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Doc Talk

Romania now and then, polished prose, polished nails

A still image from “Nailed it.”Debbie Allen/Ameya Okamoto/Ameya Okamoto

Two documentaries in the Harvard Film Archive’s Romanian Cinema Now program (May 7-25) ) take on antithetical subjects — love and hate — with aptly disparate styles.

Adina Pintilie’s “Touch Me Not” (2018; May 10 at 7 p.m. and May 18 at 9 p.m.) combines fiction and nonfiction, stylized reflexivity and quasi-scientific objectivity in its study of intimacy. It follows two subjects — Laura, a middle-aged British actress who recoils from human contact but desperately seeks it and Tómas, a young man who as a teenager lost all his hair from alopecia and has since shunned relationships because he fears rejection.


To address her problem Laura engages with a variety of sex workers in her bedroom while Pintilie observes and comments. Tómas, meanwhile, has made the acquaintance of a disfigured, paraplegic man who has overcome self-consciousness and enjoys a robust sex life.

Inventive and earnest, “Touch Me Not” is somehow reminiscent of the films of the late Dušan Makavejev, but without the politics or humor.

Radu Jude’s coldly poetic and bitterly ironic “The Dead Nation” (2017; May 5 at 5 p.m.) examines Romania’s descent into fascism in the 1930s, subsequent alliance with Nazi Germany, and genocidal murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews. Martial music, jingoistic speeches and radio broadcasts, and readings from the anguished diary entries of Emil Dorian, a Jewish doctor who struggled for survival in Bucharest during this period, back a montage of photos from Costica Acsinte’s Foto Splendid studio depicting the daily life of Romanians from 1937 to 1946..

Some of the latter images have deteriorated and resemble the salvaged celluloid in Bill Morrison films like “Decasia” (2002) and “Dawson City: Frozen Time” (2016). Their elegant banality provides absurd and haunting counterpoint to Dorian’s chronicle of horrors and the grotesque official broadcasts of a country gone mad.


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Authorized versions

The novelists Elena Ferrante and Toni Morrison, profiled in two documentaries in the Museum of Fine Arts’s She Makes a Universe: Literary Luminaries program (May 1-17), have responded in different ways to their worldwide fame and success.

The pseudonymous Ferrante, author of the four “Neapolitan Novels” (beginning in 2012, with “My Brilliant Friend”) that have sold more than 5 million copies in over 50 countries, is the subject of Giacomo Durzi’s “Ferrante Fever” (2017; May 8 at 6 p.m. and May 17 at 3.30 p.m.). Her addictive, presumably autobiographical epic tells the story of two women whose beleaguered, resilient friendship spans much of recent Italian history.

Not just her books, but her anonymity has beguiled scholars, critics, and fervent readers. The film’s interviews with fans like the novelist Jonathan Franzen and Italian author Roberto Saviano focus almost as much on who Ferrante might be as on what she wrote.

Unlike Ferrante, the Nobel Prize-winning Toni Morrison, author of such acclaimed novels as “The Bluest Eye” (1970) and “Beloved” (1987), uses her celebrity to benefit social and political causes.

The title of Rian Brown and Geoff Pingree’s “Toni Morrison: The Foreigner’s Home” (2018; May 5 at 1:30 p.m. and May 8 at 4 p.m.) refers to a 2006 exhibition she guest-curated at the Louvre, which confronted with paintings and poetry the notion of belonging and alienation. As Morrison points out, the foreigner can be a refugee or an oppressed minority scapegoated as an “other” by government and society. Such attempts to build walls between people are doomed to failure, she concludes, and only by welcoming the stranger can we survive.


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Going digital

Adele Free Pham’s “Nailed It” (2018) is a refugee success, thanks in part to actress Tippi Hedren. After the fall of Saigon, in 1975, she helped train as manicurists a group of women who had fled the communist takeover. These early arrivals introduced subsequent waves of refugees to the trade, which grew in popularity and proliferated in shopping malls across the country. Today Vietnamese entrepreneurs dominate what has become an $8 billion dollar industry. 

Pham, who is herself of Vietnamese descent, takes a personal, good-humored approach to the topic, examining her own heritage and background at the same time as she investigates the sometimes-controversial trade. In particular she notes the health risks posed by the largely unregulated chemicals used in salons. Overall, though, she finds that the nail-salon phenomenon has not only provided opportunities for immigrants but has helped further the cause of cultural diversity.

“Nailed It” can be seen on May 7 at 8 p.m. as part of “America ReFramed” on PBS’s WORLD Channel. It will also stream on, and all station-branded PBS platforms, including, and on PBS apps for iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast.

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Peter Keough can be reached at