‘Metronom’ Review: Youthful Rebellion and Teenage Love Struggle to Survive in the Shadow of Authoritarianism

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It is 1972, in Bucharest. Ceaușescu has been in power for seven years, and the fabric of ordinary life has been steeped long enough in his regime’s corrosively oppressive mandate that it has begun to fray. Yet against this backdrop of gathering gloom, bright, fresh first love is blossoming. This is already a fertile setup for an atmospheric, doomed romance, but Alexandru Belc’s slow, stylish, richly imagined feature debut is much more than a Romanian riff on Romeo and Juliet. A metronome keeps time for musicians; “Metronom” describes how insidiously even the young — those most inclined toward rebellion and optimistic self-expression in any society — can be made to fall in step with authoritarianism’s joyless, frogmarching beat.

With this story of individual relationships stressed by systemic fearmongering, writer-director Belc — who previously worked with Cristian Mungiu and Corneliu Porumboiu, and picked up the directing award in this year’s Un Certain Regard section at Cannes — is clearly influenced by the Romanian New Wave, sharing a preoccupation with the way corrupt and repressive institutions can invade the personal sphere. But he is, refreshingly, not so beholden to the movement’s aesthetics. Shot in Academy ratio by Tudor Vladimir Panduru (also DP on Mungiu’s excellent Cannes competition title “R.M.N.”), “Metronom” has an unusually vibrant and warm palette: Accents of deep turquoise and berry shades are cleverly deceptive of the film’s more somber developments.

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Meanwhile, the constant, close-up attention lavished on the film’s lead is an unusual choice in a story designed to deliver more general socio-historical observation. Yet from the very first shot, as Ana (Mara Bugarin) waits for her boyfriend Sorin (Serban Lazarovici) on a rain-slicked plaza framed with friezes celebrating the nation’s military history, and Panduru’s camera pulls expressionistic coronas of sunflare into the lens, it cues a visual approach far removed from your standard steely, gritty realism.

Ana and Sorin share a tender kiss, but in the very next moment, Ana is in tears. Sorin has just told her of his family’s plans to emigrate to Germany, and does not, to Ana, seem sufficiently anguished about their impending separation. She’s mopey at school that day — newcomer Bugarin is superb at conveying her character’s surly adolescent self-absorption — and declares with a flounce that she will not attend her friend Roxana’s (Mara Vicol) party that night for fear of seeing him. Fatefully, she changes her mind and, against the express wishes of her mother and the gentler pleadings of her father, slips out to Roxana’s, borrows a dress and resolves to lock down Sorin’s affections by any means necessary.

The parent-free soiree is arranged around the transmission of exiled Romanian DJ Cornel Chiriac’s show, Metronom, on illicit youth-culture station Radio Free Europe. And while there is some talk of some letter of support that Ana’s friends are intending to get smuggled out of the country into Chiriac’s hands, that is all background buzz to Ana’s singleminded fixation on her relationship woes. Then, while dancing with a clearly besotted classmate, she spots Sorin arriving, pulls him into a bedroom, and initiates their first sexual intercourse, before spooking her beau with a whispered “I love you” and watching crestfallen as he flees the scene. (That this entire sequence plays out to The Doors’ “Light My Fire” is either a testament to how fast things can happen when you’re that age, or simply a reminder of how very long the instrumental part of that song is.)

In any case, it cues up a brilliant mid-point pivot, as Ana goes for a walk to clear her head of her recent humiliation and returns to a party — and a world — irrevocably changed. The music is off and her friends are standing in a flushed, trembling line as the secret police, who have been tipped off about the letter plan, rifle through the contraband albums and books in Roxana’s apartment. The kids are taken to police detention and forced to write detailed statements about the party, naming names and assigning blame for this tiny, innocuous, largely symbolic but nonetheless illegal act of low-level anti-government protest. Though Ana had the least to do with the letter, and seems among the most politically apathetic of her circle, she proves most resistant to such coercion.

The restraint of Belc’s filmmaking is impressive, especially in the film’s thornier, more fraught second half, when the temptation must have existed to go bigger and more extreme, to punch home points that instead land like paper cuts so subtle you don’t notice till they bleed. A cameo from actor Vlad Ivanov is emblematic of this understatement: His police captain does not raise a hand or even really raise his voice. Instead the well-known New Wave regular projects an affable, reasonable, stern-but-fair image that can snap off like a light the instant his victim tries his patience. This is not a drama of sharp, stabbing theatrics, but of quietly ramping internal tension, as it comes to feel like an entire society’s moral fate hangs in the balance of Ana’s faltering resolve.

What starts as a story about the exquisite pain of first love thus ends in a broader, crueler kind of heartbreak: that experienced by a whole citizenry, who were betrayed, by leaders intent on stealing their individual rights, into becoming complicit in the theft. Understanding without excusing the tiny, tragic ticks and tocks of compromise on which a nationwide culture of suspicion, betrayal and mutual mistrust can be built, “Metronom” is an intelligent, invested homage to this doomed Romanian generation, robbed of the freedoms of adulthood before they’d even got to sample them, unlucky enough to have woken up to life just as the sun went down.

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