An Unforgettable Summer
by Liz Brent
Based on Petru Dumitriu's short story "La Salade," Lucian Pintilie's 1994 film An Unforgettable Summer evokes the insanity and moral outrage of war, Balkan style, from the perspective of an officer's wife. The story is set in 1925, in a disputed border region of southern Dobrogea, Romania it was taken from the Bulgarians in 1913, who had taken it from the Greeks, who took it from the Turks. Kristin Scott Thomas is gorgeous and terrific as always in the role of Marie-Therese von Debretsy, the daughter of a Romanian attaché, raised in England, and recently married to Petre Dumitriu, a Romanian officer who once rescued her from being raped by Romanian troops. The young couple are stationed at a remote military outpost, where the Romanian army is assigned to ward off Bulgarian or Macedonian rebels who want to regain the region.
Marie-Therese tries to maintain a cheerful family life for her three small children while witnessing the horrific details of political turmoil and military careerism carried out in her own backyard. One night a group of bandits attack, kill, and mutilate eight Romanian soldiers. In response the Romanians round up ten Bulgarian peasants (one of them a Turk mistakenly identified as Bulgarian) and detain them in the yard of the officer's home, where they are ordered to work the small kitchen garden while awaiting their fate. The men's wives huddle in a nearby field, fearful for their husbands but powerless to intervene.
Marie-Therese's husband has been ordered by his superiors off the record to shoot the detained men. The Bulgarians claim the bandits were Macedonians, that they themselves had nothing to do with the massacre. Meanwhile, Marie-Therese's children play with the men in the garden. She serves them wine, pays them for their work, and congratulates them on the fruits of their labor the sumptuous salads that grace her dinner table every night.
This is a visually and emotionally powerful
film. The messages embedded in the story, though not new, are timeless and worthy of repetition: that one should never lose sympathy for the wretched; that following orders is still no excuse for committing crimes against humanity; that the price for placing moral principles above personal advantage can be extraordinarily high; and that there is no greater sin than the theft of a human life.
An Unforgettable Summer is shown on October 24 at Lorch Hall as the last in a Thursday U-M Balkan film series that began September 19.
[Originally published in October, 2002.]