Lust for Gold

07/20/2015

Romania / 1974 / Romanian

Directed by Mircea Veroiu & Dan Piţa

With Eliza Petrachescu, Liviu Rozorea, Dora Ivanciuc

Still from 'Lust for Gold'Death shall forget you, Gold.

Life shall ruin you, Gold.

At the pub a drunken man stands up to twirl slowly a solo rondo. A couple of long tracking shots glide across the bustling street, revealing horsedrawn wagons and even a penny farthing, but this is still a time before any cars have trundled its uneven bricks. In this medieval-looking town in the Apuseni mountains, life declares itself in forlorn creaks and rattles, dull, repetitious, cyclical sounds. But underlying the somnolent routines there is a clarity of mission turning the gears, as indivisible as that element all hold dear: Au. No one flashes it ostentatiously. For most it’s a constant companion, guarding all actions and words, a proprietor of the mind.

The opening credits show a yard surrounded by cinder blocks, where prisoners, one by one, are felled by a firing squad. After the last man drops, a cart on rails, like the type used in mine shafts, is pushed out to carry all of the bodies out of sight. Of what were these men, sloughed off of history, absent from its photographs, guilty? They may have been bandits in the mountains, or perhaps they sought a little gold for themselves.

A truck full of new prisoners arrives and they are transported by rowboat. The old woman who runs the inn (one of the few holdovers from the previous film) pulls up in her carriage meets the warden outside the gate, handing him a sack of money in exchange for one of the shackled young men. She has bought the prisoner and will press him into some kind of service.

Meanwhile another young man, Mîrza, blonde and with the unruffled look of a student, is recently arrived in the town, and begins frequenting the pub that the old woman runs. He is already aware of the dangers of looking for gold, as he has witnessed the nighttime check-ins by armed police officers to make sure everyone is at home and not out digging. But he seems to be biding his time for when the opportunity is right. He finds such an opportunity in the old woman, a twofold one at that. She offers him a chance to get easy money, while in the upper gallery above the hopeless drunks, her daughter, a tall and upright woman, paces like a spectre between vacant rooms.

The old woman presses each key on her gigantic cash register with extreme gravity and seems to recoil from it, as though possessed a horrible, divine power. And in this town, where people walk aimlessly in a continual gold dream, it more or less does. The gold she knows about has already been hewn from the Earth, but it’s been squirreled away by the people who found it, perhaps anticipating a time when every last piece of flotsam would drain down into the town, glutting it beyond its value. At first Mîrza doesn’t believe her. “If you knew gold, you wouldn’t talk,” he challenges. The stuff is off limits but it’s on everyone’s mind. The fact that she mentions the location of some so openly – and to a stranger – should be a red flag that she has a plot going. One that has already begun to unfold. But he doesn’t see that; his eyes are upwards on the daughter – and hers on him.

Still from 'Lust for Gold'The innkeeper has Mîrza swimming out into the lake at night, evading the watchman’s light, or scaling down a pitted cliff face with a rope to find the sack of gold in a crevice. He takes these incredible risks because he thinks that he can get enough for the daughter’s dowry, and leave with her and be independent. He and the daughter seem to be the only characters who can imagine a life away from the eternal want that drives everyone else to insanity or ruin. It seems that he has been traveling from town to town for a long time, but still hasn’t lost all of his basic human feelings. What causes people to huddle up close to the mountains, to waste away beneath their long shadows? Is it the warm glow of gold, or the coldness of the world that extends outward from them?

The second chapter of the film pulls focus to a different type of gold-digging, and from Mîrza to another captive of the old woman’s machinations – her daughter. Whereas in the film’s first chapter she had been a wan vision patrolling the rafters of the hotel, her mother has now decided to marry her off to get the greatest fortune in town: the widower Clemente’s storied treasure chest, which he keeps in his bedroom. At the funeral of his most recent wife (no one says how many he has had), the daughter combs her hair, fixes her black veil and gently pursues the old man through the clusters of mourners. In seemingly no time they are posing in front of a burst of potassium chlorate for their wedding portrait. The mourners are seated at a long table, wearing the same outfits as before, except hers is now white. This is how it works here: funerals and weddings daisy-chain. At the same time he thinks that he is using her. The rumor around the town is that she is the sister of the Pope, ergo (and it could only have one meaning, really) she is loaded.

