[For the next two weeks, we'll be covering select films from Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema. Now in its seventh year, this film festival focuses on contemporary and classic movies from Romania. For a full schedule of Making Waves films, visit the Film Society of Lincoln Center's page here.]
You can intellectualize a movie all you want, but in the end what winds up being most important are rudimentary concerns of form and content. There's a story to tell, the story is told a certain way, and the relative success or failure of a film may hinge entirely on this.
That's an ideal way to introduce Best Intentions. The title's all too fitting. It's a story about concern for a loved one and how paranoid we can get about someone's well being. There's potent material in that. Anyone who's had a sick relative (especially a parent) can find an emotional tether to the story.
The problem is that writer/director Adrian Sitaru tells Best Intentions almost entirely through POV shots, a storytelling choice so affected that it becomes distracting. But because this choice is so distracting, it made me think about certain formal limitations of film, and how this all could have worked in a different medium or if Sitaru really pushed to make form a part of content.
Best Intentions (Din dragoste cu cele mai bune intentii)
One reason the POV shots stick out so much is that the film begins and ends without them. Best Intentions opens with two long takes of Alex (Bogdan Dumitrache) in his apartment. He's hanging out with his girlfriend and getting some work done on his laptop before he gets a call that his mom is in the hospital. We only hear his side of the conversation, be we notice how his face crumples and how agitated he becomes. He packs and leaves. There's such naturalism in these shots, and the tense concern is palpable as we watch Alex take off. Maybe the beginning and end of Best Intentions are still POV shots -- I joked with Steve at Unseen Films that these sequences were done from the POV of Alex's pet cat, a tabby named Virtute, wearing a silent jet pack.
The rest of the film follows Alex and views him from the vantage point of other characters: his girlfriend, his father, his mother, a doctor, a nurse, a friend of a friend, a stranger on a train, another stranger on a train, some random guy in the hallway of a hospital, another patient in his mother's hospital room who wears a plastic rabbit mask to conceal her disfigured face, etc. It's an interesting idea for a while, but then it becomes tiresome. I found myself paying less attention to the story and more attention to how POV is used.
More than anything, I became really attuned to the way people look at each other when they're speaking. Just think of conversations you've had recently. You sometimes look the person in the eyes, but often you'll find your attention drawn to other things: a bit of spinach caught in their teeth, how they play with their hands, a loose thread, an unbuttoned button on a shirt. You may even look away, distracted by something in the background as your mind wanders. The POV in Best Intentions never does that. Everything is composed, all attention is paid to the speakers and nothing else. It's simply a camera -- no personality, no realism -- mounted on the neck of a non-character.
But point of view is more than just a mere act of looking. Point of view means a difference in perception. You can think of difference in perception in terms of Rashomon and the tale of the blind men and the elephant. There's a chance of misinterpretation or a filtered kind of truth based on what a person encounters. Or you can think of difference in perception in terms of plain old opinions. It's the peculiar way that a person you meet at a party can seem absolutely charming to you but totally obnoxious to your friend. It's a matter of values, and we all come to situations with values and ideas of our own. These are what make us individuals, these are the building blocks of personality.
Best Intentions doesn't convey any sense of difference in perception as it shifts from person to person. The camera always watches action in the same way, and the observer always seems objectively detached from what's going on. Loved ones and strangers perceive Alex in the same light. That is not how we see and perceive things in real life. If I see two strangers on the street and one person is yelling at the other person, I am going to perceive the situation differently than the person being yelled at and the person who is yelling. We can assert objectivity of perception, but that's bunk. It's impossible for us to get entirely out of our own heads. Every character in Best Intentions gets flattened because of this sameness of perception. It's the oddest thing: in attempting a kind of naturalism through POV shots, Sitaru highlights the artifice of the entire film. Everything just seems so fake at a certain point. The movie probably would have been more effective had Sitaru ditched his POV conceit. The way the film is now, he gains nothing from it.
So on the one hand, this highlights certain limitations in how perception can be conveyed in a movie. Jumping from character to character seems easier to do in a novel, for instance. If you go from one first-person narrator to a different first-person narrator, the point of view of the respective narrators is conveyed through the language they use and the observations they make. Value is communicated because it's unavoidable in language when you're dealing with character. (I think you can even make that argument regarding experimental writing and esoteric postmodern novels.)
On the other hand, I think the artifice of POV shots in Best Intentions also suggests that Sitaru didn't push the formal element far enough. With film you obviously don't have language to convey the perception of a character, but you can play with how a scene is composed, lit, shot, recorded, and performed. Maybe a character is more attuned to what one person is saying than another character, or maybe that character looks off somewhere else and can't help but overhear the conversation in front of them. Or maybe Alex seems perfectly okay with his concern when viewed by his girlfriend, but a doctor thinks that Alex is totally mad.
Just think of how the difference in performance could inform the different points of view, and how interesting that might be if a filmmaker carefully selected his points of observation and crafted a movie with all that in mind. We'd get a portrait of Alex from different characters and also portraits of the different characters through their observations of Alex.
That's just a broad example of how all the POV shots could transcend being a mere stylistic conceit and become part of the content of the film. As it is now, the POV shots are purely functional -- Alex is going here, so we need person-x to be in this part of the room to observe everything. It seems like the fundamental thing about point of view was disregarded, and that's this: point of view is about character, not where to position the camera. Sitaru has replaced the people around Alex with mere tripods.
[Best Intentions will screen on Friday, November 30th. Producer Ada Solomon will be in attendance.]