“I’ve been formed by this limit.” These words, spoken by the film director protagonist of Corneliu Porumboiu’s When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism about his fondness for the time restrictions imposed by shooting on celluloid, could just as well describe the emergence in the last decade of the particular breed of Romanian cinema which this new effort exemplifies. Limitation, in the form of censorship, is pivotal to the origin story of this distinctive strand of national cinema: Nicolae Ceausescu, the communist dictator whose rule was overthrown in 1989, withheld from filmmakers the freedom to explore socio-political issues. His fall, and the eventual arrival of digital technology’s democratization of media, allowed the country’s collective concerns to spill forth into its cinema, where latent traumas could be addressed.
Maybe that’s the reason we can talk about Romanian cinema as though it were a genre unto itself, codified by particular recurrent styles and concerns in a way — for instance — that could never be said of American cinema. There are the exceptions, of course, yet the pent-up anxiety of a culture held hostage by tyranny makes curiously unanimous the way in which Romanian movies and their makers have come to terms with the past and managed to move on.
Poromboiu is perhaps the finest example of that growth, not necessarily because his films are the finest — though they have a claim — but because the tonal and thematic shifts across the body of his work set a precedent many of his more acclaimed countrymen have followed. From family dynamics in Gone with the Wine to the arrival of internet in A Trip to the City, his first shorts strive to assess the new Romania in the modern age. Originating his distinctive style focused on protracted takes, naturalistic exchanges, and extremely dry humor, these early movies present a director intent on investigating his country’s place in a brave new world.
What’s telling about 12:08 East of Bucharest, Porumboiu’s 2006 feature debut, is its focus on the past: Foregrounding comedy more than ever before, it’s centered on a television debate as to whether the city of Vaslui played a role in the 1989 revolution. Laughs may be the primary mode of delivery, but the questions the movie asks couldn’t be more serious. Porumboiu here makes the crucial realization that integral to the identity of modern Romania are the scars of its past, and that addressing those — and particularly finding the ability to look back with laughter — is the only way to be able to broach a dialogue about where the country is now.
Never given nearly as much credit as, for instance, Christian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 12:08 East of Bucharest played a pivotal role in Romanian cinema’s development, focusing on the problems of the present by coming to terms with those of the past. Just look at Mungiu’s ensuing career: A distressing number of reviews named this year’s Beyond the Hills his “follow-up” to 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, ignoring the vastly different Tales from the Golden Age — an anthology film Mungiu orchestrated and partly directed — which comically explores urban legends of the Communist days. It’s only in playing humorously with the harrowing shadow addressed in his earlier movie that Mungiu steps out from under it.
But it’s not just this one filmmaker whose tonal shift has permitted a temporal one in the vein of 12:08 East of Bucharest. Porumboiu’s blueprint for comedy catharsis has become the dominant model of Romanian cinema, almost a rite of passage for the country’s budding filmmakers to experience as they find their voice. It’s via the witty joie de vivre of How I Celebrated the End of the World that Catalin Mitulescu moved on to tackle the youth of Loverboy. The modern family drama of Radu Muntean’s Boogie and Tuesday, After Christmas might never have arrived without the army-changeover absurdity of The Paper Will Be Blue. These are directors whose shift in focus has been permitted by a shift in style, whose move to the modern world has come about by adjusting to accept the past.
Those who can do so reap ripe benefits, few more so than Porumboiu. His last effort, Police, Adjective, was yet another feather in the cap of Romanian cinema, a movie mature in its moral convictions and intent on analyzing in depth the machinations of modern society. With When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism, he turns to the very machinations of movie-making, his protagonist a self-cipher layered so thinly the comparison is impossible to miss. Drenched in the sort of dry irony on which Porumboiu’s wit excels, the new film uses the formalist conversations between this cinephile director and his less-knowledgeable actress as the springboard to an amusing treatise on artistic pedantry.
The most entertaining and illuminating of the film’s mere sixteen shots sees the filmmaker playing an endoscopy DVD to a doctor for a second opinion. It’s no great stretch to say that Porumboiu is showing this character to have literally put a camera up his ass. Here is a director who has done anything but: underappreciated at the crest of the Romanian New Wave, Porumboiu has led the charge in addressing the nation’s dark past and finding in it enough light to accept it for what it was. His comedy is catharsis for his country; in the bowels of history, his camera has found the future.