Throughout modern history, pop and rock music have certainly played a crucial role in a broader socio-political history. Filled with joyful and energetic dynamism, the genres have provided many generations of teenagers across the globe with a sense of liberation and an epicurean amusement in identifying themselves against the restrictive and dominating discourse of the old order. For the youth in Western Europe, it was a sonic manifestation of revolt against the conservative structures of respective societies; on the other hand, for their counterparts on the East side of The Wall, it reflected a larger, more symbolic issue: the constant struggle against the oppression of communist regimes. Set in the October of ‘72 in Bucharest, Alexandru Belc’s debut feature, Metronom, delves into a similar context to depict its 17-year-old heroine Ana (Mara Bugarin) as she grapples with her impending adulthood. In the opening scene, we see Ana and her boyfriend Sorin (Serban Lazarovici) embracing in the middle of one of the city’s soulless, grimy squares. He has decided to leave for Germany to escape the suffocating, hopeless atmosphere of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romania, which is firmly within the iron grip of its totalitarian government. She, seemingly even more than her same-age friends, appears to be a fragile, adrift dreamer who doesn’t ask for much. Heartbroken, she joins her friends in a small apartment listening and dancing to The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin, all before the secret police break into the party, arresting the bunch and taking them for further interrogation (because they have broken the state’s laws by sending a letter to a famous show called Metronom at Radio Free Europe station). From this point onward, perhaps predictably, the narrative takes on predominantly darker, even brutal paths.
It’s possible to think about Belc’s Metronom from various angles, perhaps mainly as a mix of a film like Kirill Serebrennikov’s Leto coupled with the Romanian New Wave’s most (over-)familiar social realist traits from the past few decades. Unfortunately, this Romanian coming-of-age romance, rife with heartache and melancholy, tends more often than not toward the aesthetic and narrative clichés of the latter rather than seeking unique or novel alternatives. It’s understandable that Belc would here want to pit the kineticism of music and bodies in motion against the more dominant presence of the film’s deadly stillness and silence — in other words, its ambiance — as contradictory forces, but the problem lies in how he rarely finds a balance in terms of its narrative distributions and stylistic arrangements during the many long sequences (usually filmed in handheld and with neutral lighting and coloring), which results in a mostly monotonous and tedious experience.
It’s not hard to occasionally find sparks of impressive instinct or measured, technical execution in Belc’s work, but he mistakenly never tries to reflect the same liberation that the pop and rock music of the era presented to their audiences. In fact, because of an insistence on a mere “representational” approach in order to authentically delineate a valid historical perspective, Belc instead misses the bigger picture, which is definitively not to reproduce the same bleak mood, bleak and instructive agenda of the political climate that he criticizes — the film at least never goes far enough south to invoke something like the callous, harassing attitude of a film like 2014’s The Tribe. Which is to say that, lacking in any liberating or generous aesthetic and remaining fairly entry level in terms of a demonstrating a fresh artistic vision, Metronom is a largely featureless and mediocre film that is much more in tune with a withered expression of the old rather than any inspired articulation of something new.
Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 7.