Balanta (The Oak) (1992)
Director: Lucian Pintilie.
Starring: Maia Morgenstern (Nela), Razvan Vasilescu (Mitica), Victor Rebengiuc (Village mayor), Dorel Visan (Country Priest), Ion Pavlescu, Mariana Mihut (Priest's wife), Gheorghe Visu (Priest in the train), Dan Condurache (Prosecutor), Virgil Andriescu (Nela's father), Matei Alexandru (Butusina), Leopoldina Balanuta (Nela's mother), Magda Catone (Mitica's assistant), Ionel Mihailescu (Titi).
1989 Romania just before the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu; a young woman finds out that her adored father was certainly no hero
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
A woman falls asleep watching home movies. The name on the doorbell is Col. Truica Dumitru. The doorbell rings. The woman goes to the door but there is no one there. There are, however, two letters for her. She turns on a burner to light her cigarette. She fixes a syringe and then injects the liquid into her father's rear end. The telephone rings and we learn that the woman's name is Nela. It's the doctor calling and asking about the state of health of her father. She says: "He's doing fine." It doesn't look like the man is doing fine (or he may even be dead?)
The doctor asks Nela if she would like to see an American film? She says yes. But then, she calls the doctor an imbecile and a moron. She says her father is dead. Then she calls the doctor a quack. She hangs up on him and then smashes the phone repeatedly on the floor until it breaks. She goes over to her father's body and tries to revive him by pushing up and down on his chest.
There's another knock on the door. Nela yells that no one is home. It's her sister, Marcela, who shouts back: "Open up, Nela. Don't be an idiot. It's me Marcela!" Marcela wants to know how father is doing? Again Nela says that father is doing fine. She adds: "Dad no longer wants to see you. He forbids you to come to his funeral." Marcela yells for her sister to open the door or she is going to break it down. The sister is able to get the door open, but there is a chain on the door. Nela runs over as if in a state of madness and keeps smashing the door closed with her backside. She starts shouting: "Robbers! Robbers!" She threatens to set the apartment on fire. She grabs some newspapers, puts them next to the door and lights them on fire. Marcela says she wouldn't mind at all, if Nela burned herself alive. She leaves.
Now Nela combs her hair, takes off her robe, grabs her purse, puts on her shoes and walks out the door over the ashes of the burned newspaper. Then she goes back and takes a Polaroid picture of her father's body. Now, Nela leaves and goes to the doctor. She bursts into his office and tells him he operated on her father for bladder cancer. Her father's name was Truica and he worked for the Ministry of Chemistry. The doctor now remembers her father. He says he remembers her father because he didn't want to fight at the front, so he put his arm on the railroad tracks. This comment infuriates Nela. She goes forward toward the doctor saying: "Professor, there was no one better, braver, fairer than my father."
Nela now says that her father wanted his body to be used to teach medical students. The doctor says he has no way of preserving bodies here. They lack alcohol, formaldehyde, etc. Nor do they have refrigerators for the bodies. So, defeated, Nela starts to leave. The doctor asks for her telephone number and she tells him she does not have a phone.
The body of Nela's father is cremated.
A fellow named Gelu walks with Nela on a city street. He suggests they go get a beer. Nela puts a jar of coffee on the table that contains her father's ashes. Gelu asks her if she loves him. She responds: "No, Gelu. If it changes, I'll let you know." She goes into a wave pool to wade around. A film maker talks with Gelu and tells Nela that she could act in a film. She asks why do the Romanians produce such "bombs"? Is it a lack of talent? Another film maker sitting at the table says that Nela shouldn't talk about things of which she knows nothing. He asks her what she does? She says she studied at the Institute of Psychology in Paris, France. She tells Gelu that she's been appointed to Copsa Mica (a town in Sibiu County, Transylvania, Romania located north of Sibiu, that is one of the most polluted places in Europe).
As narrator, sister Marcela says that while their father was alive, dad was all Nela's. "And now you still take him, even his ashes. Go ahead, take it all!"
Nela is on the train. The conductors come across her just sitting there. They tell her she must leave the train because it is stopped. The floods have washed out part of the tracks. Nela says she's staying here. So one of the conductors picks her up and puts her off the train. He then gives her a piggy-back ride over a stream. The women who work at the ball bearing company all laugh at the conductor taking a woman across the stream. He starts losing his pants and the women scream with laughter. When he and Nela fall into the stream, the women go crazy again with laughter. A priest and the conductor pick Neal out of the stream and deposit her on the stream bank.
