Man and Dog

Romanian-Swedish visual artist Ștefan Constantinescu started directing short films in 2002, but had to wait two decades before he could see his first feature length fiction film in cinemas. It’s entitled Man and Dog and it’s also his first film designed primarily for the cinema – an essentially different medium from the galleries, pavilions and art museums in which all of Constantinescu’s previous productions were presented (for example, with his short film Troleibuzul 92, the artist represented Romania at the Venice Biennale in 2009). This did not exclude the selection of his films in numerous high-profile festivals and their distribution in local theaters (as was the case, also in 2009, with the Spanish-Romanian feature documentary Dacia, dragostea mea/My Beautiful Dacia, written and directed by Constantinescu together with Julio Soto).

Man and Dog, a Romania-Bulgaria-Sweden-Germany co-production, had its world premiere in early 2022 at the prestigious Gothenburg International Film Festival. It also won the Special Mention for feature film in the competition “The Romanian Film Days” at the Cluj TIFF. Unfortunately, with its national premiere on September 16, 2022, in a busy release period, this bold and refreshing debut did not receive the critical and public attention it richly deserved.

It becomes obvious with the first sequence in the pre-credits that Man and Dog is not among the realistic films that the New Romanian Cinema of the last two decades has become accustomed to. In an atmosphere of post-apocalyptic horror (accentuated by the haunting music and even a jump scare), a man, fugitively seconded by a woman, is followed by the camera through a forest, where the light is filtered by branches and fog. From the objects he carries, his sounds and cries, we deduce that he is looking for his dog, named Amza. When the man emerges from a ravine and disappears into the open space, the camera lingers on the trees, as if symbolizing the mysteries of the unconscious. Is the described sequence a flashback or a flash-forward? Not at all, but we can’t be sure of that until the end of the movie. With a few notable exceptions (such as Adrian Sitaru’s Domestic), the New Romanian Cinema did not focus on the dreamlike universe of its characters, but Man and Dog (in which, later, the protagonist’s mother narrates a bizarre dream of him) opens in this universe.

And it’s not the only directorial decision within the feature film that can oppose the supporters of pure and hard cinematic realism, which emerged in our country with Cristi Puiu (his 2005 film, The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu, generated a lot of epigonism). In several sequences, Ștefan Constantinescu incites a reading in a symbolic key. An excellent example is the moment after the credits when the coach carrying the protagonist home gets lost in a thick fog on a German highway (the strangeness of the scene is again reinforced by the music), only to be found immediately afterwards loaded with luggage, walking on the side of an entrance road to Constanța, accompanied by a veritable sonic inferno. In fact, the connection between the two sequences is made through the ominous ambulance sirens in both – the story is set in the first summer of the Coronavirus pandemic, and Man and Dog pertinently documents the generalized confusion of that period, manifested by the randomness of thermal scanning, the rumors about quarantine and the confusion regarding the obligation to wear a protective mask.

The film’s script, written by the director together with Andrei Epure and Jörgen Andersson, centers on Doru (played by Bogdan Dumitrache), a man in his 40s who works on a construction site in Sweden, while his wife, Nicoleta (Ofelia Popii), and their teenage daughter, Eliza (Voica Oltean), remained in the aforementioned city on the Black Sea shore. Doru receives a text message from an unknown number, informing him that Nicoleta is no longer faithful to him. Although he had promised not to leave his job until Christmas and knows that he is putting his teammates’ jobs at risk, the protagonist decides to return home unannounced to verify the truth of the message that had set him on fire, and uses the baptism of an old friend’s child as a pretext. Doru only reveals the real reason for his untimely return to Simona (Simona Popescu), an ex-girlfriend with whom he still has a more than friendly relationship. Other than that, he tries to question his relatives and spies on Nicoleta around the town, hunting for the indisputable proof of her infidelity. Obviously, Doru does not manage to hide the secret until the end, and the confrontation between the spouses is inevitable.

Man and Dog is a drama in which the main characters’ psyche is carefully constructed and revealed, but it’s also a bit of a thriller, due to the protagonist’s quest to reach a fatally ineffable truth. Doru’s perspective of a deeply involved observer is privileged by the director. Constantinescu also uses the subjective angle, as in the scene after the altercation with Nicoleta’s alleged lover (absurd humor with props), when the protagonist runs away accompanied by his dog and the sound design retains from the entire sound ambience only Doru’s panting and the rhythmic whirring of the sprinklers watering the lawn in the villa district. However, favoring this perspective does not negate the irony towards the protagonist, as we have witnessed in the aforementioned scene.

The very patriarchal conviction of Doru that the man must be the main provider of the family (which therefore depends on him) and the only one with vision for its bright future (in this case, an indefinitely postponed project of a rural guesthouse) prove illusory. His wife works in a notary’s office during the day, has a massage parlor at home in the evening, promotes her services through Eliza’s Instagram account, and is able to raise her daughter alone. Even the mother of the protagonist, Maria (Ana Ciontea), doesn’t seem to need the money sent by her son from Sweden and keeps it for when he might need it. Although it discusses, above all, betrayal, the film also has elements of social criticism hidden between its layers, mainly targeting the great dilemma of the migrant worker: money or family?

Apart from the two scenes of Bergmanian intensity, in which Nicoleta and Doru have an honest discussion and the elaborate and cathartic final plan-sequence, accompanied by the hit Automatic Lover (Dee D. Jackson), Man and Dog also includes other memorable scenes, even some that do not advance the narrative, but create the feeling of a “durational cinema”, as André Bazin would have described it, with Vittorio De Sica as his model. Even eluding realism at times, Ștefan Constantinescu proves that he has learned Cristi Puiu’s lesson. For example, a scene in the family apartment where, when the tension between the spouses is at an all-time high, a noise from the hallway interrupts them. On the unset table, Nicoleta and Doru find themselves passively following a drone brought by the protagonist from Sweden for his friend, which, controlled by Eliza from her room, flies around in the hallway. A scene that brings not narrative information, but human truth.

The entire cast of the film is well chosen. Standing out, of course, are the two actors in the main roles. Bogdan Dumitrache plays here one of the most valuable roles of a career full of meritorious performances, in the films of directors such as Cecília Felméri, Hadrian Marcu, Cătălin Mitulescu, Călin Peter Netzer, Constantin Popescu, Corneliu Porumboiu, Cristi Puiu and Adrian Sitaru. Even though she has less film experience (in addition to prodigious work on stage), Ofelia Popii delivers a robust answer to her on-screen partner in an equally demanding score. The unforgettable darling of Romanian cinema in the 60s and 70s, Dan Nuțu, whose return to film (too few, unfortunately) are always cause for joy as he appears in an episodic role.

The experience of the director of photography (Alexandru Solomon, also a famous documentary filmmaker) and the editor (Cătălin Cristuțiu) adds a lot to the success of the film, from the construction of mise-en-scenes in interiors with mirror reflections of the participants in the dialogue, to the pacing of the film. Alexandra Alma Ungureanu, in charge of scenography and costumes, paid attention to the significant details for the portrayal of the characters. Last but not least, the music by Cristian Lolea (one of the best Romanian film composers) is worth mentioning – a generally insinuating score, oppressive without standing out, complemented by an attractive, predominantly synth-pop soundtrack.

Man and Dog is not only a brilliant debut, with a brave and confident direction, through which Ștefan Constantinescu announces himself as a first-rate filmmaker, but also the most valuable Romanian film among those released so far in 2022.


Mihai Fulger

Mihai Fulger is a film critic and curator, scientific researcher at the Institute of Art History "G. Oprescu" (Romanian Academy), member of the Association of Critics and Filmologists of the Romanian ...

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