Religion. I don’t have to tell you about its long line of ills and injustices: The Crusades, «witch» burning (aka subjectively defined non-conformist women daring to exist independently). We also can’t forget the Catholic Church abuse and paedophilia scandal… one seemingly infinite in scope (also read on Robert Greene’s Procession). The image of the «paedophile priest» is ongoing; almost trope-like at this point. But child abuse isn’t one for just the Catholics. It permeates the world virtually anywhere with a strong, faith-based culture, rural or urban.
Throw a dart at a map, and you will find one. However, for the sake of our conversation, we will look at the country of Romania. Through the lens of the Romanian-Hungarian coproduction Too Close, promising young director Botond Püsök gets up close and personal with the various not-so-nuanced realities of religious abuse, their lingering traumas, rural tribalism, and the ever-difficult struggle to move on from the worst. This all occurs in a country whose primary religious organization (Orthodox Christianity) is also its most prominent land owner – not to mention a makeshift mafia.
Micro and macro
Too Close, which world premiered at the Sarajevo Film Festival before picking up the best documentary award at Romania’s Astra Film Festival, and the European Stories Award at FIPADOC, is simultaneously a straightforward story, however, told with a macro lineage of contemporary social implications. It is simple in its setting: a provincial Transylvanian village setting (Hungarian speaking, in fact). A mother and daughter. A conservative, tradition-oriented town where the word of god, and those spouting it, reign supreme. Unfortunately, when the isolated, (male) clergy-affiliated members mix with an old-world mentality and young children, rarely do good things happen. And in the case of Too Close, this is its macro scope.
In short, the film follows Andrea, an actress and (now) single mother of two. One of her children had been abused by an ex-partner and the son of a local clergyman. In her attempt to move on from the past traumas, Andrea encounters a host of animosity from locals (constantly referred to, condescendingly, as «The Actress»), who strongly support the convicted’s imminent release from prison. As a result, Andrea and her family are subject to everything from victim blaming to accusations of lying. Nevertheless, as his (now) early release approaches, Andrea is determined to fight back and move on. But how to do so in her rural village, in a country whose government and justice system are notoriously corrupt (one doesn’t have to look far beyond Alexander Nanau’s renowned Colectiv for a similar context)? One where legislation criminalizing such abuses is non-existent.
But how to do so in her rural village, in a country whose government and justice system are notoriously corrupt
What makes Too Close unique in the gamut of abuse-related documentaries is its complete adherence to observation. There is never a moment where we are taken out of the up-close world of Andrea’s plight. Its mission and focus are simple, and never does it stray into exploitation territory. Even the film’s antagonists (the locals and abuser) are background actors, omnipresent and irritating but with nary an acknowledgement of physical presence. Instead, they are like a nefarious fog that drifts through the Transylvanian hills, stuck in their beliefs and adherence to «faith» as they wash over anyone who in the old days would have been burned as a witch.
Overall, the film is interesting in its delicate balance of a wholly local dynamic that rings universal – and on multiple levels. For one, it is a universally identifiable story of perseverance (the film does focus on determination and will rather than wallowing in misery – as it could have very easily done). There is also a thriller/crime drama element to its narrative construction. But, for me, its expose of tribalism rings true as ever, given the climate and conditions of modern societal discourse. In this case, the tribalism comes from, for all intents and purposes, the right – rural, uneducated, and religious. But, while watching their tactics against Andrea (keeping in mind Andrea is technically an outsider to the area as well), one can’t help but find parallels with today’s mainstream left’s philosophy of (as is called within the media-sphere) «cancellation», also rooted in the collective lack of critical thought, self-centeredness, and unwillingness to stray from the herd. So, a film that may have started its life as a simple, straightforward, and emotionally driven story, ultimately became a multi-layered expose of the familiar past’s ever-present stranglehold on a progressive future. One where the undoing of herd-based comfort is paramount
Too Close screens as part of the Fipadoc 2023 European Stories programme