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Cristi Puiu's new creation is a highly conversational, cryptic and esoteric examination of a Romania crippled by corruption, Covid and micro-aggressions of all sorts - live from the 71st San Sebastian International Film Festival


This loose piece of social drama sits somewhere between an anthology movie and a non-narrative fiction feature. It is roughly broken down into four stories that only vaguely overlap and hardly make any sense as standalone pieces. They are snapshots into the lives of ordinary Romanians during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Balkan nation is riddled with the virus, corruption and family strife. Selfish people are always prepared to attack each other with hurtful and malicious comments. Solidarity struggles for space in a precarious society with little prospect of redemption.

The beginning of the story is the most lighthearted and funny one. Flaky therapist Oana treats a new patient in her Bucharest home, the self-righteous and confident Nadia (she eventually reveals that the session was the present from a friend, and that she only attended it because it would be rude otherwise). The interaction consists almost entirely of providing answers on a scale of one to five, but it is the patient who ends up asking more questions, leaving a baffled Oana mostly in silence. Oana’s brother Mihai interrupts the session, and the therapist makes an angry phone call as her patient pops to the toilet. All so very professional. In the second part of the movie. Oana attempts to help a heavily pregnant friend who has been taken to hospital. All of the action takes place from inside her apartment, presumably because the pandemic prevents people from leaving their home. She desperately calls score of friends, acquaintances and even an ex-lover in the hope that someone has insider access into the hospital. Because a little nepotism is the best remedy. Her careless brother Mihai is more concerned about the rum and the cake for his own birthday, while her husband Septimiu is plain malicious and unpleasant.

In the second half of the movie, Septimiu listens to a very strange story concocted by a colleague, involving Chechens, Moldovans, the American Dream and the Romanian Dream (the equivalent to the American Dream for the hapless Moldovans). The conversation takes place on a piece of furniture resembling Freud’s divan, despite the absence of a therapist. The final story centres on crime investigator Narcis Patranescu as he questions a prostitute about human trafficking and organ harvesting. Some shocking revelations bring some tragic closure to the story. Dejection and pessimism intoxicate the future of the Carpathian Garden.

Fifty-six-year-old director and writer Cristi Puiu, sometimes credited as the founder of the Romanian New Wave, does not set out to create a coherent story. Loose ends are left everywhere for viewers to conjecture and deliberate. I have no idea what the puzzling movie title means (maybe a letter for each one of the four stories, the two “X”s suggesting that the second half of the movie is a lot more hardcore? Your guess is as good as mine!). Elliptic intertitles between the chapters offer little clarity: one of them says “Norma Jeane Mortensen” (Marilyn Monroe’s birth name), while another one is written in Cyrillic (without subtitles).

Virtually the entire story takes place in interrogation format (therapist, friend listener, police investigator). A significant number of conversations are held on the telephone, with viewers unable to hear what people at the other end of the receiver say – thus creating a further sense of disconnection and alienation. The camera is mostly handheld and there are no extra-diegetic elements, as the director strives to create a realistic piece of filmmaking with as little technical wizardry and set design as possible. The outcome is convincing, however hardly enrapturing. The conversations are just too banal and the references just too esoteric for non-Romanians. Puiu deserves credit for his candid austerity, but less so for the bizarre storytelling. XXMM is not a universal piece of filmmaking.

MMXX just premiered in the Official Competition of the 71st San Sebasntian International Film Festival. The movie barely justifies its duration of 160 minutes (two hours and forty minutes). It claimed its first audience casualties already in the first half an hour, with roughly a quarter of viewers departing long before the lights went on.

By Victor Fraga - 24-09-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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