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Patrick Gamble

The best films from the Transilvania International Film Festival 2018

This year’s festival offered liberating explorations of identity in Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not and Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience.

“I wanted to unlearn my ideas about intimacy,” confessed Adina Pintilie when she introduced her documentary Touch Me Not to a sold-out crowd at the Victoria Cinema in Cluj-Napoca. “I wanted to create a system where fiction could work as a safety net to explore personal areas of our lives.” Pintilie’s controversial winner of the Berlin Film Festival’s Golden Bear was the highlight of this year’s Transilvania International Film Festival. A provocative exploration of sexuality, her film spearheaded a selection of this year’s programme that underscores the complex relationship between modernising cultures and sexual identity.

This year’s theme of identity seems fitting for a festival undergoing a period of intense self-exploration regarding its role within the industry. Throughout its 17-year history the festival has contributed to the global rise of Romanian cinema by providing a platform for homegrown filmmakers like Pintilie to showcase their work. Yet at the same time this has been contingent on the festival’s willingness to exploit the gothic image of the region to attract foreign industry and press.

Described as “an open invitation to discuss intimacy”, Pintilie’s experimental documentary weaves together fiction and non-fiction techniques in an attempt to break free from both conventional modes of representation, as well as the taboos surrounding sexuality. She chronicles the emotional journey of Laura Benson, a 50-year-old woman who has issues with physical intimacy – although as the film progresses it becomes apparent that Laura is merely a stand in for the director, who has a fraught relationship with her own sexual identity.

Pintilie employs a plethora of diverse naked bodies to challenge notions of beauty and attraction, with Laura employing therapists, prostitutes and a transsexual sex-worker to aid her journey of discovery. Spending time with these individuals, the audience is offered varied and candid representations of sex. However, role-playing with a sex healer and evenings at a BDSM club are intimately presented yet never voyeuristic. Pintilie’s camera doesn’t linger or leer, instead she patiently observes these interactions, allowing the audience to see – but never judge – each of these characters as they begin to understand their own bodies.

Touch Me Not explores sexual identity through a symphony of voices, but it’s often an incredibly personal journey; one many face alone. However, in recent years the internet has given a voice to people in ways that have transformed cultural connectivity. The downside of this new age of hyper-sharing is glaringly obvious and the emergence of social networking has created a problem of how the self is to be understood in the virtual world. This disparity between online and offline identities is the conflict that burns at the heart of Marcio Reolon and Filipe Matzembacher ‘s Hard Paint, a powerful drama about the search for human connection through technology.

The film follows Pedro (Shico Menegat), a reclusive young man from the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, who earns a living by smearing his body with neon paint and stripping in online chatrooms. Unlike Pintille, Reolon and Matzembacher present the body as an object; contorted by economic necessity. That is until he meets Leo (Bruno Fernandes) a dancer and fellow chatroom performer who teaches him how to dismantle the artificial construction of his virtual personality and experience a more authentic love. Despite its cold and somewhat enigmatic first act, Hard Paint builds gradually into an uninhibited mood piece, in which delicate humanism prevails in a digital world.

Online love is also at the core of Bogdan Theodor Olteanu’s Several Conversations About a Very Tall Girl. Lazily billed as Romania’s answer to Blue is the Warmest Colour, Olteanu eschews the sensualism of sexual awakening and the thrill of first love in favour of a more tender and emotionally charged tale about a traditional Moldavian girl’s struggle to instigate a long-term relationship with another woman.

Played by Florentina Nastase and Silvana Mihai, the two girls remain nameless in an attempt to make their relationship less specific, but it never detracts from the emotion on display. “There are no lesbians in my hometown” exclaims one of the girls, as she chats via Skype to the other about an ex-lover they both share. This conversation is the initial spark of an erotic and emotional connection; but as the pair grow closer, the gap between them becomes noticeably wider. Set almost entirely within a cramped Bucharest apartment, where the prejudices of the world outside are implied but never spoken, Olteanu beautiful captures a truth most other directors struggle to articulate; that falling in love is to be confronted with who you really are.

The prejudices of a traditional community were also at the heart of Disobedience, the latest study of female identity by Sebastián Lelio, the Oscar-winner behind 2017’s A Fantastic Woman. The Chilean writer/director’s English-language debut is a beautifully composed, but oddly unemphatic drama about truth and liberation in an Orthodox Jewish community that, although lacking in the alluring style and escalating melodrama of his previous work, remains an incisive and sensitive character study.

Rachel Weisz stars as Ronit, a New York photographer who’s forced to return to London after learning about the death of her estranged father. However, she quickly finds herself submerged in the same world that shunned her decades earlier for embarking in a sexual relationship with her best friend Esti (Rachel McAdams). Although unexpectedly sombre, Disobedience is not dissimilar to A Fantastic Woman, with both films concerned with women unable to express themselves in highly conservative societies. The conflict between religion and identity has been tackled countless times in cinema, yet here Lelio presents the complexities and mutuality of the relationship between the two.

Discourse surrounding the construction of sexual identity rarely involves the intersections of class, nationality and religion, all of which play a part in self-awareness, perception and representation. By projecting these issues through multiple lenses, this year’s Transilvania International Film Festival demonstrates that cinema is a nurturing space for honest and liberating explorations of identity.

For more information on this year’s Transilvania International Film Festival visit tiff.ro

Published 7 Jun 2018

Tags: Adina Pintilie Rachel McAdams Rachel Weisz Sebastián Lelio

Read More

Touch Me Not – first look review

By Elena Lazic

Adina Pintilie’s Golden Bear winner comprises superficial images of unsimulated sex and people with disabilities.

The best films from the Transylvania International Film Festival 2017

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A film about ‘Stalin’s Space Monkeys’ and a participatory documentary were among the highlights of this year’s festival.

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By Hannah Woodhead

A star is born in Sebastián Lelio’s drama about a trans woman coming to terms with the death of her partner.

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