Somewhere at Palilula - East End film festival 2012
Sunday 15 July 2012, by
The East End Film Festival, which freshly finished its 12th edition last week, is known for hosting international premieres and supporting first and second time directors. This year it also held the UK premiere of Silviu Purcarete’s cinematic debut. Already internationally established as a director of large-scale theatre, most notably for his ambitious adaptation of Goethe’s Faust in large warehouses, the Romanian had not directed for film before Somewhere at Palilula, an absurd and highly dramatic portrait of a forsaken communist village in the 60s.
Told through the perspective of a newly appointed paediatrician, the story was inspired by anecdotes Purcarete had absorbed from a real-life friend who would embellish his own experiences. The narrative’s political context is very relevant, as in those times the dictatorial regime would promise full employment to everyone but also offer inflexible work placements which forced many people to leave their homes and practice their trades in faraway and unlikely locations. In Serafim’s case, he is a paediatrician in a village with no children and where the hospital’s maternity ward is filled with drunken men. Every character and situation Serafim encounters are expressions of the village’s way of coping with their isolation and choose to escape in an insane reality. At the polar opposite of today’s employment crises, these “promises” of secure jobs were an ordeal nonetheless, because they constrained the human spirit in desolate circumstances.
After getting this message across, the film goes on a tangent and becomes self indulgent, turning into an empty albeit fantastic show. The isolated setting, reminding us slightly of von Trier’s Dogville, shields the residents from normality and is therefore off-the wall and operatic, comparable to a Fellini dream sequence. It features a frog feast, foetuses in jars, looming witches, portentous surgeries, grotesque men and superstitious rituals. It is basically an invented pleasure that mixes the absurdity of communism with the confusion of postgraduate existence, in which artificiality becomes the norm and the only link to reality is the train that penetrates through the village and brings in visitors. It is a charming film if you haven’t been exposed to Romanian idiosyncrasies and sense of humour, but beyond that it is a bit empty in terms of substance.
Purcarete’s theatre legacy slips into remarkably ridiculous compositions and over the top acting, even the sound design seems to suggest voices reverberating to the last row of a theatre. The director mentioned in the Q&A that he had the story in mind since before he staged Faust, so the parallels that can be drawn between the two mediums are inherent to his expressive methods. The story being so artificial and escapist, he chose to portray it in this nightmarish Boschian style, as the political and social context lends itself to it. Shot in a large factory over 55 nights, the freezing winter set was usually around -5 °C every night, which probably helped the actors and crew delve into to the bizarreness the director wanted for Somewhere at Palilula.
A visually mesmerising film, we unfortunately had to watch a DVD copy because the film print was "stuck" at the Karlovy Vary Festival, but the organisers kindly gave us the choice of an alternate screening. Although Purcarete would have preferred it being viewed in the intended high quality, the eager punters agreed to be lenient and watch it from the DVD nonetheless. It was a nice understanding between the festival, the Romanian Cultural Institute and the audience, managing to avoid an unpleasant turn of events.