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BERLINALE 2024 Forum

Review: Holy Week

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- BERLINALE 2024: Andrei Cohn’s period drama dissects the cycle of violence through the story of a Jewish innkeeper in the Romanian countryside

Review: Holy Week
Nicoleta Lefter, Doru Bem and Mario Gheorghe Dinu in Holy Week

At the end of the 19th century, an anti-Semitic current started to seep into Romania’s political and literary world, with some of the country’s well-known writers and poets using their works to stir up hatred against the local Jewish community. Ion Luca Caragiale, the country’s most famous playwright and a fervent fighter against Romanian anti-Semitism, wrote the novella The Easter Torch, exploring the conflict between a Jewish village innkeeper and the Orthodox villagers. Andrei Cohn’s compelling Holy Week [+see also:
trailer
interview: Andrei Cohn
film profile
]
, screening in the Berlinale Forum, adapts the novella, showing how the cycle of violence is created and exacerbated, leading to tragedy.

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The protagonist is Leiba (Doru Bem, a theatre actor who is excellent in his first main role for cinema), a Jewish innkeeper who lives with his wife, Sura (Nicoleta Lefter), and his young son, Eli (Mario Dinu), in the Romanian countryside at the turn of the 19th century. Leiba’s life is not without challenges, as he has to contend with his fair share of local drunks and discontent clients, eager to accuse him of being stingy or cheating them. But his biggest issue is his help, Gheorghe (an excellent Ciprian Chiricheş), a ne'er-do-well Romanian who always answers back and only seldom does what he is asked. The conflict between the innkeeper and Gheorghe escalates during the Orthodox Holy Week, a holiday that has no meaning for Leiba, but which is quite important for the mostly Orthodox local community…

Holy Week brings to mind Radu Jude’s Aferim! [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Radu Jude
film profile
]
as it explores a series of micro-aggressions that widen the abyss between Leiba and the villagers. The film’s story might be set more than a century ago in a poor Romanian village, but, aided by the excellent performances of the two main actors, it succeeds in becoming a relevant, timely and universal meditation on xenophobia. A plethora of means are used in creating the conflict, which Cohn retains perfect control of, to create a tango it’s impossible to look away from – one based not on love and attraction, but on hate. What we see (as Andrei Butică’s camerawork keeps the audience at a distance) goes beyond religion and anti-Semitism (Gypsies and Turks are mentioned, too), showing that anyone can be a victim and that anyone can become a perpetrator.

Yes, Holy Week should have been considerably shorter, and some sequences should have been less ambiguous, but the result is by no means less effective or memorable because of it. One year from now, Cohn’s film has every chance of becoming a favourite in many categories at the Gopos, the Romanian film-industry awards. And this period drama becomes an even more powerful contender, given that it offers what very few Romanian features succeed in offering: the creation of an entire universe from scratch. Without the excellent art direction of Cristian Niculescu and Viorica Petrovici’s costumes, it would have been much harder to draw the audience in and to make them witnesses to the, well, unholiness happening on screen.

Holy Week was produced by Mandragora (Romania) and Bord Cadre Films (Switzerland). Shellac is handling the international sales.

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