The final year of Ceausescu's reign of terror in Romania forms a dramatic backdrop to "How I Spent the End of the World," Catalin Mitulescu's charmingly told first feature about a spunky 17-year-old girl on the cusp of adulthood and her unruly little brother. Mitulescu, whose short film "Trafic" won a Palm d'Or two years ago, works confidently within a traditional, anecdotal storytelling framework, enlivened by young Dorotheea Petre's ("Ryna") luminous perf. Pic joins a spate of fine recent Romanian films (most notably, "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," discovered in Cannes last year) which are slowly finding audience as well as critical support.
Ambitiously trying to blend the joys of growing up with the melancholy of living in a country under one of the worst dictatorships in Eastern Europe, this warm story does have a tendency to ramble. But in its on-key depiction of daily life, which goes on under any circumstances, it largely lives up to its credentials, which include winning the 2005 Sundance/NHK award for best European project and getting the high sign from Martin Scorsese and Wim Wenders, who are listed as associate producers.
In 1989 Bucharest, pretty Eva and her boyfriend Alex (Ionut Becheru) create an uproar at school when they accidentally knock over a plaster bust of Ceausescu. Alex is protected by his father, a Communist party member, but the rebellious Eva gets kicked out of school.
She winds up attending a kind of open reformatory where she meets the strange, even more rebellious and desperate Andrei (Cristian Vararu.) His dissident parents never appear in the film, leaving their fate a mystery.
While Alex pines for her, Eva boldly and a little naively plots to swim across the Danube to freedom with Andrei. Meanwhile, her 7-year-old brother Lalalilu (Timotei Duma) and his two pests of friends (Marius Stan, Marian Stoica) decide to assassinate the dictator during a national celebration where they will be singing in a children's choir. Improbable as it is, this pint-size conspiracy still creates a healthy tension in the film's final reels.
Mitulescu successfully negotiates the tricky byways of the film's tragi-comic tone, offering the viewer a sense of the era as it was lived by ordinary, unheroic people who fearfully stayed in the shadows until the revolution suddenly overturned their world.
The last scenes, incorporating newsreel footage of battles between protesters and police, ends the tale in the most predictable way, with one character dead, one reformed, and one realizing a dream to find a new life abroad.
If the story itself doesn't stand up and shout, the cast is something special. Petre, who leapt off the screen as a masculinized country girl in "Ryna," returns here as a magnetic new screen presence. Her warm relationship to the feisty little Duma suggests how humor, love and imagination kept people human and alive within such a dark, strait-laced society.
Daniel Raduta's cluttered, old-fashioned sets and Monica Raduta's retro costume design contribute to the realism of the film. Lensing by Marius Panduru blends reality into unexpected moments of fantasy, like little brother Lali's plan to have the whole neighborhood escape in a submarine.
Camera (color), Marius Panduru; editor, Cristina Ionescu; music, Alexander Balanescu; production designer, Daniel Raduta; costume designer, Monica Raduta; sound (Dolby SRD), Yves-Marie Omnes, Stephane Thiebaut; associate producers, Raffaele Donato, Andreea Valean, Martin Scorsese, Wim Wenders. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 23, 2006. Running time: 105 MIN.
With: Marius Stan, Marian Stoica, Mircea Diaconu, Carmen Ungureanu, Grigoire Gonta, Nicolae Praida, Jean Constantin.