“Rossellini’s films,” Jacques Rivette wrote in a letter to Cahiers du Cinéma dated 1955, “have more and more obviously become amateur films––home movies.” The Frenchman saw the label as no indictment, but proof of their exhilarating vitality. In trading a cinema of ideas for projects that felt like “souvenir films” of Ingrid Bergman’s performances (1954’s Joan of Arc at the Stake; an episode in the 1953 anthology We the Women), the Italian director was finally able to move with “unremitting freedom,” and craft tales filled with the most quotidian details of his life: “everything [in them] is instructive, including the errors.” This idea of a gradual shift toward a more amateur and porous approach to filmmaking is also a great way to think about the cinema of Radu Jude. Long before the formal somersaulting of his 2021 Berlinale winner Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, the Romanian director’s films have hopscotched across genres and tones, weaving together the vernaculars of essay films, documentaries, and archives into projects that unfurl like mosaics. Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World follows in their footsteps. A collage perched between road movie and black comedy, Jude’s latest is another effervescent study of life in the 21st century, a work that’s engineered to both sponge something of our screens-infested zeitgeist and interrogate its textures. Few filmmakers are so reliably able to conjure snapshots of modern capitalism and its neuroses; fewer still can douse those documents with so much playfulness and wonder as Jude.
At the center is Angela (Ilinca Manolache), a sleep-deprived, overworked production assistant whose company has been hired by some Austrian entrepreneurs to shoot a safety video for their Romanian staff. Ulysses-like, Do Not Expect chronicles a tempestuous day in the young woman’s life, following her as she spends it driving around Bucharest to look for someone who’s been disabled at work and willing to say on camera that it was all down to their failure to take the necessary precautions––in other words, to take the blame for their bosses (in return for a €500 fee). “Respect the rules,” one of Angela’s coworkers sings to the Austrian company’s haughty marketing director (Nina Hoss) over a Zoom call: “because if you don’t you’re fucked.”
Ironically, Do Not Expect is designed to do the opposite. If the narrative can be loosely split into two parts––Angela’s quest for an invalid happy to play along and the shooting of their testimony, which spans the last 30 of the film’s 163 minutes––the sprawl takes detours that complicate and expand its scope. Angela’s journey is interspersed with scenes from a 1981 film by Lucian Bratu, Angela Goes On, in which the titular protagonist zigzags around Ceausescu-era Bucharest drumming up cash as a taxi driver. An early intertitle suggests Jude and Bratu’s works exist “in conversation” with each other, but their correspondence is a lot more than a history of continuities. Sure, the two Angelas are both victims of bilious misogyny––men harass and humiliate them throughout, suggesting a fairly straightforward “as it was then, so it is still” reading––but Jude’s after another, more provocative point. Time and again he slows down Bratu’s feature to draw attention to some everyday details of life under Ceausescu’s tyranny that no other Romanian production of the time ever dared make public, fearing the regime and the censors’ retaliation: bread lines and other glimpses of the rampant poverty the country was mired in. Angela Goes On doesn’t just match Do Not Expect’s dioramic structure; it also echoes its rebellious spirit.
Jude stuffs his script with all kinds of jibes at the powers that be: there are jokes on the royal family, Romanian politicians and religious figures, northern Europeans, and petty intellectuals. No one is spared. Not even film critics: halfway through, Angela happens into Uwe Boll on the set of a deranged sci-fi flick, and the German director tells her about the time he challenged (and knocked out) four of his harshest critics in a boxing match. Jude’s latest may well go down as one of his funniest, but the humor too carries a subversive zing. Skirting paternalism and polemics, the director wields irony like Boccaccio: a means to ridicule the elite and return a modicum of dignity to the oppressed. The title is a quote by Polish poet Stanisław Jerzy Lec, which is in keeping with the film’s insouciant fatalism. The world’s collapsing, only not with a bang but with a whimper, a feeling amplified by the soundtrack––Romanian pop hits spit such lyrics as “hands up for the cleaning lady / or not, she can’t use them anyway”. But if Bucharest is a city of martyrs, as a road sign ominously announces, the woman hustling her way through town is resolutely committed not to go down as one. Manolache imbues her Angela with a cantankerous, foul-mouthed, no-nonsense swagger, nowhere more explicit than in the TikTok clips she records as her online alter ego Bóbita, an Andrew Tate-like caricature growling all sorts of obscenities at women and women’s genitalia.
The film’s formal disruption is no less revelatory. Unlike the safety video Angela’s working on, Jude’s collage keeps breaking the rules and relishes in the process. Do Not Expect trades a linear, three-act structure for something more fragmented and enigmatic. Jumping across different timelines, footage, and stories, Catalin Cristutiu’s editing swells the film into a kind of multiverse, an elastic realm where the ghosts of Ceausescu’s Romania and the victims of 21st-century capitalism exist in the same time-space continuum. Marius Panduru’s cinematography, in turn, toggles freely between digital and celluloid––between the grainy 16mm black-and-white stock that immortalizes Angela’s present-day peregrinations and the myriad other screens that keep intersecting her odyssey.
The result is a work of many surfaces; among other things, this is also a study of how images are produced and disseminated in our back-to-front digital lives. Watching its audiovisual morass grow larger, Do Not Expect feels like a film under pressure, ready to detonate with a creative force that redoubles the go-for-broke passion attached to its protagonist’s hustles. There’s something electrifying about a filmmaker willing to treat the medium as a permeable universe, to bring it into conversation with different art forms, and to test its limits with this much inventiveness. Jude, too, moves across his material with unremitting freedom, and the voyage is a testament to cinema’s shapeshifting power––what it can do, what it can be.
Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World premiered at the 2023 Locarno Film Festival.