In its muddy streets and moral nullity the town is like California in the 1890s, but without the lawless freedom that encouraged all comers. Here people are too scared, buckling under the night raids and watchtowers, and hoping for an unguarded path into the mountains, and into the veins of riches within. It’s a gold rush without the rush – the gold has still hollowed out its unfortunate admirers, even though they can only dream of it from afar.

Still from 'Lust for Gold'The setting appears to be the same town as in The Stone Wedding (1972), and they may have shot the two movies at the same time, after the writing of Ion Agârbiceanu. Same cobbled streets, same watchtower by the lake, same blind, white horse standing listlessly in the main square. But the view inside is more lurid, more ominous, bleak and bleary. The previous film, to which this could speciously be described as a sequel, is also split into two episodes, the first directed by Mircea Veroiu and the second by Dan Piţa. It focused on working people, the ones who stand in the sun all day suspended in a pre-industrial purgatory, breaking gypsum and carrying it back to the big house for a pittance.

The minstrel’s songs, often spare as a keening voice soaring over one cavernous drum, spell out the march to decrepitude enacted by the human spirit. The music weaves in effortlessly and beautifully with the images. While The Stone Wedding provides the setting, Lust for Gold hurries its people forward to an advanced stage of decay. In the earlier film this intrinsic greed had not yet soaked to the surface. So it has different themes, different glimpses into human psyches, but all from under similar circumstances. There we are introduced to several broken souls and their hopes for a better future. One is a lonely widow with an ailing daughter – touched in the head – whom she may be ailing on purpose. Another is an army deserter who poses as one of the lăutari (traditional musician) whose task it is to keep a lively wedding going for several hours on end.

The sound design in Lust for Gold is sparser than its predecessor; The Stone Wedding has a dense and omnipresent soundscape, in which people working in the quarry hammer and chip, and the pegged cylinder of the great grinding mill turns like an infernal music box. Not so with Lust for Gold, as sounds are coaxed out tremulously. But it makes their presence all the more disquieting. Things will sort of hum in the background, adding a sense of flow between scenes.

Still from 'Lust for Gold'The cinematography casts out spindly lines, unwinding movement through layered space or fracturing it in mirrors. While things are largely rendered crystalline, the image also has an ink-stamped quality to it, perhaps because of the mottled surfaces of everything. The attention to not only art direction, but to texture, is one of the continually breathtaking aspects of the film. There is always something to catch the eye, and in most scenes, quite a bit more – whether it be a strange arc of a shadow, strata of scratched graffiti on a wall, or towering amalgams of curios that seem to burden every interior.

Windows are fogged, and lines droop towards disarray, walls covered with clocks or skeleton keys loom over the shots. The tarnished expanse of bottles, bulbs and beakers that clutter the old woman’s bar look like an unvisited room in a museum of sadness; all of them appear empty. But her prisoner-servant bustles about dusting them off as though they need to seem presentable to anyone. This ramshackle, antique aesthetic doesn’t get tiresome, perhaps because it’s in the service of a palpable feeling, rather than just an appearance. It is meant to be tired, hollow, spent and recycled. Like in the totalitarian era in which the film was made, objects have been painstakingly saved for further use.

The Stone Wedding and Lust for Gold comprise four parables from the time of Ceaușescu. They also prefigure Piţa’s subsequent, highly ambitious ‘Transylvanian Trilogy.’ In spite of their intricate, bizarre and meticulously-achieved time-warp, they show a strangely familiar place, where people are kept indolent and desperate by feudal masters and a shadowy government. The paranoia of the leaders trickles down like water in a flooded mine, and regular people must act like petty crooks just to live. Any man who turns and runs from the police gets shot, or put to work in a prison yard to be executed later.

Still from 'Lust for Gold'Things and people move in a languorous, poetic way because they are traversing a density of unsaid thoughts, of withered emotions that pass silently. People do terrible things to one another not with cold detachment exactly, but with the gloomy resignation that this is what needs to be done to survive. This is one of the most dire introspections from behind the iron curtain, an assessment of communist Romania that goes deeper than its surface pedantry would suggest. Corruption isn’t the norm, since there is no standard to become corrupted. There isn’t even enough variety in the levels of control to make them arbitrary. Authority is blank, monolothic, with a pH that is antithetical to emotion. People get to keep their superstitions, their archaic practices, and their bartering. Anything beyond that is worth killing for, worth using others for. These people aren’t consumers; they are the consumed, and the trance will never be finished. They are forgotten by death, ruined by life.

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