Lucian Pintilie, The Oak, Romania (1992).
Lucian Pintilie was a rather successful theatre director in France before returning to Romania after the end of Communism when he returned to his original artistic medium of filmmaking. In The Oak of 1992 Pintilie’s interests in the unique possibilities of the cinema, as oppose to, and as a result, of coming out of a predominantly theatrical background, are apparent in that he readily experiments with ideas that are fundamental and unique to film.
Pintilie’s filmmaking interests which are most readily apparent in The Oak are related to the defining characteristic of the cinema: the moving image. Pintilie’s play with the moving image, as juxtaposed to the still images of photography, is interwoven within the narrative of The Oak. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of the moving to the still image is set against a number of dualities which the narrative revolves and develops around. As a filmmaker who had been denied his opportunity to work within his medium of choice, because of effects and realities of censorship working within Communist Romania, Pintilie finally gets his opportunity in The Oak. The film’s first shot is of a projector showing home movies. The oak begins as a film showing a film. The home movie is of the protagonist’s childhood. She is shown as a child playing with a gun. The scene is one of “play-massacre” as she runs around with the gun and everyone in the room pretends to be killed as she giggles. The home movie seems to be one of better times and less worry. Upon its finish the spectator learns that the protagonist is caring for her sick father. The first scene depicts her as very depressed, locked away within her small, dirty apartment. She appears broken down as she drags herself around the room only to discover that her father has died, lying there on the couch from which they watched the home movie. This opening scene already well establishes some of the film’s biggest concerns and overriding themes. The projector as the defining characteristic of the cinema, for one, which is throughout the rest of the film replaced by the protagonist’s still-photography camera which she seems to carry around everywhere she goes. The home video also helps establish a conflicting juxtaposition between the carefree and happy days of childhood which it depicts, set against the dark and embittered, stark reality of the present, that is adult consciousness.
The idea of the image of the cinema is lingered upon throughout the film. The camera that the protagonist carries around with her, in effect, creates still images of things that were just moving. The camera is a Polaroid, so her photos are actualized immediately. The contrast between the moving image (within the film) of the thing that she photographs and the stillness of the Polaroid both highlights the inherent interest in the cinema that the film formally portrays, and underlines significant concerns that the film evokes. A cow in a field that was just alive is photographed after being killed by military training bombing. The protagonist shows the image of the dead, motionless cow to a soldier who was involved in the bombing and he is visibly moved. The protagonist also shoots a photo of her dead father, who had presumably been alive, though ill, in the moments just leading up to the film’s start. The moving as compared to still image, makes the things that the film depicts all the more powerful.
The duality between different kinds of images is one that is woven within that plot and set against a number of other dualities that the film evokes. The photos often highlight the juxtaposition of life against death, and the opening home video exhibition underlines the deep difference between the protagonist’s childhood and adult moods. The dualities are often negative, and appropriately attached to the film’s bleak perspective on life. The film presents a strong dichotomy between village/country side and city as well as between nature and industry. The countryside seems more carefree and less frustrated, though apparently not too distant from the stress and polluted anxiety of the city. Likewise, the countryside is viewed as plentiful by the city peoples although the peasantry claims their own poor fortune and lack of life’s necessities. Likewise, the picnic that the two main characters share in a field, in nature, just outside the city is at a setting that overlooks a large and ugly, polluting factory. The lush green hills and trees are set against the factory, and suddenly disastrously and brutally interrupted by a military air strike. These dualities can be compared to the protagonist’s more personal conflict, related to her father’s dual identity, as it is revealed to her by her mother. This man who she had been living with and taking care of and loving dearly turns out to have been nothing like what she had thought him to be. During much of the film she talks highly about her father, his tenderness, caring devotion and great courage. The mother reveals though that he was actually a heartless, selfish, angry, mean, and cowardly man. The one thing that the protagonist had been holding onto as a shred of hope and justice in a world that seems increasingly rotten at every turn is in that scene also brutally undermined. The truth about the father is related to the truth about the society that the film depicts.
The film cuts randomly and rapidly from scene to scene, often with very little if any relativity. It is a film of fragments and disjunction, just like the socio-political structure that it portrays. Nothing works properly and everything seems to be falling apart. Everyone is bitter and life is shown as a series of random, meaningless instances of chaos and brutality.
Moreover, The Oak is peppered throughout with the sense of random chance. Things just happen and are always presented with suddenness and apparent randomness, as if each event just as well might not have happened at all, ala Bazin on Vitorio de Sica. This sense of randomness is appropriately coupled with quick and sudden film editing language of the cuts between scenes. The scenes, events and cuts all seem to come almost out of nowhere, as if by chance. This all gives the film’s portrayal of societal decay and dysfunctionality a greater force in that it makes the society’s dysfunction seem like a perverse kind of normality.
Finally, the film’s arguably most significant duality is that which is related to normality. Dysfunction and brutality for these protagonists have become a sort of normality, especially because of the random chance and non-linearity with which they are imbued. The main character is a psychologist that works with “special,” or “gifted” kids at a city school. She refers to them a gifted, as though there is something special about them in a very positive sense. The bizarre tragedy of the kids is that she also talks about how they are teased and abused by the other kids, the normal kids. The notion of normality in the case of the kids is presented as a definite negative. This idea is associated with the final scene’s sequence of murder when the authorities shoot up a school bus full of criminals and their child-hostages. The children become casualties of the necessity to remove the criminal threat. The policeman who is in charge and receives the order is hesitant and upset about the decision, but it is an example of how a brutality as the means toward an understood ends can overtime become normal protocol.
The duality of the normal vs. “the other” in terms of people is probably best exemplified in the film’s final statement. The two main characters sit under a tree and discuss the possibility of having a baby. The man says that the child had better be either a genius or an idiot, because if he’s “normal, I’ll kill him with my own hands.” This sequence comes right on the heels of the school bus massacre, the film’s scene of greatest injustice and brutality. When the norm is one of dysfunction and brutality and the natural state of affairs is one of disastrous consequence, it instills in people the suspicion of anything resembling the normality that they have come o know. Moreover, and more significantly unjust, the murderously disastrous state of affairs gives people the fear to bring children into the world, the fear of subjecting children to the injustices of the world, the fear that they may become a part of the brutal abuse that is evermore becoming “normal.”