“A strong performance that switches from youthful frustration to defiance to timid fear, Bugarin carries the film with aplomb, Metronom owing its strength probably as much to her acting as it does to Belc’s direction.”
Bucharest in the early ’70s, at the height of communism. Ana is dejected. Her boyfriend Sorin and his family have acquired a permit to move abroad, putting an end to their high school romance. Her best friend implores her to put the sadness aside and come to the party she is organizing later that night; Sorin is coming too and, you know, one thing might lead to another. Although her mom forbids it, teen rebellion worked the same on the other side of the Iron Curtain, so Ana sneaks out and joins her friends. They drink, they smoke, they dance to the music playing on Radio Free Europe. A letter is drawn up to the host of the radio show (the titular Metronom), listing a who’s who of ’70s Western music stars they want him to play. Sorin volunteers to go out and arrange to have the letter smuggled out of the country. And then suddenly the apartment is overrun by the Securitate, Ceaușescu’s feared secret service, and a fun night turns into a nightmare for Ana and her friends.
With one totalitarian state currently waging war and other countries and leaders (and not only in Russia’s vicinity) flirting with totalitarianism, Alexandru Belc’s Metronom is a stark reminder of what life under such a regime entails, in particular for a younger generation that wants, to the abhorrence of the powers-that-be, more freedom. Set exactly half a century ago, the doomed love story of Ana and Sorin is the background for an incisive look at the sinister tactics of such regimes and the way they turn the screws on their citizens to nip any revolutionary idea in the bud. Seeing a Securitate officer (played by the always reliable Vlad Ivanov) slowly but surely break the defiant Ana is chilling to watch, as the foolishly brave teen, hopelessly in love and loyal to her friends, is transformed into wax in the hands of a man without remorse.
Belc’s careful compositions are complemented by a narrow frame and soft image, visually placing the film in its era. Slow pans, even in apparently blissful scenes of kids dancing and having a good time, have a foreboding quality signaling what’s coming for them. An inspired shot of Ana and her parents together yet separated within the frame is an early hint at the state’s tactics of playing everyone against each other. Belc uses everything at his disposal in terms of visual language, including superb art direction by Bogdan Ionescu, to set up an atmosphere of oppression even at a point where the film seems nothing more than a story of broken romance. The film’s shift in gears about halfway through might come as a surprise going by the narrative, as it is barely foreshadowed, but Belc’s directorial strength lies in him already readying the audience for it subliminally.
As the lead, newcomer Mara Bugarin (in a cast of several first-time actors) is the dramatic heart of Metronom, appearing in virtually every scene. A strong performance that switches from youthful frustration to defiance to timid fear, Bugarin carries the film with aplomb, Metronom owing its strength probably as much to her acting as it does to Belc’s direction. Together they create an image of life under totalitarianism, and current events show that 50 years haven’t made much of a difference in some places, which is why it is important that films like Metronom remind us of our history.