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TRANSILVANIA 2022

Review: Clouds of Chernobyl

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- Ligia Ciornei’s first feature, inspired by true events, is a parable of female spiritual strength and resistance in dark times of oppression

Review: Clouds of Chernobyl
Isabela Neamțu in Clouds of Chernobyl

Fifteen years ago, Romanian cinema triumphed at Cannes with Cristian Mungiu’s claustrophobic and repulsive 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Cristian Mungiu
interview: Oleg Mutu
film profile
]
, about a student who voluntarily undergoes an illegal and dangerous abortion in the latter years of Ceaușescu’s regime. Now, young Romanian filmmaker Ligia Ciornei debuts with Clouds of Chernobyl [+see also:
interview: Ligia Ciornei
film profile
]
, screening at the Transilvania International Film Festival, an equally horrendous story about a mature, married woman who is forced to have an abortion against the law, and against her will, in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster in order to prevent condemnation falling on her family should she give birth to a child with malformations. Finding herself pressured into a dead-end situation, the protagonist has no other choice but to follow her maternal intuition. Even though in real life, the person the main character is based on did not succeed in her attempt to make a decision with a positive outcome, Ciornei chooses to imbue her Irina (Isabela Neamțu) with spirit and vigour, and lead her to an ending that is, if not happy, at least encouraging.

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As Cineuropa learned just as the film was completed (see the news), it is set at a time when several women from Eastern Romania were forced to have abortions under inhumane conditions, even though the practice was illegal. Hence, the plot departs from the muddy streets of a village in the area where Irina overhears news of the radiation and runs home to burn her clothes. From that moment on, the action will take place predominantly in the interiors of a modestly furnished house with traditional decoration until the very last scene – an enclosed and stuffy place that has been incorporated into the mise-en-scène in order to visually imply the hopelessness in which the heroine finds herself. Irina clashes with her dominant mother-in-law, who has already arranged the illegal abortion for her, and even though her constantly absent husband appears as a saviour, she is supposed to put up with his short temper and physical aggression as well. Her only possible useful move is a radical step that would allow her to wriggle free from the suffocating grasp of them both.

Probably because of the limited overall budget, the film’s dynamics rely primarily on the conflictive dialogue, DoP Dan Dimitriu’s intimate close-ups, and long, descriptive shots that convey the atmosphere, thus building up a psychological thriller thanks to glances, authentic replicas and situations involving emotional harassment. What brings a certain sense of artificiality to the piece are the overly literal attempts to convey the grim atmosphere of the era, such as the gloomy lighting that makes the interiors look depressing and the red pioneer ties of Irina’s kids, which they don’t even take off at home, so that viewers are constantly reminded of state control within the domestic environment.

Additionally, in her director’s statement, Ciornei explains that she was seeking to highlight female fragility and vulnerability, an emphasis that has indeed been achieved – Irina is apparently trapped in an unfavourable situation, but refuses to behave like a victim and takes her fate into her own hands. However, the sudden influx of female empowerment that pervades her actions feels a tad suspicious, owing to the fact she has previously been portrayed as a vulnerable being, resembling a chased animal during a hunt. Therefore, the sudden shift at the end, with her emancipation and the overall hopeful atmosphere that comes with the fall of communism, feels somewhat premature.

Clouds of Chernobyl is a Romanian film produced and distributed by PalaFilm, and co-produced by Chainsaw Europe, Adenium Film and Doctor’s Studio.

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