When Romanian filmmaker Radu Ciorniciuc set out to document the Enache family and their unconventional way of life, he had no way of knowing that his camera would be present to capture a significant period of upheaval in the clan’s existence. Indeed, the opening of Ciorniciuc’s extraordinary debut feature, Acasa, My Home, suggests not instability but an out-of-time equilibrium: a gaggle of lean, tan, and rowdy young boys paddling a skiff through a buzzing marshland, nothing in sight but glittering water and towering green grass. The film eventually follows the boys back to a ramshackle campsite, where the viewer encounters still more children, as well as dogs, pigs, chickens, and pigeons. At the center of this muddy patch of land lounges patriarch Gica Enache, cigarette in hand, looking equally like a sultan surveying his kingdom and an idle laborer drawing out his lunch break. At one point, Ciorniciuc’s camera looks down on the Enaches’ tent from above and then zooms out, capturing the breadth of the sprawling freshwater delta that surrounds it. The camera then tilts up for the reveal: The marshy wilds where the Enaches make their home are located smack in the middle of southeast Bucharest, a verdant oasis amid the post-Soviet urban sprawl.
Ciorniciuc may not have anticipated exactly what would befall the Enaches when he and his crew began filming them – a documentary endeavor that would eventually encompass three years – but he seems to have sensed that change was coming. Even in the film’s early scenes, there are rumblings that the 470 acres of marshy, abandoned land where Gica has raised his family for almost two decades have been earmarked for redevelopment as an urban nature park. More broadly, the Enaches’ marginal, tent-dwelling existence feels intrinsically precarious. It’s one thing for a solitary person to live off the grid in the middle of nowhere, but it’s quite another for a father, mother, and nine children to pursue a back-to-nature ethos in the middle of a 21st-century EU capital. Even the most seemingly idyllic moments – such as the snatches of tranquil, nocturnal solitude that oldest son Vali gleans while fishing – are undercut by a gnawing awareness that every day is a struggle to maintain the Enaches’ isolation and (relative) independence. The young children know little of the outside world, but Gica and his wife Niculina seem all too cognizant of how quickly their refuge could come tumbling down. Early on, Niculina declares to the camera that she will pick up a crowbar and murder any social-services agents who attempt to take her children away.
Gica was once a laboratory chemist, but some unspecified moral or spiritual epiphany drove him to separate himself from the “wickedness” of civilization. For 18 years, he has raised his family in the wetlands around Lake Văcărești, subsisting on the fruits of the land – albeit supplemented by the cash that Vali makes peddling fish door-to-door. It’s not boasting when Gica declares that he knows more about this patch of earth and its native plant, fish, and bird species than any other person alive. It’s simply an understood fact, in the same way that everyone is an expert on their own home. The government officials and urban naturalists who appear in the film seem to acknowledge Gica’s role as steward of the land, but their exasperation with his anti-modern, anti-government outlook is palpable. When he pesters a harried administrator during a photo op about the ranger job he was allegedly promised – by whom is unclear – there is a sinking sensation that the Enache clan is eventually going to be hustled or pushed out of their home, one way or another. (A brief, slightly surreal cameo by new-urbanism advocate Prince Charles of Wales seems to underline the point that there are larger political and financial forces at work that cannot be resisted.)
To reveal more of the Enaches’ tribulations would spoil too much. Suffice to say that they are eventually compelled to make a succession of abrupt, dramatic adjustments over the course of the film's 86 minutes. One of the chief virtues of Ciorniciuc’s feature is its verité, hands-off approach to storytelling. Although the subjects will occasionally acknowledge the camera’ presence, the filmmakers rarely intrude into the frame in any obvious way. To the extent that there is a cogent story to be found in Acasa, My Home, it has been shaped almost entirely in postproduction. The viewer is often obliged to intuit from stray context clues how much time has passed or how the characters got from Point A to Point B. In this respect, Acasa often evokes Tamara Kotevska and Lubomir Stefanov’s masterful Honeyland (2019), another documentary that is more interested in observing people as they interact with one another and their environment than in explaining what is happening and why.
This isn’t to say that Acasa is focused solely on the abstract beauty of, say, children running through reeds on a blindingly sunny day – or the raw pathos of a defeated man surrounded by his castoff possessions. Like Honeyland, Ciorniciuc’s feature is about Big Ideas, but its loose, observational style ensures that the film never feels didactic. Acasa vividly illustrates the multifaceted tensions between traditionalism and modernity, all without ever ostentatiously announcing itself as a film that is about such things. Its richness emerges organically as the filmmakers watch and listen, their camera determinedly following along as the Enaches stumble from their beloved green world into an unfamiliar gray one. When Gica and Vali have a knock-down argument late in the film, it feels less like reality-television melodrama than an authentic, real-time eruption of vicious resentments that have been building for years.
The film’s diffident approach to its characters serves it well – especially where it concerns Gica. Like most men who position themselves as the lonely adversaries of vast, unfeeling institutions, the elder Enache is a compelling, sympathetic, and even romantic figure. He’s also an abuser and manipulator, whose control over his family has a distinctly cult-like tinge. When the representatives of a local charity drop off donated Christmas presents at the campsite, Gica picks through the gifts and chucks all the books into the stove – no progeny of his are going to be poisoned by the outside world’s influence. He bullies his wife and children with dictatorial threats and occasional outbursts of violence, and his marginal lifestyle often seems less about utopianism than maintaining ironclad power over his family. Ultimately, it’s to the film’s benefit that Gica is never really given an opportunity to clearly articulate his worldview – viewers are left to draw their own conclusions based on his words and actions, rather than his purported ideals. In a shrewd move, Ciorniciuc also subtly shifts the film’s focus from Gica to Vali over its running time, a strategy that mitigates the sour spectacle of the older man’s behavior with the son’s warmer and more sensible (if still uncertain) demeanor.
One drawback to Ciorniciuc’s light-touch approach is that the film is frustratingly reticent about the racial issues that factor into the Enaches’ plight. There are hints that the family is Romani or possibly Turkish, but their ethnicity is never definitively established beyond some off-screen insults of the “you people” variety and insinuations about their indolence and uncleanliness. Some clarity would have been appreciated, given that the family’s identity only seems to reinforce their separation from the majority of their urban countrymen. This is a nagging but minor quibble in a feature that is otherwise stylistically elegant and thematically dense, a film that conceals multitudes within its deceptively simple story about real people confronting inexorable change. It’s the first great documentary of 2021.
Acasa, My Home is now available to rent via virtual cinemas from Kino Marquee.