Sarajevo 2023 review: Day of the Tiger (Andrei Tănase)

Day of the Tiger is a captivating film that carries a wealth of meaning, much of it drawn from an internal, self-reflective series of conversations the director has with himself and his characters.”

Romanian film has been steadily growing over the past two decades, becoming one of the most varied and interesting national cinemas producing work at the moment. The willingness to give a voice to directors who actively seek out ways to subvert and challenge conventions has resulted in many intriguing works in recent years, and it is showing very little sign of slowing down anytime soon. One of the more unusual talents to come out of the country recently is Andrei Tănase, who has primarily worked in short films. He has now emerged as an even more compelling filmmaker with his feature-length debut, the fascinating Day of the Tiger (Tigru), in which he explores a few days in the life of a veterinarian employed by a large zoo to take care of their animals; a job she does well and appreciates, but which always will be seen as her effort to settle after her dreams of becoming a more prominent biologist failed. When a tiger escapes from the zoo our protagonist finds herself questioning the very narrow barrier between humanity and the animal kingdom as she joins a team that sets out to locate the beast, making some shocking discoveries along the way. A drama that plays on our inherent curiosity and holds our attention as it goes in search of the meaning behind a few offbeat ideas, Day of the Tiger is a captivating film that carries a wealth of meaning, much of it drawn from an internal, self-reflective series of conversations the director has with himself and his characters, leading to a more nuanced film than we may have expected.

Day of the Tiger is certainly not anything we have not seen before, at least in terms of its stylistic qualities – at first glance, it appears to be a relatively conventional drama in terms of both its narrative structure and visual composition. However, the director uses this film as an opportunity to combine different cinematic elements, reworking them to align with his vision. Blending the grit of a classic New Hollywood neo-noir, particularly in terms of the tone and how the story is told, with the intensity of a contemporary arthouse drama, the film takes a straightforward concept and uses it as the starting point for an engaging, captivating thriller that peers deep into the mind of its main character as she navigates a particularly challenging scenario. It can often seem quite callous and harsh, but this is entirely purposeful – the bleakness of the story eventually starts to make sense once we understand its true meaning, and we find that many aspects of this film resonate even at its most straightforward and seemingly conventional. It tends to be quite tense, using the atmosphere to draw the audience inwards, and in the process gives us a fascinating glimpse into a small but notable portion of contemporary Romanian culture, particularly in how it develops the main character’s journey, conveyed extremely well throughout this film.

Despite being central to the narrative and being present in the title of the film, the tiger is nothing more than a MacGuffin. Day of the Tiger uses the escape of a wild animal to explore deeper themes which relate to the more character-based nature of the narrative. The character of Vera (played magnificently by Cătălina Moga, who anchors the entire film with her heartbreaking, complex portrayal of a woman teetering dangerously close to a breakdown) is intrinsically tied to this tiger, as well as all the animals she treats. She views them as extensions of herself, external representatives of her animalistic nature and deep connection to the natural world. We soon discover how Vera has never quite felt entirely human and has formed strong connections with animals, which not only give her a sense of satisfaction but make her feel more complete. Over the course of the film, during the search for the titular beast, we find the story veering off to focus on conversations around her past, with the dialogue she has with various characters unearthing elements of her past that allow us to understand some of the ambiguities related to her identity and existential quandaries. We are given an intimate glimpse into the mind of this woman, which adds layers of meaning to an already fascinating film.

At only 80 minutes in length, Day of the Tiger is an unexpectedly economical film, one that moves at a rapid pace and delivers a striking and compelling story, and it is proof that one doesn’t need large amounts of time to make an engaging film. Instead, a strong sense of direction (Tănase proves himself to be a major talent with his simple but effective approach to bringing this story to life), a meaningful screenplay that finds new ways to expand on a relatively conventional story, and exceptional performances are more than enough to hold our attention. It arguably does tend to navigate a slightly darker narrative than we may have been expecting, and there are a few genuinely unsettling moments, but this is all done to provide a concise depiction of the life of the protagonist. She starts as someone who is quite aloof and distant, but as we gradually begin to understand her place in the world, it becomes increasingly clear that she is far more complex than we thought at first. Captivating and off-kilter in creative ways, Day of the Tiger is an absorbing psychological drama that offers us a unique glimpse into the mind of a character working her way through life, coming to terms with her existence while questioning the very nature of humanity. A bold concept that is extremely well-executed in this provocative, meaningful drama.