The theme of institutional corruption has become recognised as a mainstay of the Romanian New Wave, but Ioana Uricaru’s debut Lemonade, the story of a Romanian woman’s attempt to obtain a United States green card, suggests things aren’t much better in the ‘Land of the Free’.
Arriving almost a decade after her contribution to 2009’s portmanteau Tales from the Golden Age, Uricaru has finally delivered her feature debut, an empathetic portrait of the difficulties of navigating between authoritarianism and survival in the US immigration system. But as the film’s title suggests when life gives you lemons you just need add a little fizz. Lemonade’s sparkle comes from Mara (Mălina Manovici) a nurse and single mother who has come to America on a temporary work visa. We first meet her as she’s receiving a flu vaccine, but there’s nothing that can prepare her for the Kafkaesque absurdity of the corruption and degradation she’s about to experience.
Shortly before her visa expired, she married Daniel (Dylan Scott Smith), a former patient of hers who she met five weeks prior. Her son, Dragos (Milan Hurduc) will soon be joining them from Romania, and she plans to sell her apartment in Bucharest to finance their move to a bigger home in the States. All she needs to do now is pass the green card interview. But it’s not that simple, and before long the immigration officer responsible for her case exploits her situation, accusing her of marriage fraud and leaving her in a seemingly hopeless situation.
Romania’s cinematic upsurge remains the most vital and important national film movement of the current century and its refreshing to see it’s next generation of directors creating their own stories in the US, rather than being poached to regurgitate the same old studio narratives. Mara, superbly played by Manovici, delivers a sensitive and convincing performance, and is often followed by Friede Clausz’s inquisitive camera as she emerges from shadowy hallways in to brightly lit rooms, a clear metaphor for the migration experience she initially hoped to experience. “I thought America was different,” see laments to her Serbian lawyer, but sat there, faced with having to either sleep with her immigration office or face deportation, its clear she’s already realised that corruption is an international language.
Despite some heightened contrivance and a relentless adherence to its single overarching theme, Uricaru’s steady pacing and sympathetic eye ensures that Mara’s downbeat journey is a consistently intriguing and watchable one. Thankfully, it’s not all hopeless miserablism, and there’s a legitimate reason for her to sport a hesitant but genuine smile in the films final shot. Her lawyer informs her that there are some things that are different in the States: “In America victims have rights”, and despite facing the same abusive patriarchy, savage individualism and extortion we’ve grown to expect from Romanian cinema, Lemonade suggests an optimistic future is in store for both Mara, and Uricaru.
The Berlin Film Festival runs from 15-25 February. Follow our coverage here.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble