There’s nothing more absurd than a failing regime. In Lucian Pintilie’s black comedy The Oak (1992), we see the waning, turbulent days of Ceauşescu’s Romania, not long before the dictator’s Christmas Day execution in 1989. Pintilie, often called the father of the country’s New Wave, portrays late-era Communist Romania in such abject disarray that it seems only to function as a stage for madcap hysterics, its citizens the comedy’s worn-down players. When, for instance, a wholesome camping trip is interrupted by explosive military drills or a guy crashes headfirst into the windshield of a cop car that’s shuttling a rape victim to the hospital, the incidents are treated lightly; in a climate of violence and disorganization, if one survives, she gets to laugh.
When we meet the film’s protagonist, Nela (Maia Morgenstern), she’s laughing. A small child in a large house on Christmas, she rejects the gift-wrapped dolls and stuffed bears she’s given, and instead gleefully mimes shooting at her servants and relatives with an unloaded gun. This sequence is part of a 16mm home movie projected on the wall in one the filthiest hell holes of an apartment ever committed to film. Nela, now a young adult, is lying in bed watching. Next to her is her sickly father (Virgil Andriescu), a former high-ranking government official and his daughter’s hero. As he watches the evidence of his life’s former grandeur, he dies. Nela, toting his ashes in a coffee jar, leaves Bucharest for a teaching position in Copşa Micӑ, a factory town famous for being one of the most polluted places in Europe.
The Oak follows Nela’s spiritual journey after her father’s death. As one shocking event after another occurs to or around her, she trudges ahead brazenly, cackling with laughter. She meets Miticӑ (Răzvan Vasilescu), a principled but fiery doctor who is frequently in trouble with the authorities, and the two form an immediate bond. But complications—the aforementioned picnic disruption, Miticӑ’s arrest, a brutal massacre of children, etc.—threaten to keep them apart.
During Ceauşescu’s two and a half decades in office, nearly 20 thousand children died unnecessarily in Romania’s network of state-run children’s homes, with the majority of deaths occurring in the squalid, ill-managed institutions for disabled children. When Miticӑ and Nela discuss having their own child, he says, “Obviously, if it’s normal, I’ll kill it with my own hands.” The comment, even in view of the brusque humor throughout the film, is jarring. It insists that any symbol of the current regime—which has established as “normal” the perverse devaluation of innocent human life—must die.
The Oak opens today, April 28, in a new digital restoration at Film Forum.