Pioneers’ Palace: A crop of new and interesting faces
by Stefan Dobroiu
- Bobby Păunescu’s film was shown at Sundance ahead of its domestic release in December
Shown at Sundance in the Special Events sidebar, Bobby Păunescu’s second feature, Pioneers’ Palace, will finally meet Romanian audiences at the beginning of December. The film continues a trend that started with Love Building [+see also:
interview: Iulia Rugina
film profile], Iulia Rugină’s romantic comedy: a feature made with the graduates of an acting school – in this case, Păunescu’s MM Film Academy. The two films share the plusses and the minuses of the approach: a crop of new and interesting faces, but also the problems inherent in a screenplay with too many characters and too many subplots.
The events take place at the beginning of the 1990s. Romanian society is enjoying something of a reboot after the Revolution of 1989, but everything seems to change too fast. It is a time of great opportunities, and Veronel (Toto Dumitrescu) and Mihnea (Costin Cambir), two high-school students, are ready to seize the day: following student protests, they convince the principal to give them the space and the funds to open a club on the school’s premises. The establishment proves popular, and soon Veronel, Mihnea and their friends realise that such a successful endeavour needs protection: enter Ion (Mihai Dorobanţu), a gangster/fixer. Through him, the two young men are treated to their first sexual encounter in Madam Geta’s apartment, which also doubles as a brothel. This adventure will become the backbone of the story: told by a jealous colleague that they now have AIDS, Veronel and Mihnea have to figure out whether they are destined to die in horrible pain.
Păunescu himself wrote the screenplay, which left plenty of room for his actors’ talent for improvisation. There is a lot of good energy in the film, and almost all the actors have what it takes to build an interesting future for themselves in Romanian cinema, although there are already too many actors for the approximately two-dozen features produced every year. The director combines graduates from his acting school with professional performers: for example, Doru Ana plays a swimming coach who needs a little convincing from Veronel’s mother (Ioana Pavelescu) when it comes to making a decision about the young man’s participation in a national competition.
Because of its generous number of characters, the story prefers to remain anecdotal: the main heroes are, after all, young men who are convinced they will soon die of AIDS after having protected sex with two prostitutes. A grenade smuggler, an Australian investor who lets his fiancée wait in Madam Geta’s living room while he’s having his way with one of the girls in the next room, and an impressive array of gangsters and small-time thieves leave the impression that the screenplay is rather based on the outrageous urban legends and gossip that Romanians shared over a cup of coffee more than two decades ago.
Among this plethora of characters, one is easily remembered: Ion, the fixer who knows all about the sordid aspects of the Bucharest underworld. After having played a moneylender in Păunescu’s first feature, Francesca [+see also:
film profile], Dorobanţu (also the film’s art director) steals the scenes he appears in in Pioneers’ Palace, with an excellent mix of humour, ignorance and ferocity.