In pointing to the discomfort and difficulty of watching the Romanian New Wave films, critics are not wrong, per se. The prevailing aesthetic of “Beyond the Hills,” like Mungiu’s previous film “432,” is life, starkly lit and captured by a lens that aims to withhold judgment, blame or any hint of gratuitous softness or relief, while also pinning the viewer to her seat with an accumulating tension so that she can’t look away. It’s hard to defend against accusations that the film sometimes nudges realism over the ledge of “unflinching” to something just short of sadistic, even as it waves the anti-sensationalist flag.
The new Romanian films are difficult to watch. As were the great films of the “Old Wave,” from directors such as Lucian Pintilie and Mircea Danieluc. So perhaps it’s understandable that many older Romanians, who’ve lived most of their lives under Communism, and who now face an austere and frightening retirement, might respond to the reallocation of state funding with a gesture that is as much Romanian as the thumb-to-forefingers is Italian: a simultaneous shrug and scowl of swift, bitter dismissal. “We’ve lived through miserable times,” they could be saying. “Why pay for more of the same?”
Romanian filmmakers aren’t concerned with simple entertainment, nor should they be in a culture so long deprived of real freedom. We need their “24 lies per second in the service of truth,” as another “difficult” director, Michael Haneke, has said. Stripping artists of the infrastructure that supports them is a form of suppression, as damaging as dictating what kind of work they are allowed to make. And the loss of a functional cultural infrastructure for Romanian filmmakers is a loss for the people who will have a harder time getting access to their work. Cinema, the most collaborative, cumbersome and costly of the creative arts, is particularly vulnerable.
The hope is that the last few years of strong Romanian films have bolstered both the filmmakers and their audience enough to overcome Romania’s truly shameful politics and to keep this creative valve open. Visibility is a filmmaker’s practical currency, ensuring opportunities and funding for future films. But it isn’t only that. Visibility, literally, is what makes the film a reality. In effect, a film that nobody sees doesn’t exist.