Part One - Introduction
Over the past seven years, something extraordinary has been happening in Romania. This south-eastern European nation on the Black Sea, which only twenty-two years ago suffered through a bloody revolution ending close to half a century of communist rule; has been swept up by a confluence of like-minded, frighteningly talented and vibrant directors, writers and actors. Romania has become a breeding-ground for an unparalleled series of critically successful, award winning, iconoclastic and socially conscious films. So consistently excellent has this sustained run of films been, they are categorised in some circles as “The Romanian New Wave”. But excellence and sustainability alone have not earned the current crop of thirty-something filmmakers their high international esteem; there is a broad unity of focus, power, purity, style and boldness, across all of the various titles associated - despite the wide range of creative personnel involved. In this four-part article I shall be examining ten feature films from the Romanian New Wave, Part One will introduce the wave with special consideration to Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005) the first feature film in this movement. Part Two will focus on comedy and politics in relation Corneliu Porumboiu‘s 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006); his recent follow-up Police, Adjective (2009) and Tales From the Golden Age (2009) a collaborative feature film written and produced by Cristian Mungiu. Part Three will examine three films by Radu Muntean: The Paper Will Be Blue (2006), Boogie (2008) and Tuesday After Christmas (2010) and take a closer look at how the films of the Romanian New Wave explore relationships, as well as the performances of its varied actors. Part Four will focus on aesthetics and metaphysics in relation to Cristian Nemescu’s California Dreamin' (2007); Catalin Mitulescu’s The Way I Spent the End of the World (2006) and Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) which is often credited as the point the wave broke in international terms, famously winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. There are of course other films that can be included in this torrent of quality, later examples such as Adrian Sitaru’s Hooked (2008), Florin Serban’s If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle (2010) and Puiu’s follow-up to The Death of Mr Lazarescu, Aurora (2010). These films have yet to be made widely available for viewing, however the ten films selected demonstrate in no uncertain terms how exciting and boundary defying modern Romanian cinema can be, that they have all been produced within such a relatively short space of time is nothing short of remarkable; historically even the French, British and German New Waves can not boast such startling rapidity or consistency of quality. The parallels with the Italian neorealist’s are obvious, unlike many European nations; Romania has never been through a realist stage in its cinematic development – until now. Britain, Italy and France went through their realist stages in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s; all three nations never recaptured the fleeting subversive spirit which produced films like Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963), Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) or François Truffaut The 400 Blows (1959). Romanian filmmakers were oppressed and tightly controlled for decades, as a result, previous generations could rarely produce films to challenge the status quo, or to follow in the footsteps of their continental neighbours from the 1940’s through to the 1980’s; unlike other communist states in the same time period like Russia or Poland, Romania was virtually a non-entity in world cinema, only ever producing communist propaganda pieces at the behest of the state, films that would almost universally remain locked inside Romania’s tightly controlled borders. Cristian Mungiu described the films Romania produced in this period as displaying: “a huge gap between the way people really talked and the kinds of things that happened on screen." Ion Popescu Gopo’s Palme d’Or winning short film, Short History (1956), is a notable exception in six decades of cinematic isolationism. There were challenging films being made in Romania, some directors were forced into exile, others had their films banned from public screenings and were shelved throughout those painful years of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s rule. There were no Romanian equivalents of Andrei Tarkovsky, Krzysztof Kieslowski or Andrzej Wajda; talented filmmakers who managed to smuggle challenging films through the oppressive net of dictatorship.
Post-1989 and like most of the former communist and soviet states, Romania took time to acclimatise to its new social, political and economic environment. Twelve years after the revolution, which resulted in Ceauşescu’s execution, signs of what was to come began to emerge; first came Puiu's Stuff and Dough (2001), then Mungiu’s Occident (2002) and Muntean’s Fury (2002), which although more conventional films than what the New Wave would later offer, laid the groundwork and introduced the world to three of the key players. In 2004 the real change began and it did so in the form of five short films which took a flurry of awards on the international film festival circuit. Puiu's Cigarettes and Coffee; Popescu’s The Apartment; Porumboiu’s Liviu's Dream; Nemescu’s C-Block Story and most famously Mitulescu’s Trafic. Each opening the eyes of the international community to a collective voice emerging from the ashes of Romania’s dark and bloody past.
