The Back Row Manifesto’s Incredibly Personal, Completely Subjective List of the Best Films of The Decade (2000-2009) will be unveiled over the course of the month of December (and now on into January). Think of it as a sort of misguided advent calendar without the little chocolate surprises. Either way, thanks for reading and please check back every day over the next few days for the full list. The introduction to the list can be found here.
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they choose.” – Karl Marx
On July 6 1971, home from a series of state visits to the People’s Republic of China, North Vietnam, North Korea and Mongolia, the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu made a speech called the July Theses, outlining a new direction for the then openly liberal nation. Having grown enamored with the hard line Maoism and Stalinism he found in Asia, Ceauşescu laid down a new series of cultural and political restrictions, each designed to bring Romanian culture (and his regime) into line with the most extreme versions of totalitarian rule; books were banned, state propaganda was reinforced and the communist party (and the dictator himself as figurehead) was placed at the center of cultural life. “The man who does not write for his entire people is not a poet”, Ceauşescu said. Soon after, Romanian universities were placed under the watchful eye of the Party, which began destroying their intellectual freedom and, with it, their credibility.
Ceauşescu’s regime would fall eighteen years later when the people, tired of the constant rationing and repression and emboldened by political upheaval throughout the Eastern Bloc, took over what is now called Revolution Square in Bucharest to face down the dictator. In late December of 1989, thousands of Romanians gathered for a mass meeting and, as Ceauşescu spoke, began the revolution by booing his speech:
See that look on his face? That is the look of a disbelieving despot who instantly realizes his time is up.
And so, a hard line shift that began by dismantling the cultural freedom of a nation ended with one of the greatest acts of public cultural criticism in the history of politics; first a public display of discontent in the public square and then, after Ceauşescu’s fall, a very public demise:
Graphic Images Herein:
Maybe it should come as no surprise then that, after decades of repression and a revolution comprised of unforgettable, televised images, cinema would come to flower in Romania. Still, I can think of no greater proof of cinema’s incredible power that the unlikely rise of Romania as one of the decade’s great cinematic communities. On November 1, 2001, the Romanian Ministry of Cultural Affairs founded The National Center of Cinematography (CNC) by “emergency decree of the Government nr. 9” for “the encouragement and protection of the national film production, the stimulation of realizing and broadcasting highly artistic films and the revaluation of the national film patrimony”. It was a masterstroke in the modern history of cinema and the NCC gave birth to a series of films that would define the decade in world cinema.
After a few years of training and organizing, the CNC began to show the signs of becoming one of the most important film institutions in the world, offering support and guidance to young Romanian filmmakers as they undertook the serious task of creating a national cinema. They started, it seems almost exclusively, by looking backward and redressing the history of propaganda that was the nation’s legacy; they started by taking apart the Ceauşescu regime, one film at a time.
The film that comes to mind immediately for me as the herald of the new Romanian cinema is Cristi Puiu’s staggering The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu from 2005, a film that addresses the legacy of socialism in medicine* by highlighting the passivity of Romanian culture and industry. Shot in 45 days and edited in 38, The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu became a sensation at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Un Certain Regard prize, seemingly from nowhere. I saw the film at the 2005 New York Film Festival and it literally changed my perception of Romanian cinema from whole cloth:
“The film follows our Dante on a single night from the moment he begins to feel sick until his ultimate death at the hands of an indifferent health care system. Puiu has created as naturalistic and realistic a fiction as I have ever seen; the slow, perfectly modulated decline of Lazarescu’s health is one of the most infuriatingly comic and tragically accurate depictions of the state of modern medicine as one is likely to ever see. At the heart of this film is Fiscuteanu’s performance as Lazarescu; a performance so gripping that it creates a tangible, slowly mounting sense of anxiety as Lazarescu fades away to the chorus of insulting, bickering medical professionals who are supposed to be saving his life but instead spend their time flirting, arguing, and attacking each other’s enormous egos. Every Dante must have a Virgil (a name which we hear throughout the film), and this Dante is guided through the health care hell by an EMT named Mioara (Luminita Gheorghiu), a woman on the fringes of the health care system who, albeit reluctantly, is the only person who empathizes with Lazarescu’s constant dismissal and the only one who takes professional and personal responsibility for him. When she leaves his side at the end of the film, we know that no good will come of it; his guardian angel gone, Lazarescu has nothing left to do but to die…I’m going to have a hard time getting Fiscuteanu’s face out of my head as experiencing the loss of this character was such a traumatizing experience, I know I won’t recover from losing him any time soon.”
And I still haven’t.
Two years later, Cristian Mungiu arrived at Cannes with 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days the story of two friends living under the dying days of the Ceauşescu regime who collaborate to find and receive an illegal abortion for one of them. Two weeks later, Mungiu walked away from Cannes in one of the most deserving, incontrovertible Palme D’Or victories of all time. It only took the CNC six years to create a masterpiece, and Mungiu’s film stands as one of the decade’s towering achievements, a thrilling black comedy that, much like The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu before it, tackles the machinations of social restrictions as they foment human suffering. Only this time, the target is absolutely, clearly Ceauşescu.
