballs without the audience seeing it. His Marius doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and feels he’s surrounded by them. It’s as if he has run out of all tolerance for the entropy of Romania — the bureaucratic inefficiency, the way that so many citizens (like his police partner) allow themselves to be crusted over with a Christian piety they don’t really believe in.
Marius, under his calm façade, is as possessed by this case as Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle was with nabbing the heroin smuggler in “The French Connection.” The second half of the movie is less a whodunit than a can-he-find-the-evidence-to-nail-him. Marius leads interrogations, but he also plants evidence, and when he encounters the victim (who we assume, for a while, might not even be alive), their communion, which starts with the simple act of Marius trying to get her to identify her attacker from a photo, evolves into a moment of haunting closeness and mystery. (There’s a key piece of dialogue the film doesn’t let us hear.) Marius isn’t just solving a crime, he’s trying to restore order to a place that has gone to the dogs.
That, at least, is the way that numerous characters in “Miracle” describe Romania. The country — and, it would seem, the country’s cinema — is mired in a kind of stubborn self-hatred. Maybe that, in its way, is one reason why the Romanian film movement of the 2000s began to fade. But it’s my impression (far from definitive, but a hopeful hunch) that there’s a new spirit at work in the nation’s cinema. “Two Lottery Tickets” had a chucklehead slyness I hadn’t seen in a Romanian film before. And “Miracle,” as it closes in on its heart of darkness, creates a slow-burn suspense that won’t quit. Bogdan George Apetri holds the audience and then, in the last scene, melts it with a single audacious teardrop.