It is telling that the Romanian New Wave began a decade and a half after the revolution, a comparable time-gap can is measured between the end of World War II and the beginnings of the aforementioned nation’s realist influenced cinematic movements. It then follows that there is a delayed reaction to national trauma, whether artists feel compelled not to examine national scars until after an adequate period of reflection, or whether there’s simply no initial appetite in terms of audience is up for debate. I would favour the former; whilst many are set in the 1980’s and directly depict the struggle of ordinary people under communist rule (something which might not appeal to the modern Romanian cinema-goer eager to leave the past behind), an equal number are set in the present and have no ties to Ceauşescu’s regime and as such do not risk alienating those who wish to escape reality when they buy their cinema ticket; but whether set in the past or the present all films are looking inward with varying degrees of subtlety. Is the New Wave for the people of Romania or for the world cinema community? The most popular of recent Romanian films in Romania have not been widely distributed abroad and do not belong to the New Wave, whilst films that the international film community have adored have not been met with an equivalent level of excitement at home (The Way I Spent the End of the World premiered on DVD in Romania despite winning awards in Cannes Film Festival). It is a familiar story from all over Europe and Asia, the sort of challenging, testing and austere films that appeal to the art-house crowd do not appeal to the escapist crowd seeking light entertainment. There then emerge additional questions about the relevance of these films, particularly the historical films, if their reflections on the past only appeal to but a small percentage of the Romanian cinema-going community then what purpose do their inward self-analysis serve? Just to educate the West and the East on the history of this country? If so, then perhaps films which focus on historical detail would be more appropriate than the sort of character orientated pictures that have thus far made the biggest impact. But of all the former communist nations in Europe, Romania is currently the most reflective on their dark past, while the Estonian attitude, for example, is indicative of the vast majority of these nations; in general Estonians want to move on from their time of oppression, not make films about pre-1991 life but rather focus on life today and put some artistic distance between them and the past. The crucial difference between Estonia and Romania however is that Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union against their will, they were oppressed and thousands of men, women and children were shipped off to distant Siberian gulags to do hard labour until the day they died. Effectively the Russians inflicted their tyranny upon Estonia, while Romania inflicted their tyranny upon themselves. Romania was a satellite communist state through the three decades that lead to the revolution; western democracies waited and tolerated the despotic activities of Ceauşescu because he’d stood up to Moscow and refused to involve his nation in the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Because it was Romanians that had caused the problems of Romania during that time, examining this part of their history is perhaps less painful or embarrassing; in contrast Estonian’s are increasingly frustrated with their continued association with the Soviet Union, in any Western news article written about an incident in Estonia (be it their recently joining the Euro, or the tragic death of ten orphans in an accidental fire) there is mention of their former soviet status, as if this period in their history will forever define them. Do we talk about France as the formerly Nazi occupied nation? Of course not, yet for Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia this is all we in the west seem to know or be interested in. Do the films of Romania appeal because they’re the only nation willing to embrace their history? Or do the films only appeal abroad because of their distinctive aesthetics; does their appeal lie exclusively in their uncompromising unconventionality? Do they serve as nothing more than interesting experiments in film form and narrative delivery, arguably the sort of irrelevancies that would later pre-occupy so many of the French New Wave’s navel gazing patron saints? If these were the only goals of the Romanian New Wave then this sort of questioning would be entirely valid. But the Romanian New Wave is not as insular as it might first appear, while many of the specific issues involved in each film are hermetically sealed within Romania’s social structures and recent past, there is a universality to the questions they pose, from the woman’s right to abortion to the criminal prosecution of personal marijuana use, societies responsibility to the sick to the moral choices one faces after infidelity. The themes of each of these films are as applicable to the average Romanian as they are to the average Briton or the average American – this is where their appeal truly lies and this is why their legacy will stand the test of time. At the beginning of the last decade only the most dedicated of cinephile would have seen a Romanian film, now The Death of Mr Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days are mandatory viewing in world cinema circles. Only South Korea can offer a comparable insurgence of quality in the past ten years. But from Seoul to Bucharest there are significant differences; South Korea’s most internationally successful directors have little in common in terms of style, pace, tone or commentary – there is no over-arching theme to link them. The only common values between Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy and Ki-duk Kim’s Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring, is that they were both released in 2003 and they are both of exceptionally high quality. The same is not true of the equivalent Romanian directors, take two international successes from any given year and you’ll find commonality, you may have to search in the darkest of thematic recesses, but it is there to be found.
