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The True Life Is Elsewhere: “By the Rails” – film review

     The true life is not on that side of the rails and it`s not on this side either. We can`t find it in the West (Italy) that Radu, the protagonist (Alexandru Potocean) has just come back from, it is not near Monica, his loved woman (Ada Condeescu), who`s got tired of waiting for him either. After watching Cătălin Mitulescu`s latest feature film, the feeling that stuck with me was somehow easy to put in the words of the well-known line, “the true life is elsewhere” ("la vraie vie est ailleurs"). Maybe it is the destination where the trains will arrive to; the trains that with their sharp whistle rip the silence of those who happen to be nearby, just like our protagonists. The trains that carry unknown lives to somewhere, “elsewhere” and whose passing by, like a strike of lighting, leaves behind a shadow of melancholy from imagining other existences, which was common to the first films directed by Mitulescu,Traffic (Palme d'Or for short film), The Way I spent the End of the World (Dorotheea Petre received the Un certain Regard-Best Actress award). We still remember the slow gliding of the boat shining all over, in the end of his feature film debut. His films would gain a fluidity which was found again in this By the Rails.  Bypassing the intermediary Loverboy, it claims its place as the trademark of the cinema style that Cătălin Mitulescu embraces. We could also give it another name, we could speak of a sadness of the restlessness, of the inadequacy. Right from the moment of their seeing each other again, Radu and Monica, the young married couple, set apart by his having been away to work in Italy, nothing seems to be in place. The woman`s dress, obviously a party dress, a bit out of shape and poorly imitating a fashionable dress, using a cheap fabric, looks very inappropriate for the occasion. It is obvious that she came in a rush, leaving a party behind, in order to meet the obligation of an embarrassing welcoming moment, far from any real joy of being reunited. They are each on one side of a road and a truck drives in high gear, delaying their encounter with a second.  Monica reluctantly answers the man`s questions monosyllabically or repeats the question as if trying to buy some time before the possible assault of a natural questioning between a husband and wife who haven`t seen each other in a long time. “What`s with this dress?” “What`s with this dress?” is her line as well. “How are you?” “I`m ok” “Do you smoke?” “You`re mistaken.” “How are your folks?” “Ok.” “Why didn`t you answer the phone?” “I just didn`t answer.” The heroine tries to escape the inevitable explanations by pretending to crave for an ice cream. Just like that. No touch of tenderness, or of intimacy. The woman puts an ice wall between them. An estrangement that the protagonist seems to have anticipated ever since the hours he spent on the bus full of migrants. We could feel on the face of the subtle actor Alexandru Potocean a vague tiredness, an unspoken refusal to let himself get carried away by the euphoria of returning home, which was indifferent even in front of a scenery well known for sure, from other trips. We suppose that the woman`s estrangement settled in also with the help of her will to break free from a life where she doesn`t find herself anymore. Otherwise, we couldn`t understand all her gestures which normally should be annihilated once they get to their home by the rails. Adela Condeescu`s character plays her destiny on the fragile edge between the drama of the break up and the feminine impulse of the small revenge. She doesn`t want to be caught off guard, she always acts on the offensive, she controls every of her gestures: Radu pours wine in the glasses, with the sadness of a memorial service, but Monica doesn`t wait to toast, she grabs the glass and drinks, as if being thirsty and that`s all. Or, maybe she tries to find the courage before a confession that burns her. She would want to get it over with it, so that she may go back to her things. In this first half of the film, the author builds its structure in such a way as to let the ambiguity infuse its body (he likes Lynch, after all) and reach its core, so that from there it might provoke and bring restlessness. It is an intentional delay, well controlled, an accumulation waiting for the explosion. When she feels like it, the woman attacks, doesn`t beat around the bush. There is enough cynical tendency in this strategy that lets the silent moments and the ambiguous words prepare the assault of the confession and of the reproaches in the stead of explaining: “I must tell you something. I cheated on you.” (we`ll not find out if it`s true or not). Indifferent to the man`s nervousness, who is candidly handling a machinery to make pasta that he brought from Italy, she goes on with her incriminations that she speaks out emotionlessly: She was left alone for too long, she couldn`t resist anymore (“Why didn`t you take me with you?”), he kept postponing his coming back, etc. This kind of bitter words may be heard in many households lately. One quality of the film is not to have a sociological approach regarding this hot topic nowadays. It records the consequences and it stops here. Monica sneaks out of the bed, leaving her husband and her child behind in order to get to the place where the music echoes come from, together with the dogs barking and the horny cats meowing, sounds that cut deep into the night of the suburbs. She goes back to the place that she left from, for a few minutes, in order to play that charade of welcoming her husband. To the wedding. A party in the streets, in the suburbs, like in the old times, we would say. That is where true life is for her and for all her neighbors who live by the rails. They live fully, they don`t full around with the kitsch parties of a fake glamorous world.  The setting makes you think it`s more like a grape must tavern, with the gate made of thatch; there are no manele playing, only old lăutărească music. The joy is authentic and it cannot be overshadowed not even by the inevitable and short fight. “Everybody is there.” Angela tells Radu. She will be here shortly, happy out of the blue, swaying her hips all the time, slyly making her moves (the young actress Oana Tudor is quite remarkable, she dominates the scene when she passes by), ready to give a helping hand. In fact, they all stick together, Radu is willing to pay the vocalist forced to run to another party because he had promised. The man keeps his word of honor. Then, Monica and a friend volunteer to sing, awfully out of tune, but from all their hearts. We understand why the bride represents the ideal…and maybe our bride and groom, not that young anymore and accompanied by a daughter who looks like a character from Forman`s films, told themselves that it`s better later, at any cost, than never.
Even if there are no chickens running through the wedding guests` legs, we can feel a touch of Kusturica there, which is quickly assimilated by the imaginary of our suburbs wedding: a hazy mix of daydreaming, of being thankful with very few things, a touching humor, it becomes the piéce de résistance of the film which towards its end is carried away on the wings of a great lăutar from the older days, Dona Dumitru Siminică, “It`s dark outside”. The heartbreaking notes bathe the few guests who exhaustedly are still there, leaning against whatever came their way, like in a suburbs “Dolce Vita”, shot with a tender eye by the cinematographer Liviu Mărghidan. They also accompany the day break and the husband and wife going along the railways, announcing maybe the flickering of a reconciliation. I thought that the end of the story was somewhere near, brought closer by the tender gesture (finally!!) of the woman, in bed, in a tight embrace with her husband. Unfortunately I was wrong. After a new round of refusals, after an abandon, a leaving to the country side (an useless epical concentration) the film allows itself the luxury of a big ellipsis; at the end of it, we can see the two of them happy, together with their little boy, on the bank of a beautiful lake, in a magnificent landscape, like from a postal card from Italy, from Trentino. I wonder if this is true life? Maybe it is, but in another film.


Tags: ada condeescu, alex potocean, by the rails film review, catalin mitulescu, cronica de film dincolo de calea ferata