In 1966, Ceauşescu banned abortion in Romania in order to raise the nation’s low birth rate and create a larger population. At the same time, the dictator also banned contraception and levied a tax on all childless people (single people, married people, sterile people) over the age of 25. Mothers of five or more children were venerated, ten or more children made you a heroine of the state. The effect on Romanian society was devastating; not only did a huge population of children end up abandoned and living in miserable conditions in state run orphanages, but abortion was driven underground, where many women died or were maimed due to unsafe medical procedures.
That a film like 4 Months, a black comedy that mines Ceauşescu’s mad policies for every drop of tension and humor, could be made in the 2000’s not only showcases the massive changes afoot these past twenty years, but also tells us more than a little about the spirit of the CNC, a government agency which produced a film that not only lambastes previous government policy, but which features as its centerpiece an aborted fetus lying on a bathroom floor. It is easy for Americans to crow about their freedoms and the magnanimity of our government, but as this nation continues to politicize and disembowel arts funding, we might take a moment to ponder the fruits of a truly free state institution like the CNC, one which puts to shame the models of film production in this country.
4 Months will go down for me as one of the great films of all time:
“Mungiu brilliantly sets the table for all types of terrible violence and tragedy; Otilia discovers a pocket knife among the abortion provider’s personal effects (filling the entire film with dread), we hear the man describe the possible (and seemingly inevitable) complications that could arise from the procedure itself (hemorrhaging, hours and days of potential suffering) and we soon discover that he left his identification behind, throwing his identity into doubt while simultaneously worrying us that he may actually return to collect his identification. And then, Otilia leaves for a rendezvous with her boyfriend and his snobby parents, closing the door on the hotel room and leaving our imaginations to run wild as the clock ticks behind the locked door.
It is no surprise at all that the tensions of a Dardenne-style social realism and the MacGuffins and unseen horrors of Hitchcock’s brand of thriller would work so well together, but Mungiu makes certain by leaving no anxiety unexposed, no outrage unspoken. What heightens the life and death stakes of the film into the cinematic stratosphere is, of course, the outrageousness of the situation from the get-go; Without access to benefits of reproductive freedoms, an operation that should be performed safely and cleanly by a medical professional becomes a horror show. Anxiety is bad enough, but coupled with the outrage and anger at the situation (an anger that Mungiu clearly expresses through Otilia’s point of view), the tension is at times unbearably brilliant. The women in the film make some costly mistakes (Gabita’s casual approach to the details of her agreement proves especially frustrating), but one can’t help wondering why they should have had to experience this at all. As the right to choose an abortion is continually evaluated in the political context of a world where feminism’s hard-won victories seem commonplace, the film provides a painful reminder of the indignities suffered when politics and morality are imposed on the private decisions of individuals. Gabita’s decision to not become a mother, as late as it arrives in the process, is as difficult and painful a choice as could be made, but it is Otilia’s experience, that of a woman forced into the role of a criminal for facilitating that choice, that allows the film to escape the clichés of a cautionary tale and transcend as great drama.”
Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 days
There is no doubt in my mind that, facing down my 50th birthday at the end of 2019, we will all be looking back on the great Romanian cinema of the 2010’s, trying to figure out how we could possibly rank and organize this vibrant national cinema into a coherent list. That this gift comes from the ashes of a totalitarian regime may be surprising, but that it exists at all is a small miracle. We should count our blessings and marvel at the resiliency of art in the face of human folly.
*A greater advertisement against socialized medicine could not be made, and we can only be thankful that no one on the right watches foreign movies (which tend to blame America first… *Ha*), lest the film become a tool in the American healthcare debate. If only cinema were taken so seriously…*whew*
23. Quiet City by Aaron Katz
22. Mutual Appreciation by Andrew Bujalski
21. Frownland by Ronald Bronstein
20. Marie Antoinette by Sofia Coppola
19. Up The Yangtze by Yung Chang
18. Platform by Jia Zhang-Ke
17. Tarnation by Jonathan Caouette
16. Lilya 4-Ever by Lukas Moodysson
15. Far From Heaven/ I’m Not There by Todd Haynes
14. Sideways by Alexander Payne
13. Into Great Silence by Philip Gröning
12. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner by Zacharias Kunuk
11. There Will Be Blood by Paul Thomas Anderson
10. Zodiac by David Fincher
9. Beau Travail/ 35 Shots Of Rum by Claire Denis
8. The Diving Bell And The Butterfly by Julian Schnabel
7. Time Out by Laurent Cantet
6. Mulholland Dr. by David Lynch
5. Climates by Nuri Bilge Ceylan
4. The Piano Teacher by Michael Haneke