A tepid thriller on police corruption and institutional racism in Romania: “Unidentified” at the Tbilisi International Film Festival5 min read
Unidentified (Neidentificat, 2020) is a sparse mystery situated around the character study of a corrupt detective. Florin (Bogdan Farcas), is intent on investigating a case of arson at two hotels, claiming he can prove it was Banel (newcomer Dragos Dumitru), a member of the Roma community. What unravels is a frustrating depiction of police corruption, discrimination against Roma, and toxic masculinity, all leading to a violent, if not unexpected, climax. The film is director Bogdan George Apetri’s first in a planned “Romanian Trilogy.” Originally premiering in 2020 at the Warsaw Film Festival, the film was screened on 6 December as part of the Country in Focus: Romania series at the Tbilisi International Film Festival, followed by a Q&A with Apetri.
Though billed as an extremely dark thriller with a deceiving script, the plot is generally easy to navigate, leaving the audience with little suspense. The majority of the film is spent setting the stage for the crime that is to occur, and this causes it to drag at times. The slow pace does allow for some lovely cinematography, but at 123 minutes, the film could have done with some further whittling down in the editing room.
The film is also somewhat lacking in providing an in-depth character study of Florin. Though we see many lingering shots of Florin as he ponders his various schemes, we never truly get inside his head to understand what makes him tick and what causes him to make the decisions he does. Aptetri shows a man in trouble, uncaring about his deep debt, yet there is still much confusion over what is driving Florin to make the actions he does. Up until the climax of the film, the audience is left wondering what Florin’s true motivations are. When they ultimately are revealed to be the predictable conclusion of extreme toxic masculinity, it is hard for the audience to relate to the character and understand what led him here.
From the start, it is clear Florin has a darker motive for singling out Banel for the hotel arsons. Apetri does a good job portraying the ease at which an outsider, in this case Banel, can be scapegoated, and how racism contributes to who is chosen as the suspect. Tossed throughout the film are discriminatory statements made against the Roma population — such as “these coloured guys stick together” and the insinuation that Roma people “all look the same” — by people in power, namely Florin’s fellow police officers, giving us a snapshot of how racism has been institutionalised in Romania. Banel, illiterate and working under-the-table jobs in order to care for his invalid mother, is an easy figure to manipulate. Apetri accurately captures the fact that Romania’s Roma, who make up between three and ten percent of the total population, do not have the same access to justice as do the mainstream population, and that their presumption of innocence is not always respected by the authorities.
The film truly fails, however, in its indulgence of violence against women without understanding the deeper-rooted institutions and societal mechanisms that allow it to happen — spoilers ahead. The climax of the film, where we see all of Florin’s planning come to fruition, consists of the brutal murder of his former partner. In the discussion following the film, Apetri claimed that “we all have parts of this character in us,” and that there was no deeper meaning behind the choice of victim. According to Apetri, the film could just have easily been about a woman killing her husband — his sole aim was to look at human nature. This point negates the fact that femicide, defined as the murder of women due to their gender or by intimate partners and family members, is a global epidemic, one that is not equatable to the number of men being killed by women. It also does not touch upon the issues of toxic masculinity that allow these killings to occur. All of this is highly relevant to Romania, where Apetri is from and where the film is set.
According to EU statistics, in 2020, 44 women were killed in Romania by a family member and/or an intimate partner. One in four women in Romania have been physically or sexually assaulted by their partner. A 2016 EU study on gender-based violence found that 55 percent of Romanians consider rape justified under certain conditions, including wearing provocative clothing (25 percent) or not clearly refusing or physically resisting (22 percent), the highest in the EU. Given that the film is set in Romania, it is important to take into account the social atmosphere for interpreting Florin’s behaviour, yet, as made apparent by his statements, Apetri fails to fully delve into the heart of these complexities. For Apetri, this film could be made anywhere and about anyone — but that is patently false.
Apetri’s lack of understanding regarding the depth of these issues was reconfirmed when an audience member asked why he chose arson as the means for Florin’s revenge, citing a recent case in Georgia where a man killed his estranged wife by dousing her in petrol and setting her on fire. Apetri had no suitable answer. For him, gas was only about framing Banel — no deeper thought was given to the issue, which is clear to see in the film itself.
Unidentified is neither a gripping thriller nor a complex character study. While there is some merit to its wry examination of police corruption and the discrimination of minority groups, Apetri ultimately fails in creating a realistic story.