Dan Pita's The Prophet, the Gold and the Transylvanians (1979)
The modern western has been a cultural staple of American cinema for so long now that it'd be easy to overlook those it influenced overseas. Three so-called Red Westerns known as “The Transylvanians Trilogy,” screening on brand new 35mm prints this weekend in Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema, represent a triptych of stories both vast and intimate, for the masses and yet ethnically specific, which find themselves rooted in American folklore and something else entirely.
A Romanian production through and through, these U.S.A.-set features tell the tale of John Brad, a rebellious cowboy (with a great shot) looking to make his way back to his native Romania. In what would become a pattern, the films' dry titles humorously list, rather than explain, the elements of their story upfront. The first entry in the series, The Prophet, The Gold and The Transylvanians (1979), primarily follows Brad, currently labeled an outlaw for shooting a man dead. Through misguided hearsay, many believe Brad's actions to have been cowardly and cruel, while the film implies he pulled the trigger out of self-defense. Nonetheless, Brad goes into hiding in the great state of Utah, his two very foreign brothers arriving in the town of Cedar City afterward to locate him.
Dan Pita's The Prophet, the Gold and the Transylvanians (1979)
Director Dan Pita treats us to the welcome genre familiars: poker-playing and heavy drinking in the old time saloon, arguments which escalate all too quickly into shootouts, classy female stage performers, stilted dialogue and, in a welcomed surprise, a very strong and often synthesized score. He provides one heck of an adversary for his hero as well. With the villainous characterization of its lead antagonist, Mr. Waltrop, and his overly obedient plethora of wives and offspring, the film takes a few jabs at Mormonism. At one point, Waltrop even attempts to force June, a recently father-less girl held captive, to marry his equally despicable son. No need to fear: Johnny Brad saves the day and rides into the sunset with his posse by film's end.
Richard Peña, who will introduce the Friday evening screening, recently reflected on his first experience with the work. “In 1984, when I went to Romania for the first time, I had the pleasure of seeing Dan Piŧa's The Prophet, The Gold and The Transylvanians. I knew already that Dan was a great admirer of westerns; I had no idea how sharply observed and hugely entertaining his own contribution to the genre would be. Subsequently, I was able to see the other installments of the Transylvanian series, by Dan and Mircea Veroiu, and enjoyed them every bit as much. These Film Society screenings will be a rare opportunity to see–in beautiful new 35mm prints–these striking examples of 'Red Westerns,' a genre that proved wildly popular with Romanian as well as other audiences in the former Soviet bloc.”
The second film in the series, which at just over 70 minutes is also the briefest, may be considered the best of the bunch. Opening with an elaborate train sequence, The Actress, The Dollars and The Transylvanians (1981) features our heroes arriving in a new town filled with discrimination. Once again, all is not what it seems. After word gets out about a locomotive ambush conducted by bloodthirsty Native Americans, the town turns against the tribe. The “pale faces” in an uproar shouldn't be so easily deceived, however. Those Native Americans aren't really Native Americans at all, but rather an evil gang of traveling thespians and circus performers in disguise, inciting one culture's hatred for another for their own financial gain.
The film draws many similarities between our outcast Romanian leads and the authentic Native Americans who are unjustly persecuted. A progressive take on cowboy politics, the film pulls the heartstrings when one of Johnny Brad's brothers leaves the dinner table to sit on the floor with a Native American. The two break bread and enjoy a meal together, not altogether lost in translation. The two groups will work together to take down the real outsiders; rather than go back to the well and conclude with a shootout, director Mircea Veroiu gets the opportunity to end things with a welcomed bloody sword fight.
Series originator Dan Pita returned for The Oil, The Baby and The Transylvanians (1982), wrapping up the story nicely while providing our leads with hardships (cold weather, a need for shelter) and rewards (marriage, a baby and a way home). It is also the most existential and, given the film's ultra vibrant opening credits song, the most pop-oriented. “Hired gun, you'll see,” one lyric states as somewhat of a premonition or challenge, “hired gun, as weak as can be. Hired gun, beware, hired gun, if you die, whose to care?” The song kicks things into high gear before settling down to tell one last tale of Johnny Brad fighting a gluttonous group who desire full control of the land.
One of the villains, a youngish punk named Collins who first encounters Brad in a barbershop, even sports an earring on his left ear and looks like he just stepped off a tour bus. This isn't to say the morally misguided cretin isn't intelligent. In one scene, he emphasizes his quest for complete domination while finding the time to drop some names. “Now tell me, senior Murray,” Collins asks a frightened family looking to flee town, “when you sold your farm, why wouldn't you sell it to us?” “Because you were forcing me to sell it to you,” is the response Collins receives before condescendingly responding with “That's an answer good enough for Abe Lincoln.”
Epic in length but singular in scope, “The Translvanians Trilogy” provides a unique viewing experience. The films portray the American landscape as distinctly foreign and otherworldly, while at the same time mirroring some of our favorite Westerns' contemplative pathos. For every familiar but exciting stand-off, there's something off-kilter that makes you reevaluate the intimate surroundings; at one point we see a Wanted poster alerting citizens that a man is on the loose for murder and “rubbery.” Whether it be an homage, a pastiche or a re-imagining, these three films craft a personal immigrant story within a genre saddled with preconceived and expected notions.
These films screen as part of Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema, which runs November 29 – December 3 at Film Society of Lincoln Center.