By Neil Young
BERLIN (Hollywood Reporter) - A textbook example of a movie that would have been twice as good at half the length, "Portrait of the Fighter as a Young Man" is a 163-minute slog through the grim history of Romania's anti-Communist resistance from 1949 to 1957. Episodic, stilted and uninvolving despite the considerable potential of the subject-matter, it's strictly for audiences already interested in the material, and thus has very limited appeal outside its native land.
The much-discussed "new wave" of Romanian cinemaa -- epitomized by Cristian Mungiu's 2006 Palme d'Or winner "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" -- continues to yield gems such as last year's "Police, Adjective," and film festivals are understandably still keen to showcase fare from the nation. But this wildly overreaching feature debut by writer-director-producer Constantin Popescu puts the viewer through 8 years, 4 months and 6 days of guerrilla-vs-militia warfare to grindingly tedious effect.
Best known for contributing one of the lesser sections of the Mungiu-devised portmanteau "Tales of the Golden Age," Popescu has bitten off much more than he can chew with this transition to a drastically larger canvas. Inspired by stories from the archives of Romania's dreaded internal security services, he focuses on the activities of an armed group waging a hopeless stand against the "fraudulent" communist government. Outnumbered and outgunned, our noble heroes -- under the charismatic leadership of Ion Gavrila-Ogoranu (Constantin Dita) -- roam picturesque fields, hills and glades and are steadily picked off by the ruthless army, police and militia. The latter's organizers are shown blustering away in smoke-filled rooms, while their bestial henchmen torture and murder all opponents who fall into their dastardly clutches.
While Popescu tries to give the stoic outlaws some individuality, none emerge as properly defined three-dimensional characters. It also doesn't help that every scene features captions pedantically identifying exactly when and where the action is taking place (Popescu manages to kill off Stalin two days early), and to whom. The aim is presumably to add to the documentary style verismilitude of a film presumably closely based on official records. But there's so much text on screen that one wonders why Popescu didn't just write a book about Gavrila-Ogoranu and his men.
Cinematically, despite a couple of transcendental nature moments a la Terrence Malick, the pretentiously titled "Portrait of the Fighter as a Young Man" ("Portretul luptatorului la tinerete") is pretty undistinguished stuff. Seldom, for example, can one movie have featured so many distractingly anachronistic hairstyles. If the aim was to do for early-'50s Romania what Ken Loach did for 1920s Ireland with Palme d'Or garlanded "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," Popescu -- who, perhaps inevitably given current trends, has announced that this is only the first part of a projected trilogy -- falls far short. This is more of an insubstantially light but interminably long-blowing breeze.