Vera is a quiet and devoted vet working for the zoo of Sibiu, a medium-size Transylvanian city surrounded by green forests. Monkey Frodo has diarrhoea because a “stupid” child gave him jelly beans. Tigress Rihanna needs to undergo medical examination. Vera has a strong bond with her patients, even if she can’t get too close to every single one of them. She gives Rihanna a stuffed tiger toy, whom the poor and lonely animal adopts as if it was her own offspring. Naturally, a zoo isn’t a place of joy. While healthy, animals are imprisoned and sadness prevails. It is impossible not to feel sorry for the emus, the monkeys, the deer and so many other creatures living in such a restrictive and entirely alien environment.
Vera’s private life, we soon find out, is not particularly liberating either. She is married to the sweet and loving Toma (Paul Ipate), but their relationship has hit rockbottom. The couple, probably in their early 30s, lost their first child just a few days after he was born. The baby name “Bogdan” and toys are still around the house. Vera confesses that she never wanted a child, leaving Paul to question whether the death was entirely inevitable. To make things worse, Vera catches Paul having oral sex with a teenager and mercilessly grills him about his possible extramarital affairs. He swears that he’s been almost entirely faithful. Vera doesn’t trust him.
One day, Rihanna runs away, killing a deer on her way out. Her escapade is a consequence of Vera’s negligence (or perhaps a subconscious gesture of animal solidarity?). Locals are told to stay indoors as the armed police and a bizarre sword-wielding man claiming to own the tigress desperately hunt the animal down. A highly flustered Vera joins the search effort, with non-lethal sleep darts to hand. Toma remains firmly by her side, but his presence is more of a burden than an asset. The couple spend more time arguing than looking for the animal. Their haggling descends into farce after Toma gets bitten by a possibly venomous snake. Vera’s response turns out to be more toxic than the reptile’s poison. Could these confused hunters capture the animal before it claims a human victim? Animal suffering is used as a proxy for human folly. Safely returning Rihanna to her enclosure proves to be as difficult and daunting as saving Vera’s marriage.
This sense of hopelessness is supported by Barbu Balasoiu’s realistic and gloomy cinematography, with few close-ups and sparse lighting, and a minimalistic music score. Not even the verdant, exuberant forest conveys a sense of freedom. Despondent human beings barely able to cope with their own personal problems search for a distressed animal so that they can put her back in a cage. Their mission is both heartbreaking and futile. Rihanna, Vera and Toma are creatures worthy of pity.
Day of the Tiger shows at the 41st Turin International Film Festival.