I was quite enthused after my recent bout with Hooked to find that the Romanian New Wave isn't exhausted of its blossoming potential. While The Other Irene isn't as much of a grueling punch in the gut as the movement's most naked film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, nor as fleeting and in need of restraint as the previously mentioned Hooked, it still retains that fully believable, "this is our life" realist quality that moves this movement best. As with much indie and foreign cinema, Romania thrives when embedding itself in realism. In the beginning of The Other Irene is the claim that the following is based on true events, which brings all the strangeness that much closer.
The story follows a mall security guard, Aurel, somewhat already a downcast and socially out-of-sorts twenty-something, who meets the girl of his dreams, Irene. She's not a depressed and helpless shut-in, nor is she an addict or a promiscuous party girl ("She doesn't even smoke!" he says), but she is unemployed and lacking motivation at the moment. Aurel says he met her when she was, "All washed up," but he liked her anyway. She sits around the house in her sweat pants.
After moving in with Aurel she gets ideas about a possible career path, and we see her pull herself together, bit by bit. She gets a job from some men who run a company out of Egypt (or elsewhere in Africa?), and her initiative is given a spike. Every day she's more motivated about the mysterious job she's accepted, which now takes her to Cairo for months at a time. Aurel hasn't met the men she's running to Egypt with, and he isn't too happy about her departures or the length of time she's away, but he puts up with it in order to set her free and save the relationship. As her independence grows, so does Irene's will. And now she's happy. She won't let him stifle her success.
As she learns to make her own money again, she rediscovers new clothes, better hairdos, makeup, and a nice purse. Now she wants a dishwasher instead of working by hand after supper. If it isn't bought, will a missing dishwasher lead her back to Egypt?
When she doesn't immediately come home after one of her longer business trips, Aurel can't imagine why she isn't on the plane. He makes a few phone calls and checks with the travel agent, who helps him navigate foreign languages and the red tape of tracking her down. The news is not good. Irene isn't coming home just now, in fact she's not coming home ever. At least not alive. She's died of an apparent suicide. Aurel and the agent sit in the travel office as the lights hum above in stunned silence.
Why would she do this when she had so many plans, so much life left to be lived right in front of her? Dead, perhaps -- but not suicide, says Aurel. This is an answer he will not accept.
And this is where the story finds its groove, one that's as hard to imagine as it is to fathom. A deeply engrossing mystery of the fate of Irene begins to eat away not only at Aurel, but at those of us willing to follow him in his frantic search of every consulate and ministry he visits, trying to put any of the puzzle pieces together, trying to find a picture that fits. I must admit that the fate of Irene ate away at me from the inside, too. The plight of Aurel as he attempts to understand what can't be understood -- what may never be understood -- to the film's credit, riveted me from the inside, gnawing away at me from under the surface of my skin. What happened to Irene? Is she really dead, or not? Could she really have committed suicide? Could drugs and alcohol and an illicit affair really have been involved?
By the time her coffin shows up, her body locked in a metal casing inside, we really do begin to wonder whether or not she's actually there. We also note, with sadness, that Aurel is trapped in the coffin of these numbing events. The situation he's in is so much larger than he actually is. It has too many players, and none seem to speak full truth. Irene's sister might know more than she's letting on, but Irene has sealed her lips from the start.
There's a circular life pattern illustrated from the first moments of Aurel's isolation. Initially, there is intrigue, and then discovery of another. Then, togetherness, and what we hope may sprout into the beauty of the two in love. Next is confrontation, loss, and then rejection of information, denial and unbelief. And then there's only lament, which is seeped in wilting sorrow. In the midst of this seeping, the circle is complete: Irene isn't coming home. Aurel is alone again.
The narrative elements are like that pot that you watch which never boils, but the visual elements are key. Empty shoes that wait at the front door, sticky notes on the fridge, overhead shots that look down on busy escalators in empty malls and parking lots with cars coming and going. The images might as well be stills, silent stories telling of movement, and space, and home. We're continually let in on a recurring visual secret: sometimes the same spaces can be used for both the coming in and the going out of our lives. These lingering images are as well spoken as any of the dialogue we hear. We come to believe in Image as one of the central characters in the film.
The Other Irene is a hardship in the making, handled with a quiet, solemn seriousness that treats every scene with dignity. When we exit the theater we are left with hanging thoughts. We might think of those who have relationally come and gone -- characters that once were, but are no longer present. We might think of some that we've lost to the other side: A parent, a sibling, a child, a spouse. But the thoughts stay with us. The packed house I sat with drew a very quiet exit at the end.
There's something about a beating heart in your sleep. It's simply there, doing its thing, even during bad sleep or during a nightmare. It's pulsing even as you breathe, and you can't consciously decide to control either function. The Other Irene is mystery and tragedy laced together, but its tone is that of the quiet, subconscious pulse.