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ARRAS 2019

Liviu Săndulescu • Director of Cărturan

“Setting this story in the countryside allowed for a good balance between life and death”

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- Romanian director Liviu Săndulescu tells us about his feature debut, Cărturan, screened in competition at the 20th Arras Film Festival

Liviu Săndulescu • Director of Cărturan
(© Léa Rener/Arras Film Festival)

Playing in Romanian cinemas since last week, Cărturan [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Liviu Săndulescu
film profile
]
is Romanian director Liviu Săndulescu’s feature debut. Produced by Mandragora (Anca and Cristi Puiu) and co-produced by Swedish companies Doppelganger and Film i Väst, the film is playing in competition at the 20th Arras Film Festival where we met up with the director.

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Cineuropa: Why did you opt for this story of a grandfather who learns that he will die soon, and tries to get his affairs in order so he can leave this world peacefully?
Liviu Săndulescu:
As a child, I spent lots of summer holidays at my grandparents’ in Oletnia, the region where the film is set. It is a place where the ante-mortem ceremony of alms is a tradition. To a child from the city, traditions and local superstitions seemed very exotic. Where I was searching for a topic for my feature debut, it was my personal connection to this experience which convinced me. Then I developed this idea with my co-writer Bogdan Adrian Toma and the story became more complex. The protagonist has two intertwined goals: to organise this ceremony, and to take care of the future of his grandson.

How did you avoid falling into over-dramatisation?
I wanted to find a balance between a sad and potentially heavy topic, and a storytelling that wouldn’t be too dramatic. We worked in that direction from the writing of the script and during rehearsals, I insisted on this a lot with the actors. I find it important, in general, to tell stories in a normal way, but the characterisation of the main character in the film helped me find a good balance because he has a rather peculiar relation to his own situation: he doesn’t have a very usual background, since he worked in a mine in his youth and has lost many of his loved ones. Moreover, in rural areas, the perception of death is very different from that in the cities, where death is often a taboo subject. In the countryside, there is the death of animals, the closeness to nature, etc., and setting a story like Cărturan there allowed for a good balance between life and death. With that in mind, we also inserted a few comical or absurd moments in what amounts to a little odyssey before death, the first two weeks of a man who has learned that he is suffering from an incurable illness and tries to solve some problems.

In very light touches, the film suggests a portrait of current Romanian society.
The whole construction of the story hinges on this kind of detail. For me, a film has to give information calmly and progressively. It isn’t necessary to know everything from the very first minutes and I thought it wouldn’t be a good idea to insert social issues in a film which, ultimately, is about something else. These details are important to characterise the world of the character, but they are not essential. For example, if the neighbour wants to return to Italy to work, that is because this is a reality for many Romanian people from the countryside and from small cities, but most of all it is because that explains why, even though she has a good heart and wants to help Cărturan as much as possible, she cannot adopt his grandson.

Actually, all of the secondary characters are full of a goodwill which always has limits.
This is a film about the moral values imparted by beliefs. More particularly, there is a sharper conflict between traditions and the dogmatism of religion, but it is always the human side of the story that dominates the film. There is no manicheism because it is a matter of humanity. Because we all have good intentions, but we also have principles which we do not want to betray.

What were your main intentions in terms of mise en scène and how did you work with cinematographer Oleg Mutu ?
We made three important decisions regarding the stylistic approach. Firstly, we wanted to have long takes, because I wanted the actors to stay on the screen so as to accumulate the energy and tension that were essential for this story. Secondly, we wanted to establish a strong relation between the characters and nature because, since the film’s main topic is death, I wanted to show a lot of life on the screen: greenery, the sounds of insects, etc. Finally, I didn’t want too many camera movements because the most important thing was the story. I have known Oleg for a long time but I had never worked with him before. His experience helped me a lot, and I am very grateful to him for that.

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(Translated from French)

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