Film festivals, even those as prestigious as Toronto, are lousy with first features. Most of the time the best you can hope from them are a few films that, while not necessarily great, hint at a bright future for their creators. More often than not, the most impressive debuts (like Manolo Nieto's The Dog Pound, for example) reveal enough vision and ability that the weaknesses in the films are easy to overlook, and you're left eager to see the director's sophomore effort. On rare occasions, however, you see a film so confident and effective that it's almost frightening to consider what the director will produce once he or she gets some experience; The Way I Spent the End of the World from first-time writer-director Catalin Mitulescu is one of those revelations.
From the first shot of the film, we're drawn into a world of tremendous vitality and warmth, so powerful and convincing that everyone we see on screen is instantly a fully formed individual and fundamentally real. Set in Romania towards the end of the Ceausescu regime, The Way I Spent the End of the World depicts a few months in the life of one family as they deal with universal struggles like raising kids, finding work, and abiding by societal expectations. Daughter Eva (a forceful, magnetic Doroteea Petre) is the heart of the family: Wise and passionate, she possesses an intelligence so fierce it renders her dark beauty almost over powering. Poised on the cusp of adulthood, she expresses herself through questioning -- not necessarily because she disagrees, but as a way of spreading her wings, and exploring her impact on the world. One person Eva never questions, though, is her adored little brother Lalalilu. Ferociously played by Timotei Duma, Lalalilu is a marvelous character, filled with rambunctious, six-year-old energy and tough and perceptive beyond his years. (Duma gives such a convincing, natural performance in the role that one strongly suspects he's simply playing himself.)
The family is part of a tight-knit, working-class town in which everyone knows everyone else, and everyone thinks they know how the others should live. Though there are fundamental disagreements between neighbors and friends, there's also an undeniable closeness among them, and some of the most magical scenes in the movie show the whole town swept away in moments of shared, childish joy. The total lack of contrivance in these moments is one of the many signs of Mitulescu's abundant talents; done differently, they would have been cloying and unbearable, but in his hands they're imbued with a wonderful, impossible innocence.
When Eva's boyfriend Alex accidentally-on-purpose smashes a bust of Ceausescu at school, her presence in the room when it happened is enough to get her kicked out of the school's Communist Youth Group, and she's sent to a trade school -- the last resort for kids who don't properly conform. Targeted by her new classmates for both harassment and lust, Eva never blinks. She responds to the aggression and awkward flirtation with smiles and offhand rejection, and learns to enjoy her new, refreshingly heterogeneous environment. In particular, she becomes close to Andrei, a new neighbor whose parents are widely rumored to have publicly opposed the government (leading, the town assumes, to their sudden appearance in the little town, and Andrei's presence at the trade school).
Though Ceausescu and his government are constants in The Way I Spent the End of the World, they're not its point. The movie is not about life under a communist regime, it's about a family that just happens to live under one -- a small distinction but an important one, because it allows Mitulescu to focus on his story rather than constantly reminding us how difficult life in pre-revolution Romania was for the working classes. Not interested in political proselytizing, Mitulescu is free to explore his characters, exposing them to problems with which we can all identify in spite of the fundamental foreignness of their world.
Just the latest truly great film to come out of Eastern Europe (following in the footsteps of Romania's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and the remarkable Czech feature, Something Like Happiness) in the last few years, The Way I Spend the End of the World is an astonishingly accomplished piece of filmmaking. As a debut feature, it's every bit as powerful and perceptive as Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's widely praised thriller The Lives of Others, but is unlikely to get the North American exposure Sony Pictures Classics will give the latter film. The unfortunate reality is that, like Something Like Happiness, the narrow, personal focus and unfamiliar setting of The Way I Spent the End of the World make it unlikely to get American distribution, regardless of its incredibly high quality.