Povestea dragostei

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Povestea dragostei (1977) is a “photo-mix” Romanian fairytale film by Ion Popescu-Gopo that freely adapts Ion Creangă’s classic tale Povestea porcului. Popescu-Gopo’s lifelong interest in the early animated features produced by Walt Disney heavily influenced Povestea dragostei, particularly in the use of animation and musical numbers. Like Dunderklumpen! (1974) animation cells are printed over exposed film to create the illusion that actors and physical spaces are interacting with cartoon characters.

The fairytale tells of an old childless couple (Eugenia Popovici and Mircea Bogdan) living in medieval times who, out of desperation, adopt a young boy in a space suit who has crash landed in the forest near their hut. They raise the alien boy as their own and when he is of age, he builds a bridge from the castle of a prince to that of the king (Dan Ionescu) in exchange for the princess’ hand and half the kingdom. However, when the princess burns the cosmonaut suit, the orphaned alien is taken away. The princess pursues him to the cosmic Wax Monastery where they are reunited.

Popescu-Gopo added the science fiction element to Creangă’s story to make the fable presumably more contemporary. This change, as well as the focus on the elderly couple in the first half of the film, invites comparisons with the Superman mythos. Both narratives feature the symbiotic relationship at the foreground. In exchange for learning human customs and morality, the alien being bestows the use of their power onto the surrogate parents.

The second half of Povestea dragostei shifts the focus to that of the Princess (Diana Lupescu). Themes of marriage are explored through her perspective before she sets off on her quest. What’s interesting is that the “other” of the alien is only ever seen from the perspective of the characters around him. The alien being himself (Marian Stanciu) remains generally mysterious and ill defined. He is a creature of myth, removed from the human emotions that determine the actions of his adopted parents and his wife the Princess.

Povestea dragostei is, until the quest for the Wax Monastery, a rather boiler plate fairy tale film in terms of its cinematographic designs; akin to films like The Golden Horns (1973). However, once the Princess boards the ladder and takes off into the starry cosmos, Povestea dragostei erupts into a veritable fantasia. It is in this section of the film that the animated character of Cicy is introduced. The musical number in which the Princess befriends the bird-like Cicy seems an obvious nod to the Disney production The Three Caballeros (1944).

Once the Princess arrives at the Wax Monastery she discovers a kingdom ruled by women in which the husbands, after the wedding night, are immediately disposed of. The landscape of this mystical realm deep in outer space is alive with dancers swaying and contorting in a sea of fog. The production design is gorgeous and provocative; like a sequence out of The Tales Of Hoffmann (1951). Before her husband can be executed by the Queen of the Wax Monastery, the Princess intervenes by inciting a sexual revolution among the frustrated princesses. No sooner do all the girls have a male dance partner is it announced, via voiceover, that they all lived happily ever after.

The notion that “love” is barbaric, as stated by the Queen (Carmen Stănescu), effectively sets up the coup of the princesses. “Love”, as evidenced earlier in the film, is what bound the intergalactic traveler to earth. When the Princess reintroduces the concept of “love” and the notion that husbands can be useful for more than one night, Popescu-Gopo is essentially pitting the sexual revolution and youth movements of the day against the Socialist Republic of Romania. It’s a political statement in the guise of a cartoonish adventure not dissimilar to Yellow Submarine (1968) but with far more urgent stakes.

Ion Popescu-Gopo set out to make Povestea dragostei in the grand Hollywood tradition of the spectacle and succeeded. It’s an odd film to be sure, but the combination of its technical achievements and ingenuity make it an essential text in the history of Romanian cinema. Unfortunately the copies of the film that are readily available in the United States are in the wrong aspect ratio, not to mention the state of the source prints. Povestea dragostei is a film the deserves rediscovery in the West that should take its place among the significant children’s entertainments of the seventies.