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Romania’s Cinematic Revolution: Struggling Against the Past

Romania's Cinematic Revolution: Struggling Against the Past

The Romanian Revolution of 1989 ended decades of oppressive rule by Communist despot Nicolae Ceausescu, but it took another dozen years before Romanian filmmakers finally found their voice and vision. As anyone knows who follows the state of world cinema, the Romanians represent the newest national film movement to catch fire. Cristian Mungui‘s Cannes Palm d’Or triumph “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days,” already acquired for U.S. distribution, confirms a winning streak from the Southeast European nation, which began blossoming in the new millineum with work from Nae Caranfil (“Philanthropy“), first features from Mungui (“Occident“) and Crisi Puiu (“Stuff and Dough“), and eventually exploding with Puiu’s “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” and the movies of Catalin Mitulescu, the late Cristian Nemescu, and Corneliu Porumboiu, whose “12:08 East of Bucharest” opened in the U.S. last weekend.

Before “Mr. Lazarescu,” the last Romanian film to receive a domestic theatrical release was Lucien Pintille‘s “The Oak” in 1994. If the filmmakers keep apace, there will be more Romanian films in North American theaters between 2006 and 2008 than perhaps ever before.

Where have they been all these years?

It’s hard to pin down the exact source of the current wellspring of Romanian talent, but critics and filmmakers suggest aesthetic, political, and industrial shifts have all played a part.

Like many great cinematic waves, Romanian filmmakers are reacting against the work of their forbearers–except for perhaps Lucien Pintille, whose cinema-verite-style ’68 masterwork “The Reconstruction” is an important model for today’s filmmakers. “In my opinion ‘The Reconstruction’ is the best movie in the history of the Romanian cinema,” says Porumboiu, who won Cannes’ Camera d’Or for his feature debut “12:08” last year. “I think this movie had a huge influence on my generation.”

For Romanian critic Andrei Gorzo, the new filmmakers are using the cinema as a tool to investigate reality with documentary-like specificity and moral depth. “This belief–this sense of duty towards reality–comes through with a special, startling, clarity and fervor in the work of Puiu and in the more recent films,” says Gorzo, citing Porumboiu’s “12:08, East of Bucharest” and Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.”

Opposed to previous “toothless comedies or so-called ‘historical’ epics,” says Gorzo, or art-house directors that “retreated from the observation of everyday life into parables and dream-worlds,” he adds, the new films focus on real characters in true-to-life circumstances suited to the movie’s low budgets. (The average budget for a Romanian film is around 400,000 euros, US$538,000, according to Gorzo.) “For years, everything in Romanian films–except the clothes that people were wearing and the buildings they walked past–was fake,” he adds.

Credit for the solid group of new films also goes to some prolific collaborators: writer Razvan Radulescu (responsible for the subtle scripts of “Stuff and Dough,” Puiu’s “Lazarescu,” Pintilie’s “Niki and Flo,” and other next generation hallmarks, Tudor Giurgiu‘s “Love Sick” and Radu Muntean‘s “The Paper is Blue“) and cinematographer Oleg Mutu, whose long-takes and gritty, grayish hues were used to stunning effect in “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” and “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.” Marius Panduru, another D.P., shot “12:08,” Mitulescu’s “The Way I Spent the End of the World,” and Caranfil’s “The Rest is Silence,” which just closed the 2007 Transylvania International Film Festival over the weekend.

But Romanian cinema experts are careful not to group the new generation of Romanian filmmakers under one stylistic umbrella. Gorzo points to Caranfil, who is older than his countryman (47) and has a style and sensibility that looks different from the “documentary-style minimalism that film festivals now expect from Romanian films,” he says.

But Gorzo argues that Caranfil is just as important. His 1993 film about defection “E Pericoloso Sporgersi” (a.k.a. “Don’t Lean Out the Window”) looks back at the Communist era with “a sense of humor and a sense of balance which were very rare at the time,” says Gorzo, possibly acting as inspiration for “The Way I Spent the End of the World,” about a high-school girl’s coming-of-age and plans for escape during the last days of Ceausescu’s reign, and Mungiu’s comic-drama “Occident,” which follows three stories that reveal Romanian’s relationship with Western Europe.

A scene from Cristian Mungui’s Cannes Palm d’Or winner, “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days.” Image courtesy of Wild Bunch.

