By Kuba Mejer
The eponymous Forest is an impressionist painting tilted, ‘The Leafless Forest’ by Ion Andeescu, the well-known Romanian artist. Oddly enough, during movie’s 73-minutes it never makes an appearance – the only place where you can actually see it is… the film’s poster.
The unseen painting was a gift from the Socialist Republic of Romania to Yugoslavian president Josip Broz Tito on his first visit in December 1947. “If Stalin is like God, then Tito is like St. Peter,” explains one of the characters in the movie. Romanians were disgraced by the Nazi collaboration during World War II and believed that a proper reception of a war hero would make them more reliable as a righteous communist nation.
They believed that this piece of art was perfect to do so: a painting authored by an artist from a good, blue-collar family, depicting a forest – a place widely associated with the guerilla fighting that made Tito famous worldwide.
‘The Leafless Forest’ plays a role in a subplot involving Romanian art critic Radu Bogdan (the film is based on his article and posthumously dedicated to him), trying to obtain a photocopy of it from Tito’s office for his book about Andeescu. But in reality, it’s just a MacGuffin. At the same time, mostly through archival footage, we also attend a brief history lesson about communist Romania and Yugoslavia and the relations between them. “I am not interested in a classical reportage,” explained director Siniša Dragin, adding that he wanted to tell a bigger story with events surrounding the painting.
Dragin created a film that will be valuable for viewers searching for a source of information about the Balkans. The director himself acknowledged that his work is dedicated to people with little or no knowledge about the region, by adding two elements that are not connected to the painting’s story. In the beginning we see a map of Europe focusing more and more on a region, finally leaving just Romania and Yugoslavia on the screen. He explained his reason was so that people in Mexico, Japan or United States could better understand their geography. At the end, we see a very violent coda consisting of archival footage from the war in Yugoslavia and the Romanian Revolution. Dragin explained that he wanted to finish this story by showing that it was not just a humorous rendering about the painting, but that the history of both countries was also very solemn and riddled with hardships.
The result is a film consisting mostly of archival footage with some additional abstract shots of forests, still-living witnesses of these events, and recreated voices of Bogdan and communist apparatchiks. This allows us to follow Bogdan’s hunt for ‘The Leafless Forest,’ but never quite escapes a history lesson about the parallels and differences between Yugoslavia and Romania.