A tiger on the loose terrorizing the inhabitants of an unnamed city becomes the launching pad for a meditation on love, loss and grief in Romanian filmmaker Andrei Tănase’s feature debut, “Day of the Tiger.” The film, which had its world premiere in the Bright Future strand at the Intl. Film Festival Rotterdam, plays this week at the Transilvania Film Festival.
The movie follows Vera (Cătălina Moga), a rundown and emotionally drained veterinarian grappling with some unknown grief as she plods through her daily routine at the zoo. She’s suddenly shaken by the arrival of a tiger that was being kept as a pet by a local gangster, awakening her long-dormant nurturing instincts.
But revelations about Vera’s failing marriage soon rise to the surface. And as the vet and local authorities play a dangerous cat-and-mouse game to catch the escaped tiger, she must engage in her own primal struggle to break free from the past.
“Day of the Tiger” is produced by Romania’s Domestic Film, France’s Altamar Films and Greece’s Graal. World sales are handled by Paris-based Totem Films.
Tănase’s debut was inspired by the real-life story of a big cat that escaped a decade ago from a zoo in the small Romanian city of Sibiu. Speaking to Variety in Transilvania, where the movie will take part in the Romanian Days competition, the director recalled his dismay watching news footage after the tiger was shot dead by local authorities.
“It was a big contrast, a very strange image” to see police and bystanders milling around beside the corpse of “this beautiful, exotic animal,” he said, adding that the tiger “looked like [it came] from another world.”
The director, a professed “big animal lover,” said that “besides these surreal images, the fact that they killed the tiger made a very strong impression on me.” He filed the images away to revisit at a later date, convinced that they would someday play a part in his budding career as a filmmaker.
Tănase soon shot the short film “Claudiu and the Fish,” the first of three shorts he would make in as many years, culminating in the Venice premiere “First Night” (2016). But the characters and ideas that would inform “Day of the Tiger” would frequently surface before he finally sat down to write his script.
Vera was partly inspired by a vet at a circus in Bucharest that the director met while making a short documentary in film school — a “very quiet, delicate woman working in this very harsh environment,” surrounded by gruff male caretakers and the “terrible smells” emanating from the animals’ enclosures. Her character was also informed by a friend of the filmmaker’s who suffered a miscarriage, radically altering the dynamic of her relationship with her partner.
While lead actor Moga is the film’s most recognizable talent, known among other roles for her star turn in Bogdan George Apetri’s Venice Horizons selection “Miracle” (2021), Tănase faced a no-less important casting decision for the titular tiger that terrorizes the locals for much of the film’s 80-minute run time.
“It doesn’t work like the classical casting process,” he explained. “You’re mainly casting the trainer — not the tiger. And there aren’t many of them in Europe at this very high level.”
The producers narrowed their search down, finally settling on the legendary French animal trainer Thierry Le Portier. Boasting nearly 60 years of experience wrangling big cats onto the big screen, Le Portier has worked with the likes of Pier Paolo Pasolini (“Arabian Nights”), Ridley Scott (“Gladiator”) and Ang Lee (“Life of Pi”).
Lead tigress Minh made her acting debut as a cub in Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s bestselling novel, although “Pi” relied on CGI for most of its animal sequences. Before filming on “Day of the Tiger” began, Tănase, DoP Barbu Bălășoiu and the movie’s producers hopped on a Zoom call with Le Portier to discuss the mechanics of the shoot and what working with a wild beast would entail.
“Being a feline and not easy to train is one thing. Being a big feline that can actually kill you and is dangerous to have on set brought a different dimension to everything,” said the director. For scenes involving Minh, a limit was placed on how many people were allowed on set, while Le Portier and his assistants would spend up to an hour before the camera rolled scouting each location for potential escape routes and mapping out contingency plans.
“It was very prepared,” said Tănase. “And the tiger was very well-trained. It might be a bit scared, a bit confused at some points. But she’s not a man-eating tiger. She’s not really a threat.”
“Day of the Tiger” was likely the last film for Minh, who is getting on in feline years. Tănase, however, has already begun writing the script for his second feature, an as-yet-untitled police thriller. This time around, he plans to avoid the high-wire theatrics of his debut, which “wasn’t an easy film to shoot,” although he remains drawn to “films that are not very easy to label — that have elements from different genres.”
“[‘Day of the Tiger’] is an adventure movie, it’s a drama, it had some comedy in it,” he said. “Maybe this is how life is. You never have a very clear tone to it. There’s a tragedy, and then something ridiculous happens and makes you laugh,” he continued. “I like to have this dynamic — to deflate drama with the absurd, with some random ridiculousness.”