What, exactly, is a horror film? An opportunity to examine and, perhaps, conquer our worst fears? Or to simply watch others face their fears while we stay safe? To call something “horror” creates expectations. Something supernatural, or perhaps a maniac with an axe. Best Intentions is not a horror film, not even an unconventional one, but it ultimately serves the same function.
Of course there is a looming nightmare none of us will ever escape from, and it is perhaps the worst thing of all: sitting by helpless as a loved one gets sick and dies. (Okay, I guess if you are a hermit with no connection to the outside world and an endless supply of canned tuna, you don't have to worry about this. But that's a very small group.) Those that have been through it know firsthand how a family unit can slowly dissolve into bickering factions: what is the best method of care, who is letting ego drive their decisions, who doesn't have pure interests? Add to this the constant chirping from sudden expert friends and strangers as you try to get a doctor on the phone or a nurse to explain a new drug prescription or a way to keep the hospital windows open at night so it won't get so hot, but to do so in a way that doesn't let in flies. For the healthy it is an emotional death sentence by a thousand cuts, and, sadly, far more real than any boogeyman.
Best Intentions, a cleverly choreographed psychological drama from Romanian director Adrian Sitaru, seems, at first, to be a bold plunge into these icy, deep waters. In a nod, perhaps, to one of New Romanian Cinema's best known works – Cristi Puiu's outstanding bureaucratic Bataan Death March The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Sitaru's film is actually a tremendous head fake. Our hero Alex is yanked from his yuppie cocoon with its Apple products and immature spats with his slender girlfriend by a phone call from home. Mom, it seems, has had a stroke. After a series of real time phone calls to friends in the medical field and a slow, chatty train ride, he arrives back in his small town.
Quietly, Best Intentions presents itself as first-person cinema. While shot from different characters' points of view, it sides more and more with the increasingly paranoid Alex. Since we've been to the movies, we know that a dreadful shoe is about to drop, but here's where Sitaru really pulls a number on us: it would appear that Mom is going to be absolutely fine.
The slowly revealed punchline, of course, is that if anyone in this family is sick, it is Alex. What at first seems like a case of understandable nerves turns into rampant paranoia. Clear test results must be false negatives. An accidental serving of 3% fat cottage cheese becomes an unforgivable sin. In time, all audience members will at some point be turned from wanting to embrace the good son to wanting to punch this whiny freak in the back of the head.
Best Intentions moves at a very deliberate pace. It is a film dedicated to the slow, annoying processes of modern medicine. Unlike Mr. Lazarescu this isn't turned into a cinematic descent into hell, but rather a realistic look into “the way things work.” Similar to Mr. Lazarescu, however, there is humor around the edges – mostly with the convalescing mother's roommates. (One has had her face disfigured in an accident, so she is only seen wearing a cheap plastic bunny mask. Whether or not the small hospital has up to date equipment is part of Alex's ceaseless campaign to have her moved to the city.)
With its lengthy steadicam takes and fourth-wall glances, this is an altogether striking piece of naturalism, even if its goals are a little opaque. Alex seems compelled to plunge himself into the horror scenario; he isn't merely pessimistic, he is the only one attuned to a grand conspiracy around him. I couldn't help but think of movies like Coma, in which Alex would ultimately be vindicated and crowned a hero. Life isn't like that, unfortunately. What's more likely to happen is for people to just kinda lose their minds and become, alas, a horror to deal with.
Best Intentions is part of Lincoln Center's New Romanian Cinema program from Nov. 29 – December 5. It has been picked up for distribution by Oscilloscope Laboratories.