When she feels a bit better the conductor asks Nela for a tip. She gives him and his helper some money, which makes them extremely happy. They rush back across the stream and back up to the railroad tracks, making fun of the women as they go. The priest tells Nela she has to change clothes or she will catch pneumonia. He has the women all gather around Nela so no man can see Nela changing. Nela takes off her wet top (brief nudity).
When the track is repaired, everyone gets back on the train. A woman with children travels without her husband. She says he left a year ago to find some work and just never came back. She thinks he is with some Moldavian woman.
Nela has a cigarette with the priest. He mentions the Catholic priest Maximilian von Kolbe who passed himself off as a Jew and went to die with the Jews in one of Hitler's concentration camps. The train stops at a station and a whole bunch of workers get aboard. There are so many of them that they cause a lot of trouble coming in and finding someplace to sit or stand. They have with them a young fellow who plays the accordion and sings for them.
The train arrives at Copsa Mica. Nela gets off, but hangs around the trains. Her sister as narrator says that Nela became obsessed with trains. Hanging around the area she is grabbed by several workmen who are intent on raping her.
Nela is at the police station reporting the rape. She says that she kicked one of the guys in the face, but then someone hit her and knocked her out. When she awoke, there was just this one man standing there all bloody. Apparently, he fought with the rapists. The policeman tells her she must go to the doctor and bring back a medical report to him in exactly 24 hours. She then will go to see his cousin Butusina who is the assistant director.
Nela walks barefoot over to get some sausages. The vendors tell her they are not selling the sausages now, but later. Nela gets very angry and starts balling them out. The policeman from the station drives up and tells her to get in the car. He and his driver will take her to the hospital. On their way, a man either falls or is thrown into the windshield of the police vehicle completely smashing it. Nela is dropped off at the hospital. A woman recently died, so they have a bed for her.
The urologist Dr. Dimitru Bostan comes to her beside and tells her to come with him. He says that he was the one who saved Nela from the rapists. He had picked up an iron bar and most of the fellows ran for it. But two of them tried to hit him with an iron bar, but he was faster than them. The doctor says he used to box as a kid.
The doctor takes Nela with him out camping on Saturday. He talks about the terrible pollution and how a high percentage of his patients have silicosis. At night shells start exploding around them. Nela and the doctor start running. A helicopter lands and three soldiers come over to them. They scold the couple for being out here where it's extremely dangerous. The army is all around the place. Tanks are just over the hill. Are they trying to get killed?
Nela offers some coffee to the soldiers. A lost soldier comes over with his automatic weapon pointed at the group, yelling: "Do not move." The officer tells the soldier to sit down and have some coffee with them. One of the soldiers recognizes Nela from grade school. He talks about her father and says he was a good man.
In the morning the helicopter flies the couple back to the town. Dr. Bostan goes in to speak to Butusina, who tells him to cancel his scheduled appointment for an operation tomorrow. A group checked on the patient and found that patient Titi doesn't need an operation. Dr. Bostan gets really mad at this, saying that he knows what's best for his patients. He calls the authorities in the hospital swine. The doctor leaves. He grabs Titi and tells him that he is going to operate on him tonight. The higher ups forbade him to operate on Titi, so he will do it tonight while Butusina is away.
A nurse named Suzi comes in and starts insulting Nela. And now she says Nela is trying to steal her man (Dr. Bostan). She threatens to beat Nela's ass, so Nela tells her to go ahead and try. As the nurse prepares for a fight, Dr. Bostan comes in and slaps her twice telling her that if she touches Nela he will kill her. He then tells her that she will be his nurse tonight for an operation on Titi. Suzi is a bit confused as to where she is and Dr. Bostan helps her find her way out of the room. The doctor then tells Nela that Suzi is a nympho and a compulsive liar, but she is the best nurse they have.
Bostan tells Nela that about once a week he has to slap Nela to keep her afraid of him, but she loves him still. He also says that he just loves this Titi fellow, who's been at the hospital for four years. Nela tells the doctor that she has to go to school.
Nela sits with her colleagues at school drinking coffee and looking over some of her papers. What the women want to hear from Nela is about the rape.
