Moving Along the Cartesian Coordinates


A review on “Occident”, a film directed by Cristian Mungiu, 2002

By: Masood Sabet

“Then the Lord formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”

Genesis 2:7

Charles Foster Kane, on his deathbed, utters a word with his last breath. It’s not a prayer, nor a last wish or even the name of a beloved one. It’s an object: Rosebud; a sledge into which Citizen Kane in his childhood breathed the breath of life and brought it to life. Kane dies, but Rosebud is born in people’s minds. Rosebud is no more a snow sledge, but a body which can harbour a soul. But could an object acquire a soul? The answer is yes and no! Just like Schrödinger’s Cat, the soul of an object could be, simultaneously and paradoxically, existent and non-existent. Non-existent on the account of being purely subjective, and existent if we are to believe Descartes. According to the French philosopher, if necessity obliges, whatever we can imagine could exist. One of the most fundamental criticisms directed at scriptures is that they have depicted God with human attributes. He gets tired, needs rest, becomes angry and seeks vengeance. But could we surmise that blowing soul into lifeless things is another attribute shared by the God and humans? One of the greatest concerns on Cristian Mungiu’s mind in “Occident” is exploring the Cartesian duality by investigating the matter of body and soul.

In the first scene of the film, Mungiu presents us with his intended narrative style; two railway lines crossing. The crossing-based narrative form has some successful examples in cinema over the past couple of decades, such as “Amores Perros”, made by ‎Alejandro González Iñárritu, and “Magnolia”, directed by Thomas Anderson. But the narration in Occident is slightly different, for Mungiu tells us the same story three times, each time from a different perspective, and through each iteration one of the sub-narratives comes forward and brings us one step closer to the big picture. This not only serves the revelation process by filling the gaps in the narrative, but provides us with the encompassing theme of the work. The first narrative is the story of Luci and Sorina, a young couple who are struggling with a financial crisis. After the landlord throws their things out due to overdue payments, as the first desperate course of action, they go to see Sorina’s father, who we soon realize is dead. Sorina on his father’s grave is longing for a sign, an inspiration, a guidance from his father’s soul. The first intersection of the screenplay emerges in the very same cemetery. A distressed bride weaves through the trees in the medium shot, a red Jeep approaches and a flying bottle falls on Luci’s head and nocks him unconscious. In this manner, Occident gets entangled with the matter of soul from the very beginning. Soul, according to Mungiu, is a quality which could be associated with organic and non-organic entities. He goes even further to apply this to non-existent beings too, like Luci’s cousin, Niko.

Sorina is seeking a sign from his father in the cemetery. A sign from which an inspiration could be received in order to show them a way to put this difficult patch behind them. But for Luci, the function of soul is purely mechanical and has originated from a superficial interpretation of soul and spirituality. For Luci, soul is still subject to the law of cause and effect, like anything else in the material realm. He needs to first ask the soul of the departed a clear question and then look for signs (like birds flying) which could be construed as positive or negative answers. Occident is a stage for the battle between these two views and consequently beliefs and lifestyles.

“Not only do people, but also things have souls.”

In the first dialogue of the film it transpires that Luci is out of job. And Sorina, who works in an orphanage, through her boss, who incidentally and justifiably is very popular with the men of authority in town, has fixed him up with a job interview. The job title is: advertisement agent, and he has to wear a bottle-shaped suit and give out fliers on the street. On the first day of the job, his boss gives him an enlightening speech about the significance of his duties. “Not only do people, but also things have souls. You need to learn how to bring the objects to life. When objects come to life, people will love them more, and when people love something, they buy more of them.” The dominant theme of the film is manifested through this speech: giving life to things.

We have two thematic relationships in the film; one between Luci and Sorina and the other between Michaela and her mother. After the drunken groom leaves Michaela in the alter on her wedding day, her mother starts a relentless quest to find her a husband. She even turns to matchmaking agencies whose expertise is finding foreign husbands, especially from western European countries. But the “business” strategy in these agencies is different from that of the advertising company. Whereas the latter gives life to the lifeless, the former strips men of their souls and presents them to the customers as commodities with only physical and materialistic characteristics. The pinnacle of this satirical contradiction is where Michaela’s mother is shown two identical twin brothers who are both doctors and asked to pick the one of her choice.

Luci after a quarrel with Sorina moves in with his aunt, who incessantly asks about his son Niko. The son who’s only present in the pictures on the walls. As the story unfolds, we realize that Niko, years ago during the dark Nicolae Ceaușescu era crosses the Danube to get himself to Germany and seek refuge. But there are some crucial segments of this story which have been kept secret, and the narrator is not to reveal them up until around the end.

