Bogdan George Apetri’s film, Outbound (Periferic), represents the best of the new Romanian cinema. The movie, starring Ana Ularu and produced by Saga Film in collaboration with the Austrian company Aichholzer Filmproduktiion, is based on a short story co-written by Ioana Uricaru and the celebrated film director, Cristian Mungiu (which, however, Apetri stated that he changed radically). Like Mungiu’s prize-winning movies, Outbound shines in terms of its realistic characterizations and believable plot.
Before watching the film at the Romanian Film Festival in Ann Arbor, viewers also got the unique opportunity to meet the young director, hear him introduce the movie, and ask him questions. Eloquent, thoughtful, soft-spoken, very honest and with a clear sense of purpose, Apetri explained to us that his movie both fits in with and is different from the tradition of new Romanian cinema. After earning a law degree, Apetri left Romania at a young age, 25, to study at the Columbia University Film School and fulfill his long-time dream of becoming a movie director.
At that time, during the early 2000’s, there were almost no movies produced in Romania. By 2007, when Cristian Mungiu’s movie 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days won the prestigious Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Romanian cinema came on strong in the international scene. It became known for its realistic depictions of the harsh realities of life, great acting and incredibly strong characterizations. Apetri also explained that Romanian cinema tends to have a “realistic” method of shooting, without a lot of cuts and editing, which is characteristic of American and Western European cinema. While his film, Outbound, is clearly situated in the context of new Romanian Cinema in terms of its realistic dialogue, situations and characterizations, it also relies upon a good amount of editing, so in that sense, we might say it’s “Americanized.” As a viewer who doesn’t know much about editing techniques, what truly stood out for me is this movie’s stark, almost brutal, realism and incredibly powerful characterizations.
The movie opens with Matilda, played by the actress Ana Ularu, being released from prison for 24 hours to attend her mother’s funeral. Apetri recalled during his introduction to the film that Ularu had been the penultimate actress in his casting calls. Within five minutes he knew, in his gut, that she was the main character, “Matilda”. His intuition didn’t do him wrong. Ana Ularu’s wild look and tough, urban mannerisms make her perfect for the role. From the start viewers get to see her as an opportunist, but also as genuinely downtrodden. Matilda doesn’t intend to just go to the funeral; it’s clear she wishes to use that as a pretext to make her escape. Her first move is to set up a meeting with a driver later on, in the port of Constanta, so she can take a boat abroad and avoid going back to prison to serve the rest of her sentence in Romania. Then she goes to visit her brother Andrei (played by Andi Vasluianu), who has a wife and son. She tells him that she came for their mother’s funeral, but Andrei is highly skeptical. She had never visited him without an ulterior motive, which was usually to ask for money. Despite knowing his sister’s self-serving intentions and despite the fact she only brought shame upon their family, Andrei shows some sympathy for Matilda.
Andrei’s wife Lavinia (played by Ioana Flora), however, being more emotionally detached and pragmatic, clearly rejects Matilda. She fights with her husband and wants to chase his delinquent sister away: partly because she doesn’t like her, and partly out of a the understandable desire to protect her son and family from her negative influence. Andrei’s ambivalence, as he’s torn between sympathy for his misfortunate sister and love for his family, is beautifully depicted. Matilda informs him that she didn’t come, this time, to ask for money. She wants him to adopt her eight year old son, Toma (played by Timotei Duma), whom she left with her sleazy lover and pimp, Paul (Mimi Branescu), until she herself gets out of prison. Up to that moment, Andrei didn’t even know that his sister had a son. Shocked by this news and by her proposition, he allows Lavinia to chase Matilda away by leading his wife to believe that his sister had come to ask them for money again. Though this is the easy way out of a very sticky and complex situation, it reveals more courage than cowardice since, as we later find out, Andrei’s instincts to protect his family prove correct.
One of the best characterizations in this movie is that of the sociopathic pimp, Paul. A Jekyll and Hyde personality–as sociopaths tend to be–Paul’s shown seducing a young prostitute he lives with and coaxing her into doing things against her best interest and will. For instance, although his prostitute-girlfriend is visibly shaken and scared, he cajoles her to agree to being beaten by a customer in exchange for a large sum of money, which the pimp quickly pockets. Though still in the wooing phase with his new young victim, Paul had long passed on to the devalue and discard phase with Matilda, who asks him for the money he promised her before she went to prison. Sly, cunning and shady, the pimp begins to engage in sophistry so he can get out of their deal. After a lot of haggling, they settle upon only a fraction of the money they had initially agreed upon. Once she sees that the perverted customer paid him a large sum, however, Matilda, hardly more ethical than Paul, begins to blackmail him with the crime–stabbing a man–she had committed presumably on the pimp’s behalf. They eventually get into a scuffle in the car over the money, the vehicle derails into a ditch and Paul, who hadn’t been wearing his seatbelt, dies in the accident.
Matilda then heads over for the orphanage to kidnap her son, Toma, from the orphanage where Paul had abandoned him. The film captures the corrupt and abject nature of the orphanage, where an older boy is already selling eight-year old Toma into prostitution. Like Gavroche in Les Miserables, Toma is a street-wise little urchin. Although Matilda succeeds in grabbing her son from the clutches of the older orphan who was prostituting him, her influence over Toma is only temporary. In the end, we see if a corrupt upbringing by a pimp father, a prostitute mother and the utmost neglect at the orphanage will prove more powerful than Matilda’s half-baked plan to turn a new leaf and lead a better life with her son abroad. This is no Manichean tale of good versus evil, however, but rather a struggle between one form of corruption over another.
Stark and poetic in its naturalism, Outbound is, in my opinion, a masterpiece in its characterizations, dialogue and capturing the feel of corruption and urban decay, universally, not
just in Romania. As Apetri emphasized during his talk, this movie does not strive to represent Romanian society in general. Nor does Outbound make generalizations about the poor and downtrodden. In fact, I think its psychological profile of sociopaths trying to get ahead in the underbelly of post-communist Romanian society could easily apply to similar shady and unscrupulous characters who try to get ahead at the top of any society and government, in any country.
In my estimation, the best contemporary cinema is able to capture a specific context and situation so well that viewers can extrapolate far beyond that situation and characterizations to so many other human and social contexts they know. This is the crucial difference between generalization and universalization. Generalization claims one particular situation describes a whole country or people. As mentioned, Outbound doesn’t do that, nor do, for instance, Mungiu’s movies. Universalization, on the other hand, reveals common (or universal) human elements in the very specific situations and people depicted in a given novel or movie. Both Apetri and Mungiu’s films do this extremely effectively. Outbound’s characterizations are so accurate and realistic that viewers–no matter where they live, what socioeconomic background they come from, or what culture they’re influenced by–can identify with them. And I should add that realism is perhaps the highest artform. It takes a lot of talent to make a film which is made up of layers upon layers of very careful and minute artistic choices–from the story, to the script, to the actors, to the shooting, to the setting, to the costumes, to the music, to the long and arduous editing process–feel so real. This is why I consider Outbound an artistic masterpiece of realist cinema.
Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon