Fresh off winning the award for best director in the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard sidebar, Alexandru Belc returns to his native Romania with “Metronom,” which will receive an open-air screening in the historic Piata Unirii (Unity Square) at the Transilvania Film Festival.
A coming-of-age story about a young woman grown disillusioned with her first love, the ‘70s-set period drama reflects the difficult choices Romanians were forced to make under communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu, whose gradual clampdown on civil liberties led to a wider unraveling of the social fabric. Variety’s Jessica Kiang wrote that Belc’s incisive feature deftly explores “how insidiously even the young – those most inclined toward rebellion and optimistic self-expression in any society – can be made to fall in step with authoritarianism’s joyless, frogmarching beat.”
Though “Metronom” marks his fiction feature directorial debut, Belc cut his teeth as a script supervisor and assistant director on key Romanian New Wave milestones such as Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or winner “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” and Corneliu Porumboiu’s “Police, Adjective.” He then set off on a career as a documentary filmmaker, directing “8th of March” and “Cinema, Mon Amour,” a co-production with HBO Europe.
It was with a documentary in mind that Belc began developing a film about Romanian youth culture in the 1970s. Born in 1980, the director lived through the last nine years of Ceaușescu’s paranoid reign – what he described as “the ugliest part and the darkest part of the communist era” – and was fascinated by how that period is remembered today.
“I have a passion about memory and historical memory, and the conversation and preservation of historical memory and recent history,” Belc told Variety. “I found it interesting to tell a story about communism, but not another [typical] story about communism – to find a particular place in the historical timeline to tell this story for the young generation.”
He began researching the life of exiled Romanian DJ Cornel Chiriac, whose radio show Metronom was broadcast on Radio Free Europe during the Ceaușescu era. That research led him to the files of Romania’s dreaded secret police, which by the early-1970s had begun to infiltrate every facet of daily life. He quickly realized that it was through the characters on the margins of Chiriac’s story that a fuller portrait of Romanian life under Ceaușescu took shape.
In 1971, six years after his ascension to power, the dictator returned from a trip to the Far East, where he had become enamored by the idea of national transformation he witnessed through programs like the Workers’ Party of Korea and China’s Cultural Revolution. In a speech before Romanian Communist Party leadership that would come to be known as the July Theses, he outlined a vision of the country’s future that included strict ideological conformity to the party line. As Romania began to turn inward, culture increasingly became a tool for communist propaganda.
“Metronom” is set at a turning point in 1972, as the policies of Ceaușescu’s eastern awakening begin to bear bitter fruit in Romania. “It was the exact moment when the echoes of this law started to have an effect,” said Belc. “People were starting to feel that things were getting worse. We are followed by [the secret police], we are forbidden to listen to certain music, to read certain books. It was just the beginning.”
The film follows the teenagers Ana (Mara Bugarin) and Sorin (Serban Lazarovici), whose budding romance is cut short with the news that Sorin and his mother will soon be moving to Germany to be reunited with his father. On the eve of their departure, a party is being held at the house of a schoolmate, Roxana (Mara Vicol). But the gathering is broken up by the secret police, who were tipped off that the students were planning to smuggle a letter to Chiriac out of the country. In the film’s tense second act, they’re forced to sign confessions and inform on one another, a microcosm of the corrosive effect the political system under Ceaușescu was having on Romanian citizenry.
Since attending film school, Belc had wanted to tell a coming-of-age story; in “Metronom,” Ana’s awakening is twofold, with the bittersweet taste of first love – and first heartbreak – arriving in concert with a newfound awareness of the political and social reality around her. Just as her fellow partygoers duly fall into lockstep and sign the police statements, Ana is expected to make the same moral compromise – a rite of passage, almost, into the society she is preparing to enter as an adult.
While researching the film, Belc interviewed some of the people named in the secret police files, who reflected on their lives under the authoritarian Ceaușescu regime. He was surprised by what they told him. “They remember that era like the best time of their lives,” he said. “They were like rebels, they ended up in the [secret police] files. They weren’t really conventional people [going along with] the system.”
More than three decades after the fall of communism in Romania, it’s possible their nostalgia hints at the ways in which even our most painful memories are dulled by the passage of time. But it also reflects the uncertain promise of youth, a time when all of life’s possibilities – and disappointments – still lie ahead. “They were angry and passionate about communism in general,” said Belc, “but happy about that time when they felt free.”