Dr. Bostan tells Titi that he almost didn't make it through the operation last night. Titi says he can't die now, because he has an important task to do. He asks the doctor to go get his blue book. The doctor goes and finds the blue book. When he returns, he finds Titi dead. He looks at the blue book. Suzi comes over to him and says they are paging him. He tells Suzi that they're not looking for him, but for this blue book.
The doctor goes to his apartment and sees Nela come out. He tells her that this blue book is all that is left of Titi. She tells him that an agent with a Securitate badge came looking for him. Bostan opens the blue book and asks: "What do you suppose is in here?"
Bostan reads through the book and figures out that Titi wants to have his own disciples like Jesus did. A man comes for the blue book. Bostan says he will give it to the fellow tomorrow at 3 p.m. on the condition that he be given back the original blue book (and not just a copy). The fellow says he will asks his superiors.
The next day Bostan has to go in to see Mr. Butusina. With him are Birca "Titi" Constantin's relatives who have come to take his body back to be buried. They say they are cousins of Titi. Bostan wonders why they never came to see Titi in the hospital? He has never seen them before. They now leave. Butusina starts to says that this is a serious situation for Bostan. He had to tell the relatives that the operation was done without the consent of Titi. Bostan says that now Butusina has gone too far. He leaves.
Bostan talks with the relatives. He says he will pay for the transportation of the body and the casket. So the relatives figure they should be able to get a lot more money from him in Titi's name. When they go too far Bostan pushes the cousins out of his office.
Bostan goes to see Titi's body. There Butusina comes with the relatives and a policeman to see Bostan. Bostan tells them that they will all have to wait for him in the hall for awhile. The female cousin stares at four dead bodies in the room across from Titi's room and she almost throws up.
A lawyer tells Bostan that he has done a bad thing by disfiguring Titi. And Bostan may be prevented from practicing medicine anymore. He then calls Bostan a hooligan. Bostan stops for a moment and then says if he is a hooligan, he is going to do something to deserve the title. He slaps the lawyer hard twice and then he boots Butusina in the arse. The two men run from the doctor.
When Nela gets home there are agents waiting for him. The landlady tells Nela that they arrested Dr. Bostan an hour ago. Suzi came and told her.
Nela goes to the security office. A clerk tells her that the doctor cannot have any visitors now. Nela gets mad, goes outside and lays on the sidewalk on her backside. The security guys come and take her inside. For punishment, Nela is subjected to being sprayed with a high pressure water hose. An older man sprays her, but after awhile lets her go. He tells her never to come again or he will turn her over to the dogs in the canine unit. At home Nela finds her pet gerbil dead in her bed. She throws the gerbil into the trashcan.
In the morning Nela gets dressed up and goes to talk with the prosecutor. He says he thinks he knows her, but can't quite place her. They go have a drink then they go over to her place. Nela tells the prosecutor to go take a shower. He gets naked (brief nudity including penis) and Nela takes some Polaroid photos of him. So he asks her what does she want from him? She says she is Dr. Bostan's wife. She intends to blackmail him if he doesn't drop his charges against her husband.
Nela meets with the prosecutor again and he tells her he can't do anything about the case. Too many people know about the case. And Butusina told him that he wants to destroy Bostan. He pleads with her to believe him. She asks how long a sentence would Bostan receive? A year and a half. He now begs her saying she can sent the photos to anybody she wants, but not to his wife. Nela now burns three of the Polaroids of the prosecutor. She says that she is keeping one, but only to show it to Bostan, because he has a great sense of humor.
Actually Bostan is released. The first secretary of the party's wife was in serious need of an immediate operation. The first secretary asked who was the best surgeon and they said Dr. Bostan is. The operation by Bostan was a complete success and the first secretary wanted to personally thank the doctor. That's when he was told that Dr. Bostan is in prison. The first secretary balled out everyone for putting such a great surgeon in prison. So the prosecutor had to appeal Bostan's case, Bostan was retried and acquitted. So Bostan is free to go.
Nela complains to Bostan that they have never kissed even though they have lived together for 7 days (and Bostan was in prison for five of those days).
Bostan borrows money from Suzi and takes Titi's corpse to where he wanted to be buried. They get a truck and hop in the back with the corpse. A low flying jet scares the driver and he runs the truck off the road. The doctor runs back to the car following them and asks if the security agents can put the corpse on their luggage rack and get going so they can arrive before nightfall? So they put the corpse on top of the car.
