An Introduction to the Romanian New Wave – Un Certain Regard
A little more than a year ago, I had to write an essay about films that had revolutionised their national cinemas. And after a little reflection, I decided that for once I was going to study something perhaps more tricky than usual, but definitely worth the effort : and so I stepped out (like, far away) of my comfort zone and picked an Eastern European country, precisely Romania. The difficulty was that it was so new, and with so little study on it yet that I basically had to resort to a poor Wikipedia page and some simple film reviews to try and build something up. And the truth is, I seriously think I haven’t enjoyed writing an essay that much in all my time at university; I spent a month investigating, reading everything I could find and well, what I thought would be the most challenging and risky thing I’d had to do turned out to be the most enjoyable and gratifying one. So let’s have a look at the Romanian “New Wave”, starting in the 21st century !
Little historical reminder to start with, Romania was part of the many Eastern European countries that were communist and linked to the USSR at the time of the Cold War, and its regime also collapsed in the few years just before the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. That is, with a dictator – Nicolae Ceaușescu – ruling the country, the production of independent films and artistic expressions that condemned the regime were pretty much nonexistent. Scripts had to be revised, amended and approved by the official Commission of Culture, and that let little room for experimentation and other things than propaganda. Okay, in fact no room at all. So we had to wait until 1989 with the Romanian Revolution taking place and the Conducător being killed for Romanian directors to be able to create a much more freer cinema. But the dramatic events that unfolded during the communist era are not easy to forget overnight, and they deeply influenced the new generation of filmmakers who brought a big breath of fresh air to the country’s cinematic industry in the 2000s. Here are four of my favourite, to give you a little insight of this very promising movement :
- 4 luni, 3 săptămâni și 2 zile (4 Months, 3 weeks, 2 Days, Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
If you had to see just one film of this new generation of young directors, it would be this one. 4 Months, 3 weeks, 2 Days won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007 and this was definitely well-deserved. Set in 1987, in the last years of the dictatorship, Otilia is helping her friend Gabita to undergo an illegal abortion, as it was forbidden at the time. Cristian Mungiu does not judje in any way Gabita’s decision but rather condemns the politics of the totalitarian regime, and the wonderful performances of the two main actresses makes the film extremely poignant. There is a huge suspense and tension that makes the atmosphere very oppressive and shows well the conditioning of people through fear, the corruption and the dishonesty of backstreet abortionists.
- A fost sau n-a fost? (12.08 East of Bucharest, Corneliu Porumboiu, 2006)
Now if you want to start your introduction to Romanian cinema with something a little more cheerful, you must absolutely consider 12.08 East of Bucharest. In fact, I feel like this is the one film that conveys best the strength of this re-emergent cinema : humour. Somehow, despite the dark sombre hours of History, this big Eastern European country has managed to pick itself up partly thanks to its culture, and precisely visual one. Made with a very small budget like most of the other movies, it stars Jderescu, a television presenter who organises a TV programme 16 years after the revolution to debate whether their small town Vaslui participated in the uprising before or after the dictator’s fall. A nuance that has its great importance as it reflects the pride of the country. The two guests, an alcoholic history teacher and a widowed retired man cannot agree on the question, and make the sequence absolutely hilarious as some television viewers call to contradict what they are saying. Last but not least, the young cameraman experimenting with filming techniques and failing half of the shots is definitely worth the viewing.
- Moartea domnului Lăzărescu (The Death of Dante Lazarescu, Cristi Puiu, 2005)
Other radical change of style, I would not advise watching The Death of Dante Lazarescu if you’re feeling down or don’t want to go to too much trouble, as it is not the most light-hearted film I’ve ever seen ! Cristi Puiu here engages in a satire of the Romanian health system, yet with the main target remaining the selfishness and lack of willing that human beings can be capable of. Dante Lazarescu, an old man living alone in his apartment, fells ill and is shunted around in four different hospitals of Bucharest, and is depicted all along like a burden for the medical staff, a nuisance that no one wants to take care of. Death is announced from the title and gloominess is shown at its worst stage, insisting on oldness, solitude and dirt, but somehow avoiding miserabilism thanks to a nurse who will really try and help Dante, being much more humane than many other colleagues of her.
- Nesfârșit (California Dreamin’, Cristian Nemescu, 2007)
And here is a film that won the “Un Certain Regard” Prize at Cannes ! Sadly, its director Cristian Nemescu died in a car crash, and that before the editing was even over – which his assistant had to finish by himself. This motion picture is set in Căpâlniţa, a very tiny remote Romanian village; in 1999 during the Kosovo War, a train carrying NATO military equipments (and American soldiers) and heading towards Serbia is stopped at the little train station of the village, with the station manager demanding an official authorization to let the convoy carry on. Lots of absurd and funny situations unfold, with the soldiers losing their calm as the papers take for ever to arrive, and the mayor of Căpâlniţa organizing a little party in their honour, trying by this way to attract the press and potential investors to his helpless town. Just as 12.08 East of Bucharest, this Romanian film uses humour to tackle its eventful history, showing the viewers that they manage really well to do so, and offering us very touching and endearing moments of cinema.