(Credit: TIFF)

A close look at the bustling creatives flourishing as part of the New Wave Romanian cinema movement

Romania has produced films since at least 1911. However, while the first Romanian silent feature film released dates back to some of the earliest ever recorded, certain factors stunted the growth of national cinema. Not least of these was the influence of the Romanian government, which was as first uninterested in supporting filmmakers, then under the Soviet system chose to use film primarily as a propaganda technique, severely limiting content and stifling the creativity of their native directors. 

The situation changed in the 1990s when alterations in the political system resulted in the expanding and flourishing of cinema, in a development known as the Romanian New Wave. Cinema reemerged as an art form in Romania, and the reputation of its directors grew internationally, leading to Romanian films unexpectedly receiving awards at Cannes early in the Millenium. Of particular note in drawing attention to Romanian cinema are the ‘Un Certain Regard’ prize given to Cristi Puiu for his 2005 drama The Death of Mr Lazarescu, and the Palme D’Or awarded to Cristian Mungiu for 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days in 2007, the latter being the first time such an award had been given to any Romanian film.

Here, we look at a few significant recent additions: 

Among Romanian directors of the past twenty years, Cristian Mungiu seems to have earned particular regard internationally, despite the fact that his films tend to focus on concerns specific to his homeland, often including political critique between the lines. His breakout 2002 comedy, Occident, dealt with the tendency of young Eastern Europeans to view leaving their country to emigrate west as a key to success; while his award-winning 2007 drama, 4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days, followed the efforts of a young woman to access an underground abortion under Ceausescu’s regime. However, his relatable characters and engrossing storylines make the films accessible to all. 

In 2009, Mungiu released his most exclusively Romanian film to date, one which challenged outsiders to grasp the understated satire behind its farcical plot. Tales From the Golden Age portrays the Ceausescu era using a fantasy format, which references the restrictions on artists and filmmakers of that time by making a film as if still forbidden to openly criticise the government. From the ironic title to the conclusion, no direct political critique is to be seen; an ingenious substitute takes its place. The entire film consists of a series of vignettes, enactments of six of the most common urban legends circulating Romania under Ceausescu, all performed as if they were real and literally true, regardless of how bizarre or unlikely the tale may be. This creative approach disguises genuine political commentary behind a double mask of fantasy and broad comedy. 

The six vignettes consist of: 

1 – Tale of the Official Visit, in which a village laboriously conceals its annual fair and sets up a facade of patriotic activities in preparation for an inspection of the town by government officials, until they are thwarted by a rogue Ferris Wheel. 

2 – Legend of the Party Photographer, which explains the single day the state’s propaganda newspaper did not arrive on workers’ doorsteps, rumoured to be due to an embarrassing error in the leader’s press photograph.

3 – Legend of the Zealous Activist, is the story of an earnest government agent sent to bring literacy to a remote village. Following his disastrous efforts, he flees the area, and thereafter village literacy is mysteriously reported as 99%.

4 – The Legend of the Greedy Policeman, makes light of food shortages and the trade of black market goods through the slapstick story of a policeman arranging to buy a pig for his family’s Christmas dinner. 

5 – The Legend of the Air Sellers, is based on a rumour that some Romanians were able to buy hard-to-obtain goods by collecting bottles, as well as on fears of uncontrolled industrial contamination. A father and daughter invent a scam, claiming to be testing a town’s water supply for contaminants, in order to appropriate the residents’ stock of glass bottles. 

6 – Legend of the Chicken Driver, is once again derived from stories of Romanians finding ways to obtain food in spite of shortages. A delivery truck driver uses elaborate schemes to evade the law as he provides black-market eggs during the high pre-Easter demand. 

‘Graduation’ by Cristian Mungiu. (Credit: Voodoo Films)

While the episodes are not openly political, the underlying messages are clear enough. The legends all involve police or government officials in some way, and while fanciful and broadly comical, the basis for the rumours provides background. While Romanians who lived through the era would certainly get more from the film, it can be enjoyed by an international audience as well.

Mungiu made a further breakthrough with his 2016 family drama, Graduation, for which he took the Best Foreign Film César and the Best Director award at Cannes. It is a moving, deceptively simple story which reprises some of Mungiu’s common themes, including what he sees as the Eastern European fixation on relocation as the key to upward mobility. Graduation deals with a village physician, Dr Aldea (veteran film/theatre actor Adrian Titieni), whose beloved, gifted daughter is eligible for a scholarship in the UK. When an accident puts the girl’s success at risk, Aldea becomes obsessed with finding a solution, crossing personal and ethical lines in the process. Miles away from the campy satire of Tales From the Golden Age, the film is serious and intensely realistic, following Aldea’s struggles without either undue sympathy or condemnation. It is at once a well-told, personal story of the pitfalls of family ambition, and a Ken Loach-style parable of the exhausting tangle of bureaucratic red tape and the temptation to bypass it by any means available. Director Cristi Puiu drew attention with his 2004 short film, Cigarettes and Coffee, earning awards and a degree of praise unusual for a fifteen minute-long production. It is an understated film consisting of a conversation between an older and a younger man, across a table at a café. The finely tuned dialogue simultaneously explains the two men’s circumstances and the reason for their meeting, and obliquely reveals the flaws in a social structure that has led one of them to a difficult plight. Subtle, compassionate, and letter-perfect, the short film’s rounds of international film festivals effectively launched Puiu’s career as a director. It also contributed to the rise of the Romanian New Wave, in spite of Puiu’s insistence that there “is no such thing.”

