What's worse than an old-fashioned patriarchy where men treat women like sexual chattel? According to Judge Bill Gibron, when it's the backdrop for a young Romanian woman's somber coming-of-age story.
The world is waiting.
Ryna lives in Romania, working as a mechanic in her dad's garage. Since she was a child, she was forced to wear her hair incredibly short and hide her girlish features behind baggy work clothes. Now well into her teens, Ryna is discovering sex and sexual attraction, and it drives her already angry parent into outright abuse. He will not allow his daughter to date, threatening any man—including the local mail carrier and a visiting French physician—who dares have contact with her. Yet Ryna remains defiant and constantly sneaks off behind her father's back. Usually she just takes photos (it's her hobby and main career interest) or visits her own private retreat on the edge of the water. With the town about to put on its annual fair, Ryna makes a decision. She will dress up for and actually attend the event, a clear act of personal defiance. While her mother and grandfather support this idea, Dad will have nothing of it. Besides, his business is floundering and he needs to provide favors to the town's corrupt mayor in order to stay solvent. What he ends up supplying is more than any child should suffer. Still, Romania is different, and so is Ryna.
Though it's relatively formulaic in the story it tells, Ryna is saved by two important differences—the culture in which it is set and the fascinating lead performance by film newcomer Doroteea Petre. Forced to live a life of gender suppression, Ms. Petre is amazing in the title role, able to convey both roughness and femininity behind a severely shaved head and a dirty mechanic's smock. She perfectly embodies the confused identity thrust upon her by her drunken lout of a dad, and when she has opportunities to flash her womanly wiles, the scenes sparkle with sexual electricity. This makes her trials and tribulations against the corrupt backdrop of Romania all the more memorable. She lives in what looks like an aluminum shack with a old-fashioned thatched roof, her personal getaway a plywood lean-to sitting on the edge of a forgotten pier. The town itself is a collection of minor structures, most of which play host to nightly gatherings of depressed alcoholics. Ryna often travels to the "city" to pick up her severely intoxicated dad, and it is there where her lack of outward attractiveness is the most troubling. Men stalk and slight her, including a menacing Mayor who seems to believe that Ryna is property, easily bought or bargained for. Amidst this social surreality, director/co-writer Ruxandra Zenide tries to tell a haunting tale of human oppression and physical suppression. Sadly, she's only partially successful.
The problems arise, not surprisingly, in how the men are portrayed. It is safe to say that Ryna is a film made up almost exclusively of male characters, especially when you consider that Petre is presented as practically sexless most of the time. Unfortunately, Zenide must believe that all guys are swine, since there is not a single redeeming individual amongst the masculine lot. The father is a flawed, deeply troubled man who uses outrageous demands to keep his family in check. One of Ryna's potential paramours, a whiny postman who's more jealous than attentive, hounds her like the dog he turns out to be. The Mayor has already been mentioned, but it bears repeating that this is one man who's foreshadowed to cause our heroine substantial grief, while the visiting French physician seems nice and normal until he gets the teenager alone. In fact, the Grandfather is the sole savior of manhood. Though completely off his rocker, pissing on people as they pass below his window, he also stands up for his granddaughter, pushing aside his increasing senility to make sure she's appreciated and loved. With a mother who's more of a furnishing than a guardian and no other visible friends her age, Ryna is destined to be controlled and manipulated by men. This makes the movie's last act incidents expected and, frankly, slightly gratuitous.
Without spoiling too much of the storyline (though the back of the DVD case kind of gives it all away), Zenide is sort of suggesting that, within such a perverted patriarchal system, women should expect to be abused. Once it occurs, the power transfers over to the female and she is then capable of getting on with her life. This backward kind of girl power seems incredibly cruel, especially when you consider that Ryna is not really guilty of being anything other than an available teenage virgin. She is neither provocative nor flirtatious. She barely registers as an item of sexuality among the rest of the men in town, and seems stuck in a kind of arrested angst adolescence. Small character elements like her love of photography and obsession with the sea are downplayed throughout the story, and any attempt at confrontation is kept to a near-Neanderthal exchange of monosyllabic slights. As a result, Zenide makes what happens to Ryna into almost a rite of passage, like the Eastern European equivalent of female circumcision. It's depressing and disheartening (especially since this is a modern world we are witnessing, complete with laptops and cell phones), which in turn makes the film rather unfulfilling. We care about this character and want her to be happy. Yet according to the culture, she has to suffer in order to succeed. Such a message undermines Ryna, making it less than effective as either entertainment or exposé. Add in the wide variety of stereotypes, archetypes, and clichés, and you've got a decent, if defeatist, attempt at amusement.
Offered by DVD distributor LifeSize in a decidedly bare-bones release, Ryna looks soft and rather fuzzy in its 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The colors are muted and everything seems bathed in a rusty, oxidized aura. Certain colors never even make an appearance and details are drowning in diffused light and slipshod focus. While this doesn't appear to be an image suffering from a defective PAL to NTSC revamp, there are still enough visual concerns here to warrant a criticism. On the sound side, we get clear and clean Romanian and French dialogue, translated with finesse and imagination by some excellent English subtitles. The standard stereo mix (no Dolby Digital demarcation is offered) is flat and lifeless, but as long as we can read what is happening, a lack of ambiance is unimportant. Toss in a trailer as the sole bit of added content and you have the customary stand-alone foreign film title. Companies need to realize that context sells product. Without it, you have to rely on the film alone.
In the case of Ryna, that's a tough call indeed. On the positive side, this is a movie that manages to deliver a stellar star turn in the middle of a horrific, hackneyed narrative of mean-spirited male domination. While some of the cinematic statements delivered by newcomer Ruxandra Zenide are truly spectacular, she just can't get the interpersonal elements completely down pat. It makes Ryna a confusing and occasionally unsatisfying entertainment experience.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Life Size Entertainment
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