In this grim depiction of life in Romania during the Ceausescu dictatorship, corruption and tyranny are seen as contending with sheer incompetence for control of a dysfunctional society. The writer-director of THE OAK, Lucian Pintilie, has the distinction of havinq been personally exiled
by Ceausescu in the early 1970s.
Nela (Maia Mergenstern) is used to living far better than in the dingy, cluttered Bucharest apartment she shares with her father (Virgil Andriescu), an ex-colonel in the Securitate (secret police). He is unable to receive proper medical care and expires while the two of them are watching home
movies of their salad days--a birthday party for the young Nela and her sister, each wearing the red kerchief of the Communist Pioneers, that turns into a mock mass execution as Nela starts to play with her father's automatic pistol. Nela lambasts her father's doctor when he calls--too late--on
the phone, curses her sister when she attempts to gain entrance, and goes to visit the Medical-Legal Institute. In accordance with her father's will, she offers his body parts for scientific research. The hospital, however, lacks even the resources to preserve them, so Nela opts for cremation (to
the strains of the "Internationale"), deposits his ashes in an empty Nescafe jar, and departs for a teaching assignment in the provinces.
Nela's journey highlights the extent of physical decay and social breakdown throughout the country. The demands for bribes are as habitual as the delays and her fellow passengers are casually brutal. Soon after her arrival, Nela is raped; at the hospital, she meets a madcap, tough-minded
surgeon, Mitica, (Razvan Vasilescu), who is continually bristling at the semiliterate bureaucrats who run the institution. The two begin an affair.
At school, Nela is frustrated by the indifference of the other teachers to their pupils. Mitica gets into more serious trouble for his insistence on treating the cancer of a religious patient, Titi (Ionel Mahailescu), whom he has befriended. Eventually, Mitica is arrested. Nela puts on her best
clothes and styles her hair in order to attempt a seductive blackmail of the local prosecutor, but he's more afraid of his wife's rage than the disapproval of the regional party secretary. Nela's efforts are unnecessary anyway, since the party secretary's wife needs Mitica's surgical skills,
causing his release.
Mitica retrieves Titi's body to fulfill a promise to bury him near his village and sets off with Nela. Followed closely by a pair of Securitate men (who are talked into helping when the couple's truck breaks down), Nela and Mitica arrive at the village with Titi's corpse for a ceremonial burial
and feast. That meal, complete with silly nationalist boasts, ends when a Romanian Army paratrooper crashes into a greenhouse, as part of a running gag that has army maneuvers cropping up in the most unlikely places.
Nela receives a letter from her sister, asking her to visit their mother (Leopoldina Balanuta) in a Bucharest nursing home. In what seems to be their last visit, Nela's failing mother clears up a number of unresolved family secrets; now Nela feels she can bury her father's ashes. Meanwhile,
Mitica is set to meet with the head of the Securitate, but this is interrupted when revolutionaries take a bus full of schoolchildren hostage. The Securitate reaction--a mass murder that recalls the opening home movie--almost send Nela over the edge. But having retreated to the shelter of an oak
tree, she is finally able to honor her father and let go of the past, with Mitica by her side.
Based on the novel Bylanta by Ion Baiesu, THE OAK is a sometimes compelling, but more often awkward, blend of bleak social commentary and black humor. The film is marred by too many talky scenes that seem designed to take the place of action: Nela's gifted schoolkids are more spoken about than
seen, for example. The crucial relationship between Mitica and Titi seems forced, and some scenes will make little sense to audiences who are unaware of the fact that during WWII Romania switched sides, from the Axis to the Allies, in 1944. The violent clash at the film's end seems to come out of
nowhere, and too many loose ends are left untied.
Some actresses are able to use temperament to engage an audience; Morgenstern isn't one of them. (Prior to THE OAK she played Medea onstage in Romania, a role one assumes she could sink her teeth into.) As Mitica, Vasilescu shifts easily from one register to another, displaying a mastery of
abrupt transitions that is conspicuously lacking from Pintilie's direction. Dan Condurache, as a crooked lawyer, and Magda Catone, as Suzi, Mitica's batty nurse, contribute effective comedy turns. Leopoldina Balanuta shimmers with sadness as Nela's mother, grounding her younger co-star in their
THE OAK represented the first official co-production between France and Romania in 14 years when it was unveiled on the festival circuit in 1992 (Telluride, New York, and Cannes--out of competition in the latter), prior to its theatrical release. (Violence, extensive nudity, sexual situations,adult situations, profanity.)
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- Released: 1992
- Rating: NR
- Review: In this grim depiction of life in Romania during the Ceausescu dictatorship, corruption and tyranny are seen as contending with sheer incompetence for control of a dysfunctional society. The writer-director of THE OAK, Lucian Pintilie, has the distinction… (more)