Patul lui Procust started filming in 1995 but didn't premiere until last year. Andrew James Horton looks at the long-awaited adaptation of one of the most important Romanian novels of the last century.
On a sultry summer day in 1928, Fred, a stylish millionaire, decides to wile away the afternoon by visiting a loose young girl who has pretensions of being an actor. While she is called out on a string of interruptions, he leafs through some love letters addressed to the girl. Somewhat to his surprise, he finds that they were written by a friend of his, an editor named Ladima, who had committed suicide some weeks earlier.
With his companion constantly called away by a series of distractions and intrigued by Ladima's great and hopeless love that he previously knew nothing about, Fred (Petru Vutcărău) drifts off into a post-coital stream of reminiscences and musings. Fred's thoughts take us back not only through his friendship with Ladima (Oleg Iankovsky), but also his own passionate love. However, Fred, a man whose manners, wealth and sophistication hide an extreme coward, is no more successful in romance than his friend is.
From word to image
The official website for Sergiu Prodan and Viorica Mesina's Patul lui Procust (The Procrustean Bed, 2001)'s official website describes the film as being in the genre of "melodrama"—a description that is likely to turn off most serious critics. Yet Patul lui Procust pulls off an unusual balance in creating a film that can be both extravagant in its emotions and measured and believable in its character development. Moreover, the directors manage to maintain the viewer's interest in a set of thoroughly unlikeable and self-obsessed protagonists. Despite their solipsism, their character flaws and ultimate fate is absorbing.
Much of this credit has to go to Camil Petrescu, the author of the classic Romanian novel of the same name on which the film was based. (At the time the book was first published, 1933, the territory now known as Moldova, but then called Bessarabia, was part of Romania.) Adapting a work of literature, especially a famous one, for the silver screen is always an activity fraught with difficulty, and what makes a novel successful—it's very literary quality—can be hard to translate into a visual language. For most of the film, the task is pulled off admirably (although I have to confess I haven't read the book for a direct comparison) and it is only in the final epilogue sequences that a slight clunky feel of word being awkwardly translated into images emerges.
Prodan, who studied acting and directing at Moscow's famed VGIK film school, admitted to Kinoeye that "the novel has several serious minuses for being adapted; it was written in epistolary genre, the subject-line is not well defined and there is a lot of jumping [backwards and forwards] in time. But we liked the story so much that wanted to shoot it and these minuses did not stop us." Prodan cites "definite, bright characters and unusual situations" as positive reasons for approaching the text.
Moreover, Prodan finds the film's themes of self-destruction due to intense burning passion to be universal and timeless. Explaining both this interest and the use of the theme of the Procrustean bed, Prodan told Kinoeye:
Love is often a Procustean bed for people. It is hard to find a person that has passed through such a strong love and passion and remained unchanged. Often love destroys people: it stretches some and chops others. For many people love is a disease that can hardly be treated. And if the passion for a bright and elevated woman with a fine sense might be compared to a refined disease causing a fine and tormenting suffering, then love for another type of woman might be compared to a shameful disease, which one might want to hide or to run away from. Often this kind of love results in suicide.
Prodan describes Ladima as the "last of the mammoths remaining on the planet," who, unable to find a mate, has focussed his attention on a donkey and tried to convince himself that she is a female mammoth. Despite his intelligence, he is a man who has a fundamental inability to communicate with anybody. As Prodan points out, Fred is the only person in the film that Ladima is able to talk to in a normal way. This theme is emphasised by the fact that Ladima in the film speaks Russian, whereas most of the characters speak Romanian. "It is hard for me to judge whether and to what extent it is felt in the film, but I think that we managed to turn the minus of the different languages into a plus for the picture," Prodan explains.
Arguably, the film wouldn't work were it not for its casting. Particularly, the central character of Fred is superbly realised by Petru Vutcărău, capturing the man and his contradictions totally in his appearance and mannerisms. As Prodan revealed, though, it almost didn't happen that way:
For most of his actor's life, Oleg Iankovsky [who played Ladima] has brilliantly played characters like Fred Vasilescu. He is closer to them and understands them better. Petru Vutcărău, conversely, wanted to play Ladima. Once, they even came to Viorica and me with the proposal to change their roles. Iankovsky even told us that if we gave him Fred to play, then he would act free of charge, but we wanted to have a strong opposition of the character and the actor. We insisted on it, and I think we were right.
A slow genesis
Moldova does not exactly have a thriving film industry. The country only has five modern cinemas with Dolby sound, and there are yet to appear any multiplexes. In this respect, it is amazing that Patul lui Procust got made at all, let alone on a USD 1 million budget—a huge amount for a country that is officially ranked as Europe's poorest (having recently "overtaken" Albania). This poverty does explain the long production history of the film, though. As Prodan recalls, the money had to put together in piecemeal fashion over a period of time, particularly as the team didn't want to compromise on quality, but forces beyond the control of cinema were to intervene...
We received an order from the Government of the Republic of Moldova through the National Centre of Cinematography to shoot the film. The Moldovan state allocated the funds for this. There was little money, but still it was something, and we had to wait a long time for the next instalment. We started shooting the film in summer of 1995 and had almost finished it at the end of 1997. However, the economic crises took place in Russia in the summer of 1997, and it seriously damaged the weak Moldovan economy. The Moldovan state ceased financing [the film] and for two years, with the film already shot, we were searching for money for post-production. I would like to point out that neither Romanian nor Russian [co-producers] have invested [money] in the film or made any other exchange for [distribution] rights. Though the creative teamwork is basically from these countries—Oleg Yankovsky and the cameraman, Sergei Akopov, are from Moscow, and most of the actors are from Bucharest.
At the end of 1999, through the legal company Brodsky Uskov Looper Reed & Partners, we managed to find an investor. It was an American company, European Financial Holding, which is involved in making investments in central and eastern Europe rather than in filmmaking. Our lawyers were able to convince them to take a risk and invest funds for the film's post-production [costs]. Their contribution constitutes about 40 percent of the contribution of the Moldovan state. Thus, the post-production was done with this money, and we worked on it in Moscow and in Bucharest.
Trouble at home
Despite being the first adaptation of Petrescu's novel, the film has not been widely seen in Moldova or Romania. The film premiered in the Moldovan capital Chişinău, and, due to demand, non-theatrical showings continued for three weeks after this. However, the film has not formally had a theatrical release in the country ("Our film market is annexed to the Russian market," says Prodan by way of explanation), and the film hasn't been shown in Romania at all. Moreover, Prodan is hardly brimming with optimism about the chances of Romanians or Moldovans being able to see the film on TV: "Perhaps, but only through a global distributor."
However, the global prospects for the film look a little rosier. The film has been enthusiastically received at a number of festivals (including Karlovy Vary, where I caught up with it), and the producers are currently in negotiations for a contract on global distribution rights.
Despite this modest success in the film industry, Prodan is profoundly pessimistic about the future of Moldovan film. "This is an aching issue for me," he laments, "Our film is the only [feature film] that was shot in Moldova in the last decade. And I am afraid that it may be the last one. Unfortunately, it is hard to solve this problem. The simplest way out for those film-makers that would like to work is to emigrate. Of course, it is sad, but true."
It's hard to know how to respond to this. On the one hand, it would be a shame if the best of Moldovan talent desert the country's film industry and in doing so help, perhaps, to destroy it. On the other hand, I don't particularly want to have to wait a vast number of years to see Prodan and Mesina's next film.
Andrew James Horton
Printer-friendly version of this article