Nae Zigfrid, twelve years ago, along with many other people suffocating under the tyrannical regime of Ceaușescu, crosses the border illegally to get to Germany. He has returned now with grim news for Niko’s family; he has died in a car accident. Nae’s suitcase has been stolen upon arrival into Romania. The suitcase contains Niko’s paltry bequest, which despite its obscene nature has significant sentimental value. The robbery drives Nae to the colonel, with whom he had a brief but not particularly pleasant encounter twelve years ago.  According to Niko, which is narrated through Nae, years ago, Luci and Niko set out to pass the border by crossing the Danube. But the border security is so alert and observant that they scrutinize and confiscate whatever could be possibly used in any way as a means to cross the river. The two cousins come up with an ingenious idea. They want to cross the river floating on an inflated sex doll. But the doll is not big enough to accommodate both of them. The flip of a coin decides to send Niko off. Niko manages to start a good life in Germany, but his addiction to alcohol destroys everything. Now all he’s left behind are this black sex doll and a perforated coin, which he always carried on a string around his neck. The colonel, who has now comprehended the spiritual value of the stolen merchandise, summons all the soldiers of his station to chase and hunt down the ill-fated robber. Right before launching the operation, the colonel delivers an epic speech. “A soldier’s first mission is his most important one. Whatever happens today will be engraved into your brains and you will never forget them. You will someday look back and talk this day to your grandchildren.” But the forthcoming turns of events transform this potential memorable story into an unforgettable dark comedy, a distasteful joke. Zigfrid and the colonel shape another thematic relationship in the narrative. The two men later pair up to break the news about Niko to his mother.

The colonel is depicted as a passive personality who has been through immense metamorphoses. He has served the police in two completely different eras; Ceaușescu’s dictatorship in a state behind the iron curtain and a post-communism Romania, which is trying to open its doors to western Europe. Twelve years ago, when Zigfrid first tries to illegally cross the border, he was arrested and beaten so brutally by the police that had left him with all his ribs and teeth broken. The colonel, as the penitent member of the beating squad, tries to console Nae: “That was a different time. Now everything has changed.” The Romanian society however, like any other nation after a long period of totalitarianism and oppression, has become devoid of its identity and succumbed into a hypocrisy and banal pretense out a natural instinct for human survival. It has turned into an empty shell, just like the plastic fruits on the colonel’s table: hollow and flavourless.

Mungiu won The Palme d’Or for “4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days” in 2007

Through a relative, an eligible suitor has been found for Michaela; an Italian young man who is quite wealthy and owns a publishing house and above all, has taken an interest in Michaela’s poems. Every member of the colonel’s family is summoned to give the house a makeover worthy of receiving the honourable guest. Pictures of Italian historical figures sit on the walls and the orphanage mistress places a plastic statue of Venus at a corner of the living room. The Venus has a clock on her stomach which has apparently run out of power. The goddess of love is devoid of soul. But this spectacle of superficiality has a long way to come to an end. Eventually, the young suitor arrives and at the doorstep meets with the astonished and disappointed receiving party. He’s black! Mungiu has depicted a society which is obsessed with the West and longing to be associated with it, but on the other hand it lacks the propelling force to catch up with the modern values around which the European Union has formed. The society may not be to blame, for it has a long way to recover from the immense blow inflicted upon it by half a century of tyranny and suppression. Mungiu’s Romania’s perception of the western society is utterly malformed and distorted. For Michaela’s mother, having the weekend dinner at the Mcdonald’s is considered a paragon of living the western dream. The European Union has sent a delegate to train the Romanian police force in regards to basic human rights principles from the scratch. “Gypsies are human beings, just like you!”

In the third reiteration of the narrative, the missing pieces fall in their places. Now everything is starting to make sense. According to Luci’s account of that eventful night, Niko had been lying about his escape story. Luci claims that the sex doll they had at that night was of a white woman, not a black one. There was no coin, and there was no flipping. Luci goes behind a tree to relieve himself for a brief moment, whilst Niko seizes the opportunity, snatches the doll and hits the river. Now all the devout efforts by the colonel and Zigfrid to retrieve the suitcase prove worthless, futile and embarrassingly comical. The sex-doll is no more a memento of a dramatic escape at a memorable night. It’s only a cheap commodity with a revolting backstory. Niko’s perforated lucky coin too has not only no spiritual significance, but has even lost its intrinsic monetary value. The epic operation by the police and the monumental speech of the colonel now are nothing more than a stigma which will haunt all the participants forever. This wasting of the resources however, is a characteristic of a society with a shattered identity. The soldiers, whose main duty is to serve the society, now are hirelings to the colonel to adorn his house with bogus decorations. The soldiers’ loose-fitting uniforms symbolizes a grim immaturity and unfitness for the pre-determined function they have been entrusted with by the society.

Mungiu’s sense of humour in the second half of the film reaches the extent of teasing the viewers. Sorina is leaving Romania with Jerome, whilst Luci is pedaling on a bike under a heavy rain headed for Jerome’s house. He gets in and finds Sorina’s farewell note. This is the end. Now we switch scene to inside Jerome’s car. Sorina contemplates for a moment, gets off the car, runs back inside the house, opens the door, and throws herself in Luci’s embrace is slow motion while a romantic and sentimental theme is playing in the background. But if we have come to know the director and followed the story intently, we’ll realize that this couldn’t be the end of this story. Sorina is condemned to leave Luci and leave with Jerome, which eventually happens in the consecutive revelation scenes.

When the colonel’s ingenious method of imparting sad news leaves the grandma unconscious on the floor, the three musketeers, colonel, Luci and Zigfrid put their heads together to think of another approach. “Niko is not coming back.” Luci utters. Niko’s aunt however, hasn’t quite grasped it. She construes the announcement in her own way and assumes that Niko has a good life in Germany and doesn’t intend to return home. She accepts her own version of the truth immediately and chooses not to investigate further. Niko lives in his mother’s mind. She has breathed the breath of life into a body that does not exist. She has given birth to a new son, a new Niko and brings him to life once more.