With this in mind we move to The Death of Mr Lazarescu, a film which did not set any dogmatic rules for the subsequent films, but most certainly set the trends that the rest of the gang would follow. Dante Remus Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu in his final film role before his own death in 2005 after a close to fifty-year film career) is an aging resident of Bucharest who lives alone, save for his three cats, he lost most of his family to death, divorce and migration years earlier. One night he becomes ensnared in a grotesque, Kafkaesque nightmare when he falls seriously ill and is in urgent need of medical care, an ambulance eventually arrives at his apartment block and a nurse, Mioara (Mirela Cioaba) suspects he has colon cancer and takes him to get medical care, through the night he is moved or transferred from one hospital to the next for a variety of reasons, some outside of the doctors control such as the hospital being full with injured passengers after a bus accident, other reasons are direct or indirect negligence on the part of the medical practitioners. As a treatise on medical ethics, The Death of Mr Lazarescu should be screened to doctors and nurses the world over as an example of how not to treat patients, cynicism, complacency and boredom impair their judgement, Mr Lazarescu’s health doesn’t mean anything to them; in some cases it is the conveyor belt nature of medical practice that is at fault, once one person has done their bit they disregard all responsibility for the patient; in other cases it is the social prejudice that stands in the way, Mr Lazarescu is an old drunkard, why treat him when there are more deserving waiting in line, why treat the blood clot in his brain just so the liver neoplasm can kill him later? Mr Lazarescu slowly wastes away as the night wears onwards, his ability to communicate disintegrates and he becomes increasingly helpless. Only Mioara stays with him until she is satisfied he’s going to be treated, suffering the abusive doctors and their condescension until eventually even she abandons Mr Lazarescu to the will of the Gods. The systemic failure of health care institutions to seriously address Mr Lazarescu’s condition, until perhaps it’s too late, are infuriating to watch and deeply upsetting, evoking a restless impatience within the audience. The film was inspired by an actual case in 1997 when a fifty-two year old man was turned away from a number of hospitals and was eventually left by his paramedics to die alone in the streets, so there is a direct link to a specific and dark chapter in Romania’s recent past. On the surface the hermetic shelf that the story rests upon could be open to criticism, the incident clearly being severe, but not necessarily indicative of Romania’s healthcare system - let alone the rest of the worlds. However, taken as an extreme example of what can happen within the existing culture of age and social discrimination, it remains a powerful morality tale. There is no health care system in the world that is truly perfect; even Sweden’s often idealised welfare state isn’t without its flaws, the systems in place within all hospitals are designed in a manner that prohibits the patient from being looked after by a single practitioner and in this intense often life or death environment who can blame doctors, nurses and paramedics for not getting to close to their patients. The counter argument is that distance facilitates objectivity which improves medical treatment, in the case of Mr Lazarescu the film seems to be arguing that distance is eroding the principles of the Hippocratic Oath, the most important of which being “I will never do harm”. If we were to take The Death of Mr Lazarescu out of its socio-political setting for a moment then we see a wider message at its humanist core, ironically enough, its moral judgment is on moral judgments. Be it, not taking a colleague seriously because they’re beneath your pay grade, or discriminating on the basis of a persons life style (if we’re not to treat alcoholics or cigarette smokers because it was their choice to damage their bodies should we then not treat firefighters with critical burns or soldiers with bullet wounds? After all, it was their choice to do those jobs.) These moral questions are applicable to any country in the world; the modern Romanian Hospital setting does not act to the determent of the films reading or the power of its moral message. Another reading of the film is as a damning commentary on the changing economic and political landscape of Romania, whose swift transition to capitalism and democracy changed the way many individuals lived their lives, changed the way individuals treated others. Like other nations who’ve entered the free market after the collapse of communism in Europe, Romania had a lot to adjust to. The Death of Mr Lazarescu is not necessarily preoccupied with the change so much as the status quo, these new Romanian capitalists are a different breed of people and Mr Lazarescu is left behind, the emphasis on individualism meaning that the plight of one man, and in particular a man who offers no foreseeable benefit to anyone, is none of their concern. Society is dead - the individual reigns supreme.
