The time: now. The place: Bucharest, Romania, amid a pandemic with wearily compliant mask-wearers on one side, and those who consider masks “the muzzle of slaves!” on the other.
The filmmakers: High school educator Emi (Katia Pascariu) and her husband (Stefan Steel), first seen making a sex tape, which ends up online and going viral. The movie about the fallout caused by this humble hardcore project gone awry is called “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn,” and it finds Romanian writer-director Radu Jude in a comic mood both despairing and responsive to these times. He has a lot to say about the history, politics, morality and hypocrisy of his homeland.
It’s a three-act structure, culminating in three alternate endings. Part one opens with the sex tape in progress, in the married couple’s bedroom (”don’t forget to fill my prescription,” hollers Emi’s unseen mother, from the other side of the locked door). The tape makes its way onto the internet and into the hearts, minds and eyeballs of, among others, Emi’s school faculty, administration and parent community. Many call for Emi’s resignation, while calling her out as a slut or worse.
Part two, “a short dictionary of anecdotes, signs and wonders,” trades the narrative established in part one for a series of quick vignettes. Blending archival footage featuring pornography of another era, alongside footage of 20th century warfare, writer-director Jude borrows a page or three from, among others, the “63 words” dictionary supplement from Milan Kundera’s “The Art of the Novel.” Jude takes aim at the ravages of the Ceausescu era; the bloodless behavior of the Romanian Orthodox Church during the 1989 revolution, when they locked a cathedral’s doors during a lethal clash between armed forces and civilians; and, among other bits, a primer on the two most commonly referenced entries in a Romanian dictionary, one of which is “empathy.”
Part three brings us back to Emi and her outdoor, socially distanced but intensely hostile meeting with the school, which decides her fate and leads to the movie’s three different outcomes. This section has a little trouble sustaining its comic momentum across 40 or so minutes. The frenzied capper (the third possible resolution) could’ve used a little more finesse. To which the filmmaker would likely respond with: “I wasn’t going for finesse.”
So be it. Throughout “Bad Luck Banging,” the masked Pascariu is reduced to a wide-eyed expression of not hopelessness, exactly, but something just north of it. She’s excellent, as the movie veers from blunt raunch to sincere belief in puncturing Romanian sexual hypocrisy (it’s just like America’s, basically) to playful defiance of screenwriting convention. Reports of a modern satiric classic are a little more than I’d claim. But amid so many earnest, forgettable COVID-era and COVID-acknowledging movies around the world, here’s one that truly goes for it.
'BAD LUCK BANGING OR LOONY PORN'
(In Romanian with English subtitles)
3 stars (out of 4)
No MPAA rating (explicit sex, language)
Running time: 1:46
Where to watch: Now playing in theaters
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