Nasty film review

Ilie Nastase was voted fifty-fifth. (according to the “Mari Romani” show.) 

His teammate, Ion Tiriac, ranked 77.  

While Ion Tiriac’s wax statue was displayed recently at Iulius mall, Ilie “Nasty” Nastase is the title character of the documentary about the golden age of men’s tennis in Romania. While a search for “Tiriac” might yield results for the former tennis great’s successful businesses (including Tiriac Auto and Allianz Tiriac insurance company) a search for “Nastase” brings results about the other player himself.  Ion Tiriac is a success story to be proud of, but Mr. Nastase is a character to remember.

Ilie Nastase was the original tennis “bad-boy” who appeared at the right time to make history. Before his generation, the prizes were so small, that tennis was more of an amateur sport. Ilie Nastase, Arthur Ash, and later John MacEnroe (who Ilie Nastase called “macaroni”) won prizes big enough to justify playing tennis as a full-time career. But one prize would not make a tennis player rich, and players were forced to share quarters and even order food together. 25 thousand dollars for winning a world championship, even before Carter era inflation, is still nothing compared with the millions that today’s tennis stars can count on from sponsorship alone.  

The reliance tennis players had on each other created a camaraderie, a jovial, familiar, and sometimes crowded atmosphere that spilled onto the court. Some colleagues said that Ilie Nastase reacted “like a spoilt brat.” Others, like Billy Jean King, said he made “tennis interesting to watch.”  

When amateur referees made questionable calls, Ilie Nastase reacted badly, talking back, moving their chairs, even “throwing tantrums” when they referred to him as Nastase rather than “Mr. Nastase.” Money was at stake, a lot of money, and the players needed that money to survive. 

In “Nasty,” we see Mr. Nastase’s on-the-court antics, and all his flaws, and a few of his good points that help us forgive or even learn to love the so-called flaws. What is lacking is more about him as a human being.  

While we hear that Ilie Nastase helped an Iranian player who had no place to sleep after the 1979 revolution, and we know that Ilie’s older brother was a player as well, we do not have much about how Ilie Nastase overcame barriers in his own life. Sure, like most people, “Mister” Nastase considers himself an ordinary man, but even the most ordinary men deal with extraordinary challenges at some point. 

The cheerful Mister Nastase of the past is contrasted with the grumpy looking older man who does not appear to want to be interviewed. Instead of asking the most interesting questions, the film focuses on interviews with other tennis players. These provoke laughs, as some see Mister Nastase as an embarrassment and others a role model who took it from the upper-class hobby to a sport that can be enjoyed by the working man. 

Nasty is a great introduction for anyone doing research on the sport of tennis, and there is a small interview with an (American) sports historian. But sometimes we wonder about the filmmaker’s choices.  

We hear from one of Mr. Nastase’s former girlfriends, but not from his wife. We hear from a random writer who calls Ilie Nastase a poet, but not from an ordinary Romanian tennis fan. I would have liked to hear more from contemporary Romanian tennis players, or coaches. At times, it almost seems that as much of the film is in French, Spanish or even Italian as in Romanian. 

Do all of Mr. Nastase’s critics, and his foreign contemporaries, get a say here? We hear the controversies surrounding his recent politically incorrect statements, his lifestyle, his antics on and off the court, but his marriage and fatherhood are reduced to a photo, his childhood to a short video of a random group of children playing tennis, and his old age to a grumpy man looking reluctant to answer questions. His family life gets less attention than a music video he once made in France, and his time in Romania is almost reduced to landing at the airport after the revolution and his on-court disputes with Tiriac. 

YouTube provides plenty of post-film interviews which ask questions that clarify these plot holes. These, of course, are in Romanian. We hear, for instance, that Ilie Nastase clearly says that the most beautiful woman he ever dated is the last one, his current wife, and we see from dedicated interviews that he is now a family man, despite how the documentary might paint him. 

The film’s title, “Nasty,” may have driven the interviewer or the editor to choose scenes that emphasize Mr. Nastase’s bad-boy side. While the film is more interesting than many other contemporary biographies, it lacks balance.  That said, while the film may have its flaws, like Mister Nastase himself it is at least interesting to watch.

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