Seattle 2024 review: Familiar (Călin Peter Netzer)

“As an intricately designed, deeply honest, and uncompromisingly realized new work by a major filmmaker, Familiar offers plenty of rewards for adventurous viewers.”

Romanian auteur Călin Peter Netzer won the Golden Bear in Berlin with 2013’s Child’s Pose and followed that success with another Berlinale favorite in 2017 when Ana, Mon Amour earned a Silver Bear. Now established as one of the key figures of the country’s much-lauded cinematic New Wave, he returns with his most disturbing and personal film yet in Familiar, an admirably uncomfortable self-portrait that doubles as a complex exploration of immigration, nationhood, and belonging. While the crowded gallery of troubled characters and the film’s raw aesthetics may present a challenge for arthouse distributors, this cleverly constructed and superbly acted meta-film deserves an extensive run on the festival circuit. The Seattle Film Festival, now in its 50th year, recently hosted the North American premiere of Familiar as it continues its journey across festivals around the globe.

It is perhaps a bit too easy to see the protagonist Dragos (expertly played by Emanuel Pârvu, an accomplished director in his own right whose recent film Three Kilometers to the End of the World premiered in competition at Cannes) as an alter-ego for Netzer himself. He, like Netzer, is an internationally acclaimed film director and his new project, concerning an ethnically German community living in Romania, deals with elements from Netzer’s own family history as a real-life member of this minority population. This film-within-the-film leads to fascinating questions about the process of extracting a painful episode of history for the purposes of artistic production. Dragos is trying to understand how his parents obtained German citizenship in the early 1980s and managed to escape the totalitarian regime in Romania, but he faces violent pushback from his parents, both emotionally and physically, as he digs deeper into their secrets. Is this really Dragos’ story to tell? At what point does his pursuit of inspiration become too invasive and cross ethical boundaries? And what about his parents, why are they so aggressive and uncooperative?

Netzer’s treatment of this strained family dynamic is exceptionally harsh, devoid of any sentiment, to the point of becoming intentionally abrasive. If you are looking for a family melodrama with tear-jerking revelations and characters you can root for, Familiar is not the film for you. Instead, Netzer focuses on the self-centered and hypocritical behaviors of everyone in the family and smartly combines the personal with the political. After it is revealed that Dragos’ mother Valentina had an extramarital affair with a man named Harald Stern (celebrated Romanian cinema stalwart Vlad Ivanov in a brief but memorable appearance), Netzer draws parallels between this story from decades ago and Dragos’ own infidelity by shifting the attention to Ilinca, with whom he rekindles a past affair while his pregnant girlfriend is away on a modeling assignment. Both Dragos and his parents are depicted as deeply flawed human beings with a myriad of contradictions, whose moral standards seem to apply to others around them but not necessarily to themselves.

All this unsettling family drama plays out against a tumultuous historical and socio-political backdrop. At the macro level, Familiar is concerned with the impact of immigration policies, oppressive political regimes, and inconsistent citizenship laws on the lives of vulnerable ethnic communities between borders. It is mentioned multiple times that people from Dragos’ (and Netzer’s) background face the threat of losing their citizenship as German authorities attempt to revoke the rights granted in the 1980s. But these people are not fully welcomed in Romania either as they struggle to integrate back into the Romanian society. This in-between status is not a particularly contemporary phenomenon as the film intelligently reminds us that the Romanian people who escaped to West Germany in the 1980s faced a similar isolation and were not seen as “sufficiently German” or “truly Romanian” in either country. From this point of view, Dragos’ efforts to revive a missing chapter from his family history can be understood as more than a personal endeavor, turning Familiar into an ambitious study of notions such as ethnicity, citizenship, and identity.

Familiar brings the naturalistic style of many Romanian New Wave films to mind for the most part, thanks to its hand-held camera work and muted color palette. But Netzer throws in a few unexpected stylistic choices, most notably several sequences presented in split screen, as the film moves away from documentary realism and steps into investigative thriller territory. Dragos’ efforts to track down and speak to Harald Stern, in particular, have an urgency and tension almost reminiscent of an exciting spy story. If Familiar may seem technically unpolished at first glance, it becomes quickly evident that this illusion of realism is created only by design. The film progresses to gain meta-textual resonance and becomes increasingly self-reflexive. The naturalism of Netzer’s visual approach only enhances the complexity of his narrative structure. A real film director (Pârvu) playing a fictional film director (Dragos) modeled upon the actual film’s director (Netzer) is only the first of Familiar’s many playfully multilayered aspects. This may be a difficult film to like; it is full of manipulative characters, challenging ethical dilemmas, and urgent if unresolved political questions. But as an intricately designed, deeply honest, and uncompromisingly realized new work by a major filmmaker, Familiar offers plenty of rewards for adventurous viewers.

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