Film o’ the week: Niki and Flo

Once more I exercised my Museum of  Modern Art Film Society membership and caught a more-or-less free flick in the basement theater last night. It was a worthwhile two hours spent in the dark and was followed by a 15 minute video interview with the director.

The film was Niki and Flo (Niki Ardelean, colonel în rezerva), directed  by Romanian director Lucian Pintilie and released in 2003. Without straying into spoiler territory, I will say this has one of the more stunning endings I’ve seen in a long while, a surprise that had me and the rest of the audience a bit dumbstruck when the closing credits started rolling. I heard a few “whoa’s” as the shock sank in.

[The Mubi.com review of Niki and Flo]

Surprises aside, the film is the story of a retired Romanian Army Colonel, Niki Ardelean, his wife, their daughter, son-in-law and in-laws. The film opens on April 1, 2011 and concludes six months later. It opens with the funeral of the Colonel’s son, a clarinet player who died senselessly while changing a blown fuse with wet hands.

Flo is Florian, the father-in-law, a hyper bohemian who darts around in contrast to the Colonel’s exhausted state of post-Communist retirement, videotaping weddings and funerals and loudly delivering his opinions. Flo’s slapstick, physical comedy had the audience nervously laughing during the funeral scene when he had the pall bearers open and close the coffin of the Colonel’s dead son several times so he could tape the perfect shot. But those comedy teases were erased by the mounting sadness of the Colonel and his wife, first grieving over the loss of one child, and then again as their newly married daughter made plans to leave for America and more opportunity.

The film is about the Colonel’s dispossession at the hands of Flo. He loses control over every detail of his life. From organizing the flowers at the funeral, to Flo’s “confiscation” of the newlyweds belongings as they move to America, to senseless political arguments about the role of the military … Flo eats away at every aspect of the Colonel’s dignity.

Filmed mostly in cramped Romanian apartment interiors, Pintilie’s background as a theatrical director gives the film the feeling of a play, and indeed, in the interview that followed, Pintilie explained his theory of film in light of Milan Kundera’s (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) theories from The Art of the Novel, that the purpose of story in art is to expose the possibilities that surround the story, to condense and expose through ellipsis.

Whenever I find myself exposed to Eastern European film, I can’t help but try to impose a layer of post-communism to the experience. Santatango is about a loss of structure and identity after the Communist failure. Ulysses Gaze is heavy handed in its unforgettable shot of an immense toppled statue of Lenin being barged down the Danube with Harvey Keitel along for the ride.

Niki and Flo is only tangentially about post-Communist Romania. Pintilie says that critical interpretations of Flo’s tyranny as a metaphor for the country’s Communist dictator,  Nicolae Ceau?escu are off the mark.

Here’s the film in its entirety on YouTube:

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

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