The Death of Mr Lazarescu is exceptional within the Romanian New Wave because it did better business at home and was the most the popular domestic film in 2005, compared to abroad where it did not fare as well despite widespread critical acclaim. This might in part be due to differences in the international and domestic marketing campaigns; internationally the film was advertised as it has been described here, as a precise, convincing and harrowing film with a pertinent moral message; domestically it was advertised as a comedy which at first might seem a rather bizarre choice (particularly given the films matter-of-fact/documentary inspired aesthetics). But on further reflection it makes increasing sense to view The Death of Mr Lazarescu as a comedy rather than a tragedy. The British film critic Peter Bradshaw described the film as a "blacker-than-black, deader-than-deadpan comedy"; black comedy is often prevalent within the Romanian New Wave, particularly the films of Corneliu Porumboiu (which we’ll examine in greater detail later in this article). As with all Kafkaesque nightmares there is comedy to be found in the many levels absurdity and grotesquery, Mr Lazarescu spends the majority of the film in one hospital or another, he is delivered to these institutions with relative ease yet can’t get the treatment he requires because of pettiness and triviality; like a starving man who stumbles into a banquet but all the guests refuse to feed him; this dramatic irony is central to the films narrative and will elicit different reactions depending on each individuals disposition: The Death of Mr Lazarescu will either have you howling with laughter, screaming with rage, crying in pity, or all three, which speaking frankly - is what makes the film so extraordinary.
Part Two – Politics and Comedy
Continuing with the theme of comedy and we move onto the films of Corneliu Porumboiu, whose short film Liviu’s Dream made a big impression at Berlin Film Festival in 2006. Later that year his independently financed feature film debut arrived in Cannes, 12:08 East of Bucharest where it won the Camera d’Or Prize; three years later and Porumboiu would again enjoy success in Cannes with his sophomore feature Police, Adjective. Porumboiu’s films are widely considered to be both the funniest and most satirical of the Romanian New Wave, unlike The Death of Mr Lazarescu, there maybe no mistaking the comedy in Porumboiu’s films - although it must be pointed out that one has to wait a while for the laughs to begin in Police, Adjective. Less of a wait is required for 12:08 East of Bucharest which wears its dry humour on its sleeve from the outset. It’s a film of two halves, separated by a clear change in style and content approximately half way through the film, but a change that entirely suits its narrative predispositions. Through the first half of the film our three central characters, a school teacher, a TV journalist and an old eccentric now relegated to playing Santa Clause, go about their daily routines in the town of Vaslui on the sixteenth anniversary of the 1989 revolution. Each of them have their vices, the teacher Manescu (Ion Sapdaru) is a functioning alcoholic who seems more pre-occupied with paying his debts, making more debts and finding a bottle of booze than he is with educating the teenagers in his class; the journalist Jderescu (Teador Corban) is an egotist, a philanderer and a bully; the Santa Clause impersonator Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu) is a nervous wreck on account of local children who set firecrackers off in his hallway, actions for which he takes petty revenge on the children in one of the films funnier moments. The scenes in the first half resemble with work Swedish director Roy Andersson more than Porumboiu’s Romanian contemporaries, although with naturalistic leanings and minus Andersson’s surrealist edge. Porumboiu runs his scenes in the first half from static wide angles without cutting to close-ups or alternate angles, there is also a peculiar randomness to the proceedings which remind of Andersson: a child wonders through the street attempting to play the clarinet all by himself, only later do we see the rest of his band playing a Latino number for the local TV station before they’re interrupted by Jderescu who complains it’s Christmas and they should be playing a Romanian tune and then proceeds to castigate his youthful cameraman for filming handheld and demands he uses a tripod (perhaps an ironic nod to the style employed by the Porumboiu for this film). Were 12:08 East of Bucharest to play out entirely in this vain then in all likelihood it would not have garnered such substantial critical acclaim. However at the films midpoint the action switches as our three protagonists are brought together to present a live television show to debate whether their town, had any part in the revolution; the three men recall and debate the events, the crucial question being whether or not there was a revolt in the town before 12:08 when Nicolae Ceauşescu fled and the dictatorship effectively collapsed. The answer to this question hinges on the teacher Manescu’s account of that day; he claims to have been involved in a fight with members of the Securitate before 12:08, and effectively began the revolution in Vaslui, throughout the subsequent forty-five minutes Manescu attempts to defend himself against viewers who phone in and make counterclaims, testifying that Manescu was never there at all, one even threatens to sue the show if they continue to spread lies. The three hosts of the show turn on each other, bickering about petty details, and then making equally petty recriminations. The literal translation of the original Romanian title is “Were you there or weren’t you there?” referring in part to Manescu’s disputed claims, but also referring to the wider Romanian nation - the challenges of historical record keeping, the fluidity of memory, the difficulties of transition; an equally pertinent question being “where were we then and where are we now?” The second half of the film plays out in one continuous section, never leaving the confines of the television studio and taken entirely from the perspective of the studio cameras which wobble and miss-frame the three hosts with an accurate level of incompetence from local television amateurs. A bold choice on the part of Porumboiu who’d always intended the second half of the film to play out from objective camera angles, relentlessly resting on the faces of three hosts and offering no escape for the audience by cutting to outside viewers or the control room etc. It’s the sort of dangerous aesthetic choice we now expect from the Romanian New Wave and is all the better for it.