Like Caranfil, a number of the new Romanian filmmakers also spent time outside of Romania learning their craft. Puiu, for instance, went to Switzerland to study art, but then switched to filmmaking after discovering the work of John Cassavetes and Frederick Wiseman, and, according to Gorzo, “becoming obsessed with a species of cinema set at the border between fiction and documentary.”

This grungy Neorealism may unite a number of the films stylistically, but political factors may be a bigger underlying influence. Porumboiu, director of “12:08 East of Bucharest,” admits the Romanian contemporary cinema has an “obsession for reality and sincerity towards the story told,” but he adds: “If young Romanian directors have anything in common, I think that is the desire not to do films like the passed generations did, when the cinema was one of the most important ways of propaganda.”

Likewise, Adina Bradeanu, a Romanian professor of Media, Arts and Design at London’s Westminster University, prefers to avoid any sort of “aesthetic program” and define today’s Romanian filmmakers through a “set of political and administrative circumstances against which they had to operate,” she explains, “especially the puzzling dynamics of post-socialism.”

During this shocking shift, Gorzo explains, “liberated filmmakers were just like all the others liberated Romanians: they knew that now they could finally say, and show, and shout, everything, but for years they were too overwhelmed by that ‘everything’ to do much about it except shout.”

During this “transition phase,” as its known, “Romanian cinema was just a reflection of this mess,” says Gorzo. “Not a reflection in the good sense–a reflection which helps to illuminate and clarify the mess. For years, filmmakers couldn’t rise above it in order to view it clearly. Time had to pass. A new generation had to emerge.” Indeed, just about all of the new wave filmmakers are currently in their thirties.

Like many film industries in Eastern Europe shattered after the fall of state-sponsored support from their Communist regimes, it’s also taken Romania’s film industry many years to regain its footing. Ironically, most of that industry has benefited from runaway Hollywood productions (from Miramax‘s “Cold Mountain” to Lakeshore‘s “Blood and Chocolate“), but many of the new filmmakers have also received experience at Romania’s two privatized studios, Castel Film and Media Pro Studios. “I think that their work for foreign productions was crucial,” says Bradeanu.

Several filmmakers have recently established their own film companies and Porumboiu managed to round up local businesses to finance “12:08”–notice the milk factory logo in the opening credits. In addition, with their newfound critical acclaim, foreign financiers are looking to get involved in the Romanian New Wave.

However, the country’s state-sponsored film institutions appear to be mired in corrupt post-Socialist politics. The National Cinema Centre (or CNC) has a reputation for favoring Communist-era filmmakers who lack the social incisiveness and aesthetic rigor of their younger counterparts. Recently, for instance, next-generation mavericks Cristi Puiu and Radu Jude (“The Tube with a Hat,” winner of Sundance 2007’s international best short prize) were both denied government support for their latest projects.

Corina Suteu, director of New York’s Romanian Culture Institute, says despite the international success of the new wave of Romanian filmmakers, the CNC has not revamped the way it allocates money. “This is a result of the cultural infrastructure of Romania still under the legacy of an old Communist way of thinking,” she says. “We have to reform the system, but there is still this old emphasis on the ‘legitimate culture,’ she adds, “of what we all accept as nice.”

Bitter satires about the legacy of the Romanian Revolution (such as “12:08”) or lacerating dramatic thrillers about the horrors of Ceausescu’s final years (such as “4 Months”) are anything but “nice” examples of Romanian culture.

Romanian filmmakers also faced an industrial set back when filmmaker Tudor Giurgiu (“Love Sick“) was forced out last month from his position as head of the embattled National Television Station, which had a major role under his tenure giving important financing to Romanian independents. “Giurgiu was too much for them,” suspects professor Bradeanu, who calls the National Television a “mammoth institution whose employees are used to old Communist practices.”

So just as the new films are using black humor, searing social commentary and often a neorealistic style to interrogate and perhaps exorcise the country’s recent “Communist nightmare,” as one of the characters in “East of Bucharest” puts it, the filmmakers themselves are struggling against a country and its institutions that are still haunted by the past.

[For more on Romanian cinema, please check out Kino Kultura’s Romanian film special issue (http://www.kinokultura.com/specials/6/romanian.shtml), an invaluable resource for this article. The Romanian Cultural Institute in New York is also giving free DVDs of Corneliu Porumboiu’s award-winning 2006 short film “Liviu’s Dream” at the Film Forum and is planning a traveling Romanian Film Festival starting at the end of the year.]

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