Metronom, the debut effort by Romanian director-writer Alexandru Belc, is a spot-on, nearly perfect political drama about a pair of Bucharest-residing lovers in their late teens (played by Mara Bugarin and Serban Lazarovici) whose relationship is tragically perverted by Romania’s secret police.

It’s not a Cannes competition entry but part of the Un Certain Regard line-up, but if it were a competition film it would be a top Palme d’Or contender, at least in my book.

Set in October 1972, Metronom doesn’t particularly resonate with our present catalogue of political horrors, but serves as a time-capsule reminder of the beastly oppression of the Nicolae Ceaușescu regime, which ran Romania from early March of 1965 until Ceaucescu’s overthrow and execution on 12.22.89.

The story is principally told in personal, emotional and intimate terms, and is focused on the ins and outs of the relationship between Ana (Bugarin) and Sorin (Lazarovici). The inciting incident scene, which doesn’t happen until roughly the 45-minute mark, is a party in which they and their high-school-age friends listen to a Radio Free Europe broadcast by rebel DJ Cornel Chiriac (1941-1975).

Chiriac’s shortwave radio show, “Metronom,” delivered uncensored news from the non-Communist west along with contemporary rock music, and thus was feared and, as much as possible, suppressed by the Securitate.

As the party kids listen they decide to write a “thank you” letter to Chiriac for providing an anti-Commie view of the world, both topically and musically. Such an act, of course, was regarded by the bad guys as subversive and criminal, and so before you know it (and I mean while the party is still going on) the goons bust in, arrest the kids and take them down to headquarters to sign confessions about the letter.

Did someone rat them out?

That’s all I’m going to say about the plot, but what happens certainly has a significant effect upon Ana and Sorin’s relationship. Let’s just say that the last 55 minutes of this 102-minute film are quite chilling. This mood is complemented by Tudor Vladimir Panduru’s shooting style, which follows the standard Romanian-cinema aesthetic — plain, unfussy, longish takes.

I’ll admit that Metronom tried my patience here and there. Some shots seem to last too long. Bugarin’s performance is hard to read at times,. During the party scene there’s an announcement by Chiriac that rock superstar Jim Morrison has died in Paris, which is a problem given that the Doors frontman passed on 7.3.71, or roughly 15 months before the party scene in question. And near the end there’s a post-interrogation scene between Ana and her best friend Roxana (Mara Vicol) that doesn’t quite stick the landing.

But otherwise Metronom is quite riveting — an emotionally relatable story of state terror that sticks to your ribs.

A 2008 RFE/RL Central Newsroom article about Chiriac:

RFE/RL Central Newsroom Senior Correspondent Eugen Tomiuc remembers one of the Romanian Service’s most distinguished voices. Originally published in August 2008, on the occasion of the closure of RFE/RL’s Romanian Service.

“This is Radio Free Europe!”

I don’t remember precisely when I first heard this announcement, carried over the strains of Enescu’s beautiful “Romanian Rhapsody.” I must have been eight or nine, and it was in the late 1960s.

But I do remember vividly the circumstances — my father, in the corner of the room, covering his old Telefunken radio with a thick blanket, and listening to the Romanian news. It wasn’t exactly the best listening experience, as the shortwave broadcasts were notoriously unstable and full of static. The volume had to be turned down to a bare minimum, so suspicious neighbors would not hear — or even suspect — that dad was listening to Europa Libera.

It was a fascinating experience nevertheless. One by one, dad would identify the figures behind the voices — “Hey, listen to Noel Bernard, he’s amazing. Monica Lovinescu, what a piercing mind she has!” — making me wonder how he could recognize them so easily despite the poor reception.

That’s how I came to learn that the rosy picture of affairs we were being presented with in school was false. There were other people, somewhere far away, whom my parents would listen to, and whom they respected much more than the “comrades” and their leader, the ubiquitous Nicolae Ceausescu.

From under the safety of the blanket, we could depend on hearing whatever had been broadcast on state radio or television by day dissected and presented from a completely different angle in the evening. The Spassky-Fischer chess game; the terrorist Palestinian attack on the Israeli athletes in Munich; Nixon’s visit to Bucharest; Watergate — all were events I first heard of from state media, but later understood thanks to Europa Libera.

No other figure was more influential for my generation than the legendary music presenter Cornel Chiriac. A perpetual rebel, Chiriac and his radio music show ‘Metronom’ had been hugely popular in Romania even before his defection in 1969. But once Chiriac joined Radio Free Europe, “Metronom” achieved cult status.

I remember that the streets in many Romanian cities were deserted on Sunday afternoons — that’s when “Metronom” was aired. A whole generation of young Romanians looked forward to staying home, glued to their shortwave sets, to hear this:

‘Cornel Chiriac salutes you and invites you to enjoy the album of a band that is about to disappear…’

Like the unknown band he was presenting, Chiriac, too, would soon disappear. He was stabbed to death in March 1975 in a parking lot in Munich, leading to whispers that the dreaded communist secret police, the Securitate, was behind his death.

The regime feared him. His shows were never about music alone. They were about liberty, oppression, politics, dictatorship — and music. Perhaps he had become too popular and influential among Romanian youths.

In the days after Chiriac’s death, my friends and I discreetly wore black bands on the lapels of our school uniforms. When asked whether someone close had died, we would all reply, “Yes, a very good friend.” Many Romanian youths made the same gesture. While other RFE journalists had been targeted or even killed by the Securitate, it was Chiriac’s death that hit closest to home — for he was one of us.