Porumboiu was around thirteen years old in 1989, a sensitive age, the event doubtlessly had a massive impact on his psyche. Like many of his filmmaking generation the 1989 revolution is the single most significant national event in their lives and so it is understandable that so many wish to return to it in one form or another, to examine the past in relation to their present. He was inspired by a real TV show which played out in a similar manner to the one portrayed in the film, it’s about transition rather than revolution “about memory and history and how we change memory” as the director put it. Transition is put into very personal terms when the former Securitate agent calls the show and points out that he now owns several factories and is filthy rich, Jderescu makes a point about his journalistic integrity and then is mocked by Manescu “you were in Textiles!” he bites “I should have been an astronaut!” The most astute observation comes from the Chinese shopkeeper who calls to defend Manescu despite Manescu’s drunkenly racist remarks to him the previous night, the shopkeeper says he doesn’t like the way Romanian’s treat each other. There is a lack of civility in their discourse, always ready to attack each other, always ready to throw mud on one and other. The emergence from communism and the beginning of Individualism - everyone has their own perspective, everyone can freely express their views but as a society they’ve not truly adapted to this new freedom, they’ve not learnt to respect the views of others. As the film draws to a close, a woman whose son was killed in revolution calls the show, an eerie echo on the line lends extra dramatic weight to her words: “it’s snowing outside, enjoy it, for tomorrow it will be mud”. A summary perhaps of Romanian freedom, enjoy it while it lasts because soon enough it will descend into selfishness and narcissism. The very question at the heart of the TV show is completely self centred and a matter for local pride rather than historical vigilance, Piscoci points out that the revolution was like the street lights in their town, they turn on or off in the centre and then work their way out (something shown visually at the start and end of the film), it doesn’t matter where the revolution started, it doesn’t matter if their own revolution was born in their own town. It started and the rest of the country followed – that’s all that matters.
Police, Adjective, like 12:08 East of Bucharest is set in a small town; it’s worth noting that cartographically the Romanian New Wave is spread far and wide across the nations varied landscape, not content to tell stories from the capital, indeed it’s surprising how infrequently Bucharest has been depicted in these films. Police, Adjective follows Cristi (Dragos Bucur) a plain clothes undercover police detective who investigates a young man accused of smoking marijuana and offering it to his classmates. Cristi’s slow investigation eventually renders enough evidence to arrest his quarry, but at a crucial juncture he is plagued by his conscience, knowing that arresting this teenager will no-doubt destroy his future, incurring a relatively severe custodial sentence for what most would perceive to be a minor crime; (Romania remains one of the toughest nations in Europe on the issue of marijuana). Cristi suspects that the accuser, a fellow classmate, has ulterior motives and doesn’t trust or entirely understand why he would inform on his friend. Using this as an excuse for inaction, Cristi wrestles with the dilemma; can he live with himself if he does arrest this man? When he eventually takes the decision not to make the arrest he informs his superior officer, resulting in a cruelly hilarious final scene as he is argued into a corner. Porumboiu manages the inherent ironies of the story with a subtle grace and extreme patience (indeed the film demands a great deal of patience from the audience and is possibly the most extreme example of slow pace in Romanian New Wave). The triviality of the case lends to both Cristi and the audiences frustration, so many man hours so much of the Romanian tax money spent on pursuing the perpetrator of a crime which only really harms the individual criminal in question. On the surface, like The Death of Mr Lazarescu, Police, Adjective has an entirely different reading, a unashamedly glacially paced exposure of the everyday mundanity of police procedure; of course in any film there is editing involved and we don’t witness the entirety of Cristi’s investigation (it is after all a two-hour film), but unlike even the most serious minded of police procedurals from the rest of the world, so much of the boredom, waiting and paperwork is left intact, the crime is minor it wouldn’t even warrant more than a few minutes on an episode a police procedural soap opera. Any excitement in Cristi’s work is deliberately left on the cutting room floor. We begin with Cristi shadowing the young man and much of the film is spent like this, following our protagonist following his suspect, a suspect who does little of interest the majority of the time. The scenes in the police station offer a further dimension, as an absurdist deconstruction of bureaucracy and the rule of law. Porumboiu seems fond of exploring pettiness, small mindedness and rudeness; Cristi must battle with all three as he stalls for time, having to bow down to patronising or incompetent colleagues who litter the process with their self-centredness. In Dennis Deletant’s fascinating