A Film a Week - The Chalice. Of Sons and Daughters / O tahtai. Savendar tai seiandar

 previously published on Cineuropa

Cătălina Tesăr is an anthropologist by education, specialised in the life, customs and practices of the Cortorari Roma people in Romania, focusing on the various dimensions of arranged marriages (sexual, political and economic). Dana Bunescu is an editor and a sound engineer who's worked on quite a few films by Romanian New Wave auteurs, such as Cristian Mungiu and Radu Jude. Tesăr and Bunescu combined their forces, skills and knowledge for the documentary The Chalice. Of Sons and Daughters, which just premiered in the documentary competition of the Sarajevo Film Festival. For the former, it is a filmmaking debut, while for the latter the film serves as their third co-directorial collaboration.

The duo opens the film with a Roma wedding. The celebratory atmosphere is somewhat over-shadowed by an argument between the two families, where words like “dowry,” “pledge” and “chalice” are exchanged. The conversation seems chaotic until a long textual insert explains the background of the situation. The silver chalices were brought to Transylvania by the Saxon nobility, but after the Saxons abandoned them, they were taken by the local Cortorari community and invested with their own values, serving as family emblems and status symbols. The bride’s family ought to pay a cash dowry to the groom’s parents, but the bride’s father gets to keep the groom’s chalice until the new family is blessed with a male heir. In order to avoid paying the dowries, the families who have both sons and daughters ready for marriage tend to arrange “double marriage deals” but the chalices of pledge still have to be exchanged.

The story follows siblings Bara and Peli, whose marriages were arranged with another set of siblings from a family in their neighbourhood. Bara and her husband had the male heir straight away, but Peli and his wife Nina are struggling to conceive a child. This takes a special tow on Bara’s and Peli’s father Costica who wants his prized chalice back and it seems that a feud between the families is about to break out. But in the background of the whole story, other issues are revealed, exposing the economic and symbolic co-dependence between the families connected through the arranged marriages but also the different treatment of male and female children and of those born and married into a family.

The importance of the issues raised in the documentary and the sincerity of their approach can't be denied, mostly thanks to Tesăr's engagement, expertise, familiarity with the place and ability to be a fly on the wall in a setting that is not necessarily friendly to curious observers. She recorded the sound and partly filmed the material herself, while Bunescu took on the editing and the sound design. The end result feels somewhat raw and plain thanks to an abundant use of hand-held camerawork and the natural-looking colours and overlapping dialogues edging on quarrel, but it also feels direct and un-tampered with. The Chalice. Of Sons and Daughters certainly exposes some important aspects of the life of a community that is often overlooked.

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