Director Bogdan Mustaţă presents us with three teenage boys – all anonymous – who drive a large yellow taxi to the sea. In the back, they have thrown a prostitute and a man whose identity, occupation or crime is unknown. The violence that follows raises an important question: why is the present punishing the past? The boys’ gratuitous abuse is played out on a backdrop of yellow sand, yellow cliffs and the vast, endless sea in which they attempt to drown their victims. Their actions seem mindless, unnecessary, unprovoked, until you realise that this is a segment of time – a particular emotion that has been zoomed in on until the point of distortion.
The story comes out of nowhere and we never see the consequences of the boys’ actions. They fear the police and they disappear around a corner, out of the frame and out of our lives forever. It is not that their anger is misdirected, but that it is so deeply internalised that all expressions of it become abstract and its true depth and source is never revealed. What of the adults they are abusing? They are canvases for a kind of revenge: Marian Ghenea plays a near wordless prostitute who attempts to escape and is subsequently dragged in to the water and assaulted. It is through this inexplicable violence which implies pain on both sides that Mustaţă’s delicate handling of the subject, his insight and his willingness to let the characters’ actions do the talking, shines through. Both generations suffer. The older characters live lives that are suspect, miserable, riddled with regret and they impart their despair to the youth who cannot forgive them for such a legacy.
It is not entirely important that the actors are all real life young offenders, except that they bring a certain edge to a film that is otherwise extremely polished. There is no joy in their eyes as they dunk the woman’s head under water. They do not appear to gain genuine pleasure from her suffering. But once they are bored, they sit a few feet away and replenish themselves with cigarettes and coke.
Mustaţă was quick to point out that he did not think these boys would gain anything from their involvement in the film; that they will have had a few days on set, maybe become minor celebrities in their prisons, maybe had a few good stories, but otherwise, nothing. It is difficult to imagine none of those boys returning to this film in later life and seeing with greater clarity the symbols of their anger. The sheer strangeness of the film – its strong style coupled with an event that you suspect is taken grossly out of context – could not have been an empty experience for the actors who participated.
Listening to Mustaţă during the Q&A at the 2008 Romanian Film Festival in London, the impression I got was that he himself was changed by the experience. Perhaps such an admission would be bringing A Good Day for a Swim into the realm of predictability; it would become yet another project by a misguided director that dwells on troubled youth. It is an understandable worry, but the context of the film is post-communist Romania: the tone is that of a country coming out of darkness and asserting itself. The anger young people – directors, artists, writers etc – might have with the generation before them is invariably going to trouble the youth – why not state that? Why not be open about that? Regardless, the film says it loud and clear.