Cameo 1It was probably the most surreal experience I’ve had at the Edinburgh International Film Festival so far.

Vworp. Vuh vuh vuh vwwwwooooorrrrrrrrp.

I stepped tentatively into the Cameo cinema’s main screen. I was five minutes early, but the noise seemed to suggest that the film had already started. Indeed, as I emerged into the screening room’s dark expanse, the audience of film critics and industry professionals sat transfixed. The film had started, but the sound was a bleak electronic tone, like a corrupted MP3 at the end of the universe. Could this really be what I had come to see? Was Romanian cinema more avant-garde than I had anticipated?

I contemplated leaving again. It was half past nine in the morning and I was pre-coffee, after all.

Vuhvuhvuhvuh vworrrrp.

The sound gave through to recognizable human sounds and all at once the picture vanished, the lights came on and someone hit the reset button. Saved; deus ex cinema.

@WeAreDN: If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle was a great start to my final morning. One more screening & then it’s home time. Shame. (@albaztks) #EIFF ~ June 23, 2010

If I want to Whistle, I Whistle came out of workshops with young offenders at actual Romanian prisons, and is based on Andreea Valean’s stage play of the same name. It’s bleak stuff, obviously rooted in reality, and the line is further blurred by the film’s documentary stylings. George Pistereanu pulls off an impressively naturalistic, nuanced performance as the film’s protagonist, Silviu, and the supporting cast does nothing to spoil the illusion.

The trouble is, it’s perhaps too bleak; there’s precious little hope or light here. After four years, Silviu is within days of release, but it soon becomes clear that it’s not going to be a painless ride. Indeed, for most of the film we’re forced to watch his slow emotional breakdown due to the reappearance of his negligent mother, who wants to regain custody of his little brother, who he’s raised since she left. At the same time, he develops a crush on Ada, a student training to be a social worker in the prison – and ultimately ends up holding her hostage when he unravels a step too far.

There’s a story to be told here, but while the acting is undoubtedly incredible, I found myself wishing there was more humanity on display. I’ve seen films this Festival about the tragic aftermath of bloody wars that had more light and hope. Romania has been part of the European Union since 2007; it’s jarring to think that somewhere as bleak as is portrayed here is in our political block.

Whereas Silviu is imprisoned against his will, Robert Duvall’s protagonist in Get Low has willfully sequestered himself away for forty years. Hiding away in the Tennessee woods, he’s become the stuff of legend – or rather, half-whispered stories passed on between children, and spun-out tales in the local bar. Did he kill someone? Why does he hide himself away? The inhabitants fear him, and he does nothing to dissuade them – until one day, he rides his mule and cart into town and asks for a funeral party. The catch: he wants to be alive to see it.

Incredibly, Get Low is based on a true story. Duvall’s character, Felix Bush, really did have a living funeral. In order to encourage people to come, he raffled off his land, and come they did: up to twelve thousand “mourners” in all. In the end, Felix wants to tell his story, and explain the real reason why he’s hidden himself away.

It should go without saying that Duvall is excellent, transforming completely into the reclusive, bitter hermit with one last story to tell. It’s director Aaron Schneider’s first film – he was cinematographer on the groundbreaking television legal drama Murder One - but he handles the direction, pace and tone expertly, sparsely punctuating the camerawork with the odd close-up that showcases his technical background.

The supporting players are equally perfectly cast: Bill Murray in particular continues his trend away from pure comedy, delivering a well-rounded performance as the town’s struggling funeral director that hints at a dark, sad backstory of his own (although he is still allotted his fair share of one-liners). Sissy Spacek and Lucas Black – as Felix’s love interest from long ago and the funeral assistant respectively – get less room to sparkle, but can’t be faulted.

The film lands on a satisfying – if tragic – conclusion that cleverly plays with expectations and turns Felix’s self-confinement on its head. It certainly left this reporter blubbing uncontrollably in his seat – a welcome catharsis from the loss and helplessness that we’ve seen so much of during the Festival.

Edited to add (June 28):
 Get Low was the recipient of the Standard Life Audience Award, and I think deservedly so. It was probably my pick of the festival too, and deserves to find a wide audience.