EuroCine27, on May 9th's Europe Day, presents a dilemma to the cinephile. Which one(s) do you go see, with a film from each EU country to choose from? Easy choice, given the day's big WW II commemorations in Moscow: Medalia de onoare - Medal of Honor - about an aging Romanian vet who is notified that he's about to get a medal for something he did in the Second World War.
That "something" is shrouded in more than just the fog of war. Set in 1995, in the first years of the post-Ceausescu post-Cold War era, Medal of Honor is a subtle, wry, touching look at the transition of a Balkan country from Communism to something else. But what is that something?
The heat either doesn't work at all or turns buildings into steam baths. Wounds inflicted by the Securitate still figuratively bleed. And the bureaucracy - as brilliantly depicted by a heavily pregnant Ministry of Defense receptionist, all-powerful behind her glass booth - is still capable of wreaking havoc with people's lives.
Ion, the pensioner played by veteran actor Victor Rebengiuc, hasn't given much thought to the war since his service in the Romanian Army a half century ago. His blunt bayonet sometimes serves to cut a roast, but once he gets a mysterious letter from the Ministry, things change. He plunges back in time to an incident towards the end of the war, when the Romanians started to turn on their former German allies (or was it occupiers?). Maybe he was heroic after all...
Ions abound. Was our man mistakenly singled out for honor, something destined for another Ion? Then there's Ion Iliescu, Romania's actual President at the time, who has a cameo role as himself. But which Romania is being honored? Surely not this Romania:
In a morbid competition with Hungary to curry Hitler's favor and hoping to regain northern Transylvania, Romania mustered more combat troops for the Nazi war effort than all of Germany's other allies combined.
(From the Country Studies series, Romania in World War II). All those monumental bronzes of Romanian soldiers couldn't have survived the Ceausescu years in honor of the fascists, no. Ion concludes that it was his act of shooting at retreating Germans - his moment of glory that even he forgot, reminded of it in an old letter written to his wife - that is finally getting recognition.
The knowing snickers from the back of the cinema - Brussels has plenty of Romanians, here at NATO or the EU - told me that director Calin Peter Netzer must have gotten his context and atmospherics right. Bittersweet is the flavor of Medal of Honor, and the value of the piece of shiny metal is weighed against what really counts - love, family, friendship.
Medalia de onoare has won almost a dozen international awards. Romania was well-represented among yesterday's 27 European films. After Medalia de onoare and Tales From a Golden Age, I'm beginning to better appreciate what kind of world Romanians are emerging from. They probably all deserve a medal.