book Ceausescu and Securitate: Coercion and Dissent in Romania 1965-1989 he details in his preface the arduous process he, a British citizen, had to go through to get his Romanian wife a passport, some people were incredibly helpful, but many were not and their reasons for being unhelpful ranged from fear of the Securitate and a culture of envy, if his wife had a passport then she would be able to travel abroad and seek a better life while the woman in charge of administering the passport could not, thus she made life as difficult as possible, made Deletant’s wife work for her passport. Porumboiu, and other directors in the New Wave, keep this bureaucratic pettiness alive in the present day in their films. Cristi’s battle to keep this man out of prison is easily compared to Mioara’s battle to keep Mr. Lazarescu alive, facing ignorance and arrogance at every turn. The difference here is that Cristi is almost completely abstracted from the man he’s trying to save; who is completely unaware that his fate potentially rests in this officer’s hands. If we look deeper then the film has much more to say about the nature of language and the nature of conscience. Cristi believes that he should be ruled by his conscience, but his job is to uphold the law, he believes that arresting this young man is morally incorrect even if his suspect is breaking the law – the law is an ass in this instance. Like The Death of Mr Lazarescu much of the films charm is in its humour, unlike The Death of Mr Lazarescu the humour lies in the character exchanges and the often hilarious deconstruction of the use of language in modern society, the ever changing nature of definitions, how the dictionary defines the word is not necessarily the spirit of the definition, similarly the law can be interpreted in a manner that defies the spirit of the law. In the climatic scene (and I use the word ‘climatic’ in the loosest sense) Cristi engages in a battle of wits with his superior and finds himself increasingly cornered by his superiors unemotional logical deconstruction of his motives. As with 12:08 East of Bucharest the final section of the film is an extended dialogue scene between three men, both climaxes are sharply written and deeply funny. Police, Adjective is a more mature film than 12:08 East of Bucharest, gone are the Andersson styling’s, replaced with colder, more covertly comic form of naturalism which is more akin to the subtlety The Death of Mr Lazarescu, rejecting all the classical formalism in favour of bolder uncompromising realism.
A more obvious example of comedy can be found in Tales from the Golden Age an episodic collection of five short films, written and produced by Cristian Mungiu and directed by Mungiu, Constantin Popescu, Ioana Uricaru, Razvan Marculescu and Hanno Höfer. Each episode tells a unique story, but all are united by the time setting of the so-called “golden age” a period of fifteen years in Ceauşescu’s rule. Each story or “tale” is based on an urban legend from that period, usually centred on an act of idiocy or a foolish error on the part of the protagonist, usually motivated by self-improvement or greed. The first tale is entitled The Legend of the Official Visit, which details the preparations being made for Ceauşescu’s official visit to a small village, the residents of which run amuck attempting to clean up their home for presentation, mending fences, clearing roadsides, getting the children dressed up in their best clothes, even erecting a fairground. It’s what people in the Soviet Union described as a “Potemkin village”, cosmetic alterations providing a false veneer of shining prosperity. Fear motivating these people, who are under so much pressure to get it exactly right that they can not enjoy themselves. This is followed by The Legend of the Party Photographer where the photo lab and the officials for propaganda debate what to do about a photo of their leader who appears to be shorter than another head of state, and the rather clumsy mistakes they make to doctor the photo to correct the originals potentially embarrassing composition. Both of the first episodes are notably funny, with amusing punch lines, their central pre-occupation is in the superficial alterations which provide an illusion of superiority where actually incompetence and foolishness lie. The third story, The Legend of the Chicken Driver is a soberer affair as the titular character decides to scam his employer so that a woman he’s infatuated with can sell more chicken eggs on the run up to Easter. Everyone stole from the state because there was nothing in the shops, the penalties when caught were particularly harsh, but these sorts of activities were common place because there simply weren’t enough goods to go around. Similarly in the fourth story, The Legend of the Greedy Policeman, we see an ordinary family going to extraordinary lengths to harvest a pig without the neighbours hearing it scream as it is butchered, the eventual solution is to gas the pig with hilarious results. The clandestine approach is brought about by their desire to keep the animal a secret and not have to share or get in trouble for having it in the first place as the acquiring of said pig wasn’t legal. The Legend of the Air Sellers concludes the film and is easily the most interesting of the five films both directorially and thematically, in this film a teenage girl who is fast approaching womanhood wants to buy a car and so becomes embroiled in a scheme to scam people out