The following year, Puiu earned further critical success with a feature-length black comedy, The Death of Mr Lazarescu. Dark humour, too dark to be classified as a comedy in the usual sense, is used to lampoon the Romanian health care system and bureaucracy in general, through an account of an elderly man’s illness and his dealings with a capricious medical system. Slow paced and filmed in a naturalistic, almost documentary style, the film follows the elderly Mr Lazarascu (Ioan Fiscuteanu), who lives alone with three cats, over the course of a day, beginning with his attempt to get medical advice from a telephone health service. Their unhelpful response sets the tone for the rest of the film. As Lazarescu’s symptoms worsen, he treats himself with everything from herbs to shots of whisky before finally calling for an ambulance. A lengthy discussion with Lazarescu, two of his neighbours, and the ambulance nurse serve to establish the facts of the old man’s condition, providing context during the confusion that is to come. 

2019 film ‘The Whistlers’ (Credit: TIFF)

Accompanied throughout by the sympathetic ambulance nurse, Mioara (Luminita Gheorghiu), who serves as his companion and advocate through the coming ordeal, Lazarescu is taken from one hospital to another. Autocratic medical staff repeatedly ignore Lazarescu’s and Mioara’s statements, overlook key symptoms, or notice the liquor on his breath and presume his only problem is drunkenness. A self-important doctor focuses mainly on the cranky Lazarescu’s lack of respect for his medical credentials and angrily transfers him to another hospital. Staff at a second hospital are equally haphazard in diagnosing the patient, and when the hospital is flooded with accident victims, Lazarescu is transferred once again. As the patient’s condition continues to visibly and alarmingly deteriorate, and effective treatment continues to be withheld for one or another reason, the inevitable outcome suggested by the film’s title is brought home. Nurse Miora seems to stand in for the viewer, who sees what is happening and what is being overlooked, but is helpless to intervene. It is an effective critique, presenting medical workers not as monsters, but as flawed human beings within an inadequate system; and laughing at their petty resentments and shortsightedness even while pointing out the malignant effects of these failings in a medical context. 

One of Romania’s most recent successes, the 2019 crime thriller The Whistlers (‘La Gomera’) has won awards at film festivals worldwide, was nominated for a Palme d’Or and is one of the most popular films on streaming services this year. Director Corneliu Porumbolu, best known for his thoughtful 2009 police drama Police, Adjective, has returned to the genre, using a minor character from the earlier film, adding an ongoing mystery and a bit of 1940s-type Noir feel, complete with a glum, unscrupulous detective, and a hard-boiled femme fatale å la Mickey Spillane, to this dark organised crime tale. Cristi (established film and stage actor Vlad Ivanov) is a Bucharest police detective, deeply involved with organised crime, although the film allows his real allegiances to remain ambiguous for some time, hinting cynically at the prevalence of corruption and bribery at many levels. Assisted by the beautiful Gilda (actress/model Catrinei Marlon), Cristi launches into a scheme involving the mafia, the police, and a great deal of money, the ultimate goal remaining unclear as plot twists, and continual deceit and double-crossing by all concerned, keep things unsettled and dangerous. The strikingly original element in the story is the first step in Cristi’s scheme: travelling to the Canary Islands to learn Silbo Gomero, a unique communication system consisting entirely of birdlike whistles, used on the island of La Gomera to communicate over long distances, especially in the island’s mountainous regions. The whistling dialect provides the perfect, virtually unbreakable code language for co-conspirators, and although the device is a bit laboured, it adds colour to the storyline. 

The Whistlers’ tense, gloomy atmosphere is relieved by occasional bright spots, including the varied soundtrack, beginning with Iggy Pop’s The Passenger over the opening credits. It also has its share of dark comedy, such as the character of Cristi’s intrusive, naive mother, who suspects her son is involved in something amiss but arrives at completely misguided conclusions. There are also occasional, sly meta moments, ranging from the obvious — like a location-scouting film director incongruously intruding on a tense moment among conspirators, or Hitchcock and Tarantino references built into the action — to bits of classic films playing in the background as a footnote on key scenes. The unpredictable plot and black humour keep things interesting until the conclusion – what might be called a happy ending, according to the film’s dark and misanthropic perspective. 

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