Spontaneous flames, dysfunctional warning alerts and a sense of impending catastrophe feature in Hungarian-Romanian director Cristina Grosan’s sophomore feature “Ordinary Failures,” premiering in Venice Days, a sidebar to the Venice Film Festival. Variety is launching the trailer for the film (below), which is being sold by Totem Films.
The Czech-Hungarian-Italian-Slovak co-production, filmed entirely in the Czech Republic, mainly in Prague but also featuring Pilsen, is based on a screenplay by Klára Vlasáková, which Grosan says evolved for three years and continued morphing right up through the shoot.
The ominous tale revolves around the lives of three strangers: a teenager, a young mother, and a woman in her early sixties, who cross paths during one day in which their city is rocked by mysterious explosions.
“I spent three years developing this story together with screenwriter Klára Vlasáková,” says Grosan, “during which plenty of input reached me, both fortunate and less fortunate, if we think of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. These recent events started to resemble situations in our script, where authorities contradict each other, and chaos reigns.”
Her process is to remain flexible and allow story and characters to morph under the influence of many hands, Grosan says.
“During the development of the screenplay I go about my day with my eyes wide open. When I stumble upon an idea or a scene that I feel dramatizes what I have in my mind, it’s usually not just something visual, but inherently audiovisual.”
The soundscape of “Ordinary Failures” contributes to its dark mood, suggesting a sci-fi-esque world that looms in the near future but incorporates trams and street scenes visible in contemporary Prague.
“As we progress through all phases of production, more crew members contribute with their own craft to the initial idea, enriching the original idea. We do this until I feel I’ve got an orchestra of elements working together to put in motion one idea.”
The film builds on experience Grosan gained during her feature debut, “Things Worth Weeping For,” produced by Hungary’s Laokoon Filmgroup, which premiered in competition at the Sarajevo Film Festival.
“My debut film is mostly a chamber piece,” Grosan recalls, “and being confined to one space, I took it as a challenge to lose the viewer in the maze of an old Budapest villa. Whereas ‘Ordinary Failures’ opened up a new, literally much bigger world for me.”
The task of transforming Czech streets into a world populated by robot dogs, strange security protocols and clean, futuristic lines was daunting, at first, Grosan admits. “I found it strange to shoot in large, open-air spaces that I felt I have not so much control over. After filming so many shorts and one feature in confined spaces, I was reluctant to go out into the open. I started thinking I might have some cinema-agoraphobia!”
With the help of production designer Antonín Šilar and cinematographer Márk Győri, the team rose to the challenge, she says. “The way I think and carve the atmosphere of my characters’ world, I believe hasn’t changed. Perhaps it only adapts to what the story needs from me. While doing my studies back in Romania, it was the films of the Romanian New Wave that influenced my thinking of film. Yet now, as I’m doing my own films, I seem to intuitively rebel against that esthetic. I like to make use of all audiovisual tools that are given to me, to take the viewer as far as possible from their own world, and into my film’s.”
Despite the cyber elements to “Ordinary Failures,” Grosan resists the sci-fi genre label.
“We didn’t set out to do an actual sci-fi,” she says. “I was more interested in creating a retrofuturistic setup for these three stories, so the viewer suspends their connection with their immediate reality and becomes more open to accept a mysterious natural phenomenon. We never explain what’s going on, so it’s a lot of trust to ask for.”
Transforming a modern-day capital into a more surreal one was a collective effort, Grosan explains.
“At each step of the way, I was trying to see how much of the dystopian elements can this film sell to the viewer. Antonín Šilar came up with many experimental solutions on how to distort existing elements, from blowing smoke with a straw through the cracks of a crumbling wall, to placing an inflating air jack under a carpet that looks like asphalt, so that it appears the road is bubbling up, even lifting cars.”
Carefully setting scenes to maximize use of Prague’s famously unique architecture was key to the process, she adds. “Our way of thinking was always connected to twisting existing phenomena, real objects and locations. What contributes a lot to the eerie feel I believe are the locations, brutalist and neo-functionalist buildings across the city that engulf the film in concrete. In contrast, people seem very small and fragile.”
Sound designers Filippo Barracco and Ivan Caso then “added the many layers of sound to make this world both rich with life, and full of tension and mystery. It was an interesting task to sound design a live cat birth that in reality was very quiet, but also to give a sound presence to the pink aurora in the sky.”
All managed on a typical budget for a contemporary Czech psychological drama, around $1.6 million.
The “Ordinary Failures” cast includes Taťjana Medvecká, Vica Kerekes and Beáta Kaňoková, with Marek Novák is producing through the Prague’s Xova Film in coproduction with Italy’s Rosamont, Hungary’s Laokoon Filmgroup and Slovakia’s Super Film.