Can time heal all wounds, or are certain indiscretions immune to the sympathetic ebb and flow of life? That’s the quandary posed in Illegitimate, the eye-catching incest drama from Romanian director Adrian Sitaru. Despite tackling one of society’s last remaining taboos, Illegitimate avoids sensationalism, presenting the topic of sibling incest in an earnest and nonjudgmental manner, with Sitaru far more interested in how prejudices shape our perspectives. Locked almost entirely within the cramped confines of a Bucharest apartment, the film opens with a family dinner, where talk of Plato and philosophy turns sour once it’s revealed the father reported women during the Ceausescu regime who tried to get abortions.
This patriarch seems to see nothing immoral about his actions, insisting to his bewildered children that he was never an informer; he just “prevented abortions”. The relationships of those sat around the table is deliberately obscured, but later, once the dust has settled we discover that the youngest of the kids, twins Sasha (Alina Grigore) and Romi (Robi Urs), are secret lovers. Although Illegitimate brings the topic of abortion back into Romanian cinema after the Palme d’Or success of Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Sitaru’s latest has far more in common with the naturalist dialogues and real world environments of Cristi Puiu’s films. Unlike Mungiu’s harrowing abortion drama, which strived to give a voice to those silenced during the Ceausescu era, Illegitimate is set in the present and far more concerned with the generational divide between those raised before and after communism. In literature sibling incest is often seen as a metaphor for rebellion, yet here it could be read as a direct result of revolution.
There’s a clear divide in the family between those born before the 1989 revolution when abortion was illegal and those born after. The discovery of her father’s views on abortion leads Sasha, born in 89, to question if her father prevented their mother from having an abortion. When Sasha later discovers she’s pregnant with Romi’s child she finally sees an opportunity to confront her father and put his morals to the test, Illegitimate is a film established on the rhythms of everyday life, with the intelligence and emotional clarity of the the script elevated further by a remarkable ensemble performance. Digital handheld cinematography allows the camera to glide back and forth across the apartment’s stuffy rooms, participating in the ensuing chaos and navigating the tense exchanges and awkward silences like a curious bystander unsure if they should announce themselves.
This naturalistic approach is enhanced further by a completely diegetic soundtrack, with the ominous re-occurrence of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata from Sasha’s tablet the only music heard. An intimate portrait of family life, replete with deep connections, unusual couplings, tension, resentment and reconciliation, the key to Illegitimate success is how it takes all these ingredients and posits how they reflect developments outside this cramped Soviet-era apartment. This is highbrow realism, combining sharp social observation and compassion with a compelling narrative to demonstrate the way time distorts how the past and present are perceived.
This year’s Odessa International Film Festival runs from 15-23 July. For more info visit oiff.com.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble