Long ago and far away, the fictional Swiss Family Robinson carved out an idyllic life for themselves on a tropical island. As Radu Ciorniciuc’s deeply embedded documentary begins, the Romanian family Enache — father Gică, mother Niculina and their nine children — seem to be doing something similar. In sun-flared shots, giggling, lithe, rough-and-tumble kids pull fish from lake waters with their bare hands and set switches of wood aside to dry, so they’ll be ready for use as fishing rods “by next year.”
But this is not long ago (Ciorniciuc started filming in 2016) and, as the tower blocks in the hazy distance and a sudden levitating drone shot prove, not at all far away: Văcărești, the wilderness they inhabit, is a tract of disused land only separated from the densely populated sprawl of urban Bucharest by an embankment and a motorway. And while not without its idyllic aspects, even before the family are forced to move into the city when Văcărești is zoned for development as an urban wildlife reserve, this ragged existence is far from straightforwardly bucolic.
Teenager Vali, the eldest child, grumbles about being sent out night fishing, and going door to door selling his catch in the city. The siblings, unschooled and illiterate, have to scuttle away to hide in the high grass whenever social workers come to call. During four years of observing both their struggles and the mounting exasperations of their sympathetic case worker Mihaela, with the same measured compassion, Ciorniciuc, an investigative journalist making his directorial debut, is even-handed almost to a fault: It is difficult to know quite what to make of this strange story by the time it ends, on a note that feels less like a resolution than a to-be-continued ellipsis.
Certainly the blustery Gică emerges as a more complex character than he first appears. He undeniably loves his family, but also expects a level of unquestioning obedience against which Vali, now a young man, soon begins to chafe. Their arguments, as Vali starts to assimilate, finding a (worryingly young) girlfriend and even getting a job as a ranger in the park that was once his home, and the dismay of his younger siblings at his pulling away from the tightly tribal family unit, become the focus of the film’s second half.
“Acasa, My Home” picked up a Sundance award for cinematography, a slightly perplexing prize given that, aside from that romantic beginning and some glowing night scenes, Ciorniciuc and co-DP Mircea Topoleanu keep their camerawork unobtrusive, scrupulously realist, while the absence of flashy soundtracking also maintains the defiantly naturalistic register. As a result, Ciorniciuc’s own “voice” (he avoids interviews, voiceover and other such techniques entirely) can feel muted, especially when the occasional glance to camera cannot but remind us of his presence, and of the Observer Effect that must be at play, given the intimacy of his access over such a long period. Balance and objectivity are laudable instincts, but they can put the film at a slightly frustrating remove.
And so the faintly ironic moments, such as an incongruous Prince Charles showing up on a tour of Văcărești, are welcome. As are the few gently underlined, doleful parallels, like Vali building a neat wooden visitors’ walkway near the spot where their ramshackle hut used to stand, or the Enache boys going fishing in a Bucharest park and getting roughly collared by the authorities. That incident also suggests the racism the Enaches face. While their Roma background is alluded to, it is not very deeply explored — although the degree to which Gică’s rigidly patriarchal and anti-establishment worldview is in line with or runs counter to that culture, is perhaps very pertinent to this story. Especially as Vali seems destined to repeat some of his father’s patterns even as he breaks the cycle of others.
At the end of “The Swiss Family Robinson,” some of the family elect to stay on the island, some return to civilization. In real life, that choice is rarely as simple; sometimes “home” is neither here nor there. Perhaps the ambivalence of Ciorniciuc’s dedicated, absorbing yet inconclusive “Acasa, My Home” is just that difficult, moving uncertainty made manifest.