They arrive before nightfall. The two agents help dig the grave. The manager of the cemetery has the men ring the bell and a lot of people come out of their houses and walk up to the cemetery. The priest comes racing in on a motorbike. After the funeral there is a dinner at the priest's house for a long table-full of people. The orthodox priest's wife warns him not to talk about politics at the table. The priest, however, can't help but complain. He says that Romania may even be the country in Europe with the highest rate of unemployment. Another man starts arguing with the priest and they really go at it for awhile. They sit down. The fellow arguing with the priest says it's all the fault of the Americans. "They want to submit the whole world to their dollars and profits!" He goes on and on and then says: "No one's more stupid than an American." The fellow receives a big round of applause from everybody at the table.
Outside there is a big explosion. Everyone runs to the picture window to look out. There they see a parachutist on the lawn. They all climb out of the picture window and welcome the parachutist. The party continues on into the next daylight.
Back home Bostan and Nela get invited over to the hunting chalet for Sunday dinner with the first secretary! Nela warns Mitica Bostan not to fall in love with her because he will live to regret it.
Nela receives the same letter twice from her sister. Mother is not in good health, so Nela may want to come to Bucharest to see her for one last time. The next day Nela is on a train to Bucharest. She returns to the old apartment where her father died. When she sees her mother, she asks her why did she leave father when she knew that he had cancer? Mother says to punish him. Nela wants to know why mother wanted to punish father? Her father was being considered for a high position in the government. As part of the process, he was asked if his wife was Jewish? Father would terrorize her by waking her up at various odd hours and demanding to know if she is Jewish or not. He researched her family background and found an ancestor named Meltzer. She told him that the woman with the name of Meltzer was not Jewish, but dad never believed her, and threatened to kill her with the gun he alwayskept on his night table. Mom confirms the old story that father put his arm on the railroad track because he was scared of serving in the army.
Mom says that even when dad was in the underground he was no hero. He was best known for his ability to take cover. Now mom wants to tell Nela what dad and the others did at their meetings, but Nela has had enough for one day. She tells her mother that's enough.
Nela comes home with dad's ashes. She wants to honor her father's request that his ashes be buried under an oak tree. Bostan tells her that he knows where there is a superb oak. He will take Nela to it tomorrow.
Nela digs a small hole under an oak tree. She burns some family photos and the photos of her students. She raises up the coffee can with the ashes. She says: "Good father, tyrannical father, cowardly father. Rest in peace!" She now puts her father's ashes in the hole with the ashes from the photos.
They try to go to the hunting chalet of the first secretary, but a school bus full of children has been hijacked. The kids are now hostages. The hijackers want to fly out on a plane. The secretary general calls and wants the bus taken by force now. The bus is fired upon. When the shooting stops everything is quiet. Then there is a big explosion in the back of the bus.
Nela runs back to the big oak tree. She has a pistol she took off a dead soldier. She tells Bostan: "Stay back or I'll shoot!" The doctor keeps telling her over and over to be calm. He finally gets close enough to her to take the pistol from her. Now they hug and kiss each other. Much later Nela picks up the pistol. She tells Bostan that she wants to have his child. Bostan takes the pistol from Nela and wonders what would their child look like? Nela says it will have to be either an idiot or a genius.
The story of Nela is a parable for the story of communist Romania. Nela virtually worshipped her father. But after he dies, she learns from others that he was not the hero she thought him to be. He was anti-Semitic and brutal toward his wife, who divorced him; he put his arm on a railroad track so he would only have one arm and thereby be exempt from the military; and he was cowardly. Nela has to figure out how to handle this new information about her father, while still maintaining some love for him. The situation is like life in Romania under dictator Nicolae Ceausescu (1918-1989). In the early years of his reign, he was open to influences from the west. But his later years were characterized by a regime that was brutal and repressive in the Stalinist vein. Part of this brutal regime was the ubiquitous personality cult built up around Ceausescu. Kids in Romania grew up thinking that Ceausescu was a great and kind man. (The most important day of the year for the Romanian children was Ceausescu's birthday on the 26th of January.) But at some point along the way, the ugly truth is shown to them about their supposedly great leader Nicolae Ceausescu (Secretary General of the Romanian Communist Party from 1965 to 1989). All those brought up on lie of the great Ceausescu had to adjust to the new reality. Ceausescu was overthrown in 1989, tried and he and his wife were executed by a firing squad.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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