Ioana Uricaru’s Montreal-shot film Lemonade is heavy on the heart

We spoke to the filmmaker and cast about bringing a tough immigration tale to the screen.

Lemonade. © Friede Clausz, Mobra Films

Things start out poorly for Romanian immigrant Mara (Mãlina Manovici) and they only get worse. Having moved to America to flee a dangerous situation back home, she marries a man she barely knows (Dylan Smith) after being his nurse in physical therapy. Desperate to get her green card, she nevertheless butts heads with a sadistic immigration officer (Steve Bacic) who knows he has the upper hand and will gleefully flaunt it. Mara has trouble getting anything done because she’s only recently welcomed her nine-year-old son Dragos (Milan Hurduc) back into her home; she can never find anyone to watch him while she tries to secure their future in America, leaving her to entrust dubious acquaintances with his well-being. All this puts a stress on her already limping marriage, not to mention the money she needs to come up with to secure the services of a sympathetic lawyer (Goran Radakovic).

It wouldn’t be much of a leap to say that, on paper at least, Lemonade flirts with misery porn — and Uricaru knows it. “It’s certainly toeing a fine line, but if the character is believable and well-performed by the actor, it remains believable,” she says. “Really bad things happen to her, then even worse things happen to her… and then her husband also does something bad! But that’s not what the movie is about. It’s about how she reacts to it and the idea that a lot of other bad things are going to happen to her, a lot of bad things probably happened before and it’s all about pulling through.”

“But what are those bad things that are going to happen?” asks Manovici.

“See, to us, these don’t seem so bad! We’re from Romania! We have a higher tolerance!” laughs Uricaru.

“It’s a bad day, I think,” says Manovici. “Everyone has a bad day where everything goes wrong.”

Ioana Uricaru. Photo by Annette Hornischer

Uricaru has a point. Considering the tradition of Romanian cinema, Lemonade (a Romanian/Quebec co-production that was shot in Montreal) is downright sunny and optimistic.

“Well, the intention wasn’t to make it bleak!” says Uricaru. “Realistic and intense, maybe, but not bleak! (…) I wonder if the bleakness of Romanian cinema has to do with the choice of what we make the film about. Obviously, in the world, there’s a lot of bleakness. But it depends on what you think cinema is supposed to do. Is it supposed to critique the world? Is it supposed to reflect it? Is it supposed to make it palatable? I understand — and am all for — films that try to make it more palatable, because that’s very necessary. We can’t tell ourselves all the time how horrible things are, getting angrier and angrier. (…) Cinema has to be about a certain kind of pleasure, but you can find pleasure even in just revealing some truths that have been previously buried.”

“Cinema is a universal language,” says Manovici. “It should be understood all over the world. I think it depends on who makes it and what they want to transmit… but it’s also a way of knowing another people’s culture.”

Lemonade is set in the United States — more specifically in Upper New York State, an area that Uricaru is familiar with as a film professor at Middlebury College in Vermont. To me, Lemonade is a movie about America from a Romanian perspective.

“I guess it turned out that way, yes!” laughs Uricaru. “The intention I started with was a film about what it’s like to be transplanted into a different culture. The specificity of it was a Romanian woman in the U.S., because that’s what I know best, but inevitably it became about America: the extent to which you buy into the American dream and what you’re ready to do for it. Maybe if I had immigrated to Canada, it wouldn’t have been such a big question. Maybe it wouldn’t have been so dramatic to buy into the Canadian dream!”

As the film was shot in and around Montreal, Manovici found her own life reflected in the character to some extent. “I was here for two months,” she says. “Actually, I think it helped me with the part. I was all alone for the first couple of weeks — Ioana was so busy doing other stuff… and I felt so lonely and powerless and vulnerable! (laughs) I asked myself, ‘What am I doing here?’ walking alone in the city, knowing nobody. I got a little bit of that feeling, you know, but of course it must be harder for someone who wants to integrate and live there.” ■

Lemonade opens in theatres on Friday, Nov. 27.