In spite of the expansion of the European Union, films from Central and Eastern Europe are yet to make much of an impact on cinema audiences throughout the rest of the continent. The Trieste Film Festival offers one of the best opportunities to see the developing trends in cinema from the Baltic to the Balkans.

The surprise winner of this year’s Feature Film Competition was Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Moartea Domului Lazarescu, 2005, due out in the UK on 14 July) from Romania. It’s the story of one old man’s attempt to get treated in hospital in Bucharest and the parlous state of the Romanian health system. At over two and half hours long it’s extremely ponderous and the hand-held camera work is more distracting than artful. The Trieste jury obviously felt that the cumulative effect reached an almost metaphysical level of enjoyment and gave it the top prize. If you can withstand the first hour it might have the same impact for you.

Far more enticing from Romanian film studios was the excellent Ryna (Ruxanda Zenide, 2005), a wonderful film about the hard life of a young woman (Ryna) down in the intensely rural Danube delta. With her hair cut short by her alcoholic father, she works as a mechanic in his ramshackle car repair shop. All the men seem to want a piece of her – be they a kind-hearted French sociologist passing through, the local postman who’s clearly in love with her or the lecherous and ultimately rapacious local mayor. Only her grandfather seems to have her best interests at heart. It’s a grim story but actress Dorotheea Petre is incredibly moving as the taciturn, tomboyish Ryna. Beautiful, charismatic and totally believable, her performance should launch a potentially stellar career.

A favourite with the Italian audiences was the Polish film The Master (Mistrz, Piotr Trzaskalski, 2005). A road movie about a tiny traveling circus it stars the Russian actor Konstantin Lavronenko as the eponymous hero, a hard-drinking, introverted, knife-throwing genius, handsome enough to appeal to the ladies but unable to truly bond with anyone, such is his pent up grief and angst. Even when he falls in love with someone and his life begins to change for the better he makes her have an abortion when she joyfully tells him she’s pregnant, and then his life unravels again. The camera work by Piotr Sliskowski is imaginative and the storyline packs an emotional punch but there’s an underlying high Catholic sentiment that won’t appeal to everyone.

Films from Slovenia and the Czech republic focused on the difficulties of adjusting to the harsh realities of the market economy and competition. Labour Equals Freedom (Delo Osvobaja, Damjan Kozole, 2005) features the fabulous Slovenian actor Peter Musevski as Peter, a middle-aged machine operator who loses his job, his wife and then struggles to turn his life around. The City of the Sun (Slunecni Stát, Martin Sulik, 2005) is a little like a Czech version of the Full Monty, though crucially without the stripping. Five male friends go through the trials and tribulations of losing their jobs and then coming to terms with a new way of life. Both films end on an optimistic note and are rather lightweight. Much more interesting and moving is Something Like Happiness (Stesti, Bohdan Slama, 2005), with its focus on the lives of a bunch of individuals in a Czech apartment block. One goes mad, one drinks himself sick, one has to stay and look after someone else’s children and so runs the risk of never getting to America to be with her boyfriend. Drawn together in their loneliness and longing all these characters are engagingly well defined. The film won Best Film at the latest San Sebastian Film Festival.

Hungarian cinema always throws up unusual and entertaining films and this year the festival showcased Paths of Light (A Feny Osvenyei, 2005) by first-time director Attila Mispál. It’s a remarkably assured debut with two stories running in parallel. In one, a model is surrounded by men wanting to use and abuse her though, without realizing it, she is protected by a strange tramp guardian angel. In the other, a blind goldsmith struggles to produce his latest commission in the midst of his alcoholism and depression. Both then descend further and further into their own personal hells until they finally re-find peace with themselves and then their stories briefly merge.

German-Austrian film was represented in competition by Sleeper (Schläfer, Benjamin Heisenberg, 2005). It’s an excellent examination of the corrosive effect of distrust and jealousy as young German Johannes joins a university virology department and then is asked to spy on an Algerian colleague, Farid, by the German secret service. He refuses and befriends Farid, but as professional and personal rivalries begin to increase he starts to believe that maybe his Arab friend is in fact a terrorist ‘sleeper’. Thankfully the film refuses to wallow in topicality by focusing on the relationship between the two men and the girl that they both love, rather than any of the political and moral issues associated with terrorism. Actor Bastian Trost is excellent as the nerdy Johannes, charting the emotional demise of a liberal-minded man.

For me the highlight of the competition was Kukumi (2005), a rare film production from Kosovo. Directed by Isa Qosja in 45 days on a budget of just €480,000 it is unlike any other film I have seen in a long time. The story takes place immediately after NATO troops enter Kosovo. Whilst they are seen as bringing freedom to Kosovo, this is a mixed blessing for the inmates of a mental asylum who are left to fend for themselves when their Serb guards leave. The film follows three of them (superbly played by Luan Jaha, Anisa Ismaili and Donat Qosja) as they go out into the world and try to integrate. They meet rejection but their attempts to help one another are beautifully shown by the director, supported by the wonderful camera work of Menduh Nushi. The film is slow-paced but never boring and feels like a sequence of near-spiritual experiences. Though we laugh at some of the antics of the protagonists they are given full dignity as human beings by the director and the actors and we are left to conclude that freedom really is a state of mind rather than something connected with any particular territory. The ridiculous notion of state borders is emphasized by the sight of a NATO tank driving through the feeble gate between Kosovo and Albania. In the end two of the main characters go back to their asylum and we are told that the world is ‘a ball of shit covered in tar’. Both funny and sad it’s a profoundly moving film.

I interviewed the director and he told me that the film has been partly inspired by his frequent visits to mental asylums where he had seen a couple who had fallen in love and had left the asylum only to want to come back again after two years on the streets. He had found that, in a similar way, people had felt lost after the war in Kosovo, unsure of what to do or where to go. Thankfully, Kosja managed to produce this film, his first for 17 years after the repression of Albanian artistic activity by the totalitarian Milosevic regime. It’s an absolute masterpiece and a superb comment on the nature of humanity and freedom. Conversely perhaps, his next film will be about the bizarre true story of a dog killer in Pristina! . Without doubt it’s a film to look forward to.

Editor’s note: Second Run DVD has just released two key titles of 1960s Eastern European cinema. From Hungary comes Miklós Jancsó’s The Red and The White (1967), a Western-influenced stylish film set in 1919 in the aftermath of the Russian revolution when Hungarian volunteers supported the ‘Red’ revolutionaries and fought the ‘White’ counter-revolutionaries who were seeking to restore the old Czarist order. A cool look at the banality of war. The other title is the Czech The Cremator (1968) by Juraj Herz, a surrealist film that vaguely echoes Dreyer’s Vampyr in its stylistic boldness and eerie atmosphere. Set in Prague during the Nazi occupation, it tells the story of Karl Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrusínský), a professional cremator with an impulse to save the world.

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