9th Jameson Belfast Film Festival review
Modern East European cinema and Romanian cinema in particular has been notable for its ability to make the most of severely limited budgets and rely instead on the quality of its natural locations, its acting talent and the ability of its filmmakers to put all this towards something genuinely fresh and creative. That was certainly the case with films like The Death of Mr Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which made the most of grimy run-down locations to express serious humanitarian points about the social conditions and deprivation that many people in the nation have had to live under, and it was also the case in 12:08 East of Bucharest which imaginatively showed the use that limited locations could be put to in its TV show format. Pushing the definition of low-budget to the limit, director George Dorobantu, takes on an even greater challenge in his first feature film, shooting Elevator with only two young people entirely within the confines of a small elevator.
Those two young people are a teenage boy and teenage girl who have slipped off to be alone together and thought they might have some fun fooling around in a lift. The problem is that the lift in question is in an abandoned factory on the outskirts of the town, so there isn’t going to be anyone by chance passing by to hear their cries when the elevator gets stuck. A mobile phone, the accoutrement that should prevent such dramatically hopeless situations in modern movies, inevitably isn’t going to be capable of picking up a signal in a remote area behind four walls of steel, so the boy and girl are in trouble and well aware of the danger of their predicament.
That’s a classic locked-room scenario that in the hands of a skilful and imaginative writer can provide a tense dramatic situation between two characters. Adapted from clearly just such a well-written play by Gabriel Pintilei, it must be said however that the situation does have limited cinematic potential, and indeed it’s hard to imagine how any potential distributor could market a no-budget Romanian film with subtitles shot entirely inside an elevator and make it sound attractive to an audience (to say nothing of the challenge of writing a review about such a limited scenario). How much more difficult then must it be for a filmmaker, and a first-time filmmaker at that to not only step up to such a challenge, but to make it work and make it work exceptionally well, holding the viewer’s interest throughout an hour and a half? In every respect, George Dorobantu’s Elevator surpasses any reasonable expectation you might have for the film.
In terms of drama, the principal hook that is going to keep the viewer involved is the question of the outcome. It would seem that there are only three possibilities – one, someone eventually comes and rescues them; two, after a number of days they die horrible deaths of starvation and dehydration, or; three, the director cops out and leaves the viewer hanging. Evidently, I’m not going to say what the actual outcome is - and evidently in the hands of a skilled writer there are more possibilities to the outcome of a locked room situation than that - but the ending is unlikely to leave the viewer feeling cheated. Nor is any other aspect of how the film is handled, which is vital, otherwise the viewer is not going to care about the outcome one way or the other.
The script is superbly insightful, the dialogue sounding like an utterly authentic conversation between two teenagers who don’t really know each other all that well – the questions probing, the reactions realistic in relation to their experience and situation. That most pressing situation, other than sexual curiosity (nothing more explicit than that), is evidently the problem of how to get out of the lift, or maybe for these young people the embarrassment of badly needing to go to the toilet in front of another person while trapped in a lift with no ventilation other than a small drain hole at least temporarily outweighs the more serious issue. The other tensions, the relationships that develops, the frustrations, and the ideas of ways to escape or at least get a message out, all flow naturally, the evident limitation of the time they have giving the situation all the more urgency.
Even with all that, the only way Elevator is going to carry this off as a film is if the cast are capable enough and the director can inventively find enough ways to photograph two people in an elevator. In these respects, Cristi Petrescu and Iulia Verdes put in flawless, natural performances, while the director George Dorobantu does indeed fully capture the whole claustrophobic experience, flitting outside the elevator only on a brief occasion that remains entirely within the mind of the person reliving the moment, capturing the sense of passing time, compressing, overlapping and indeed shifting time at one significant point without ever letting showy camerawork take the viewer out of the experience.
In comparison to other socially-relevant Romanian cinema, Elevator may not appear to have any great message other than the dangers of fooling around in lifts in abandoned factories, but in passing it just might have more to say than you would think about teenagers’ lives in Romania, about looking for a way to escape the confinement of their trapped existence, for all the apparent freedom a mobile phone would seem to offer, and it may even have more to say about the experience of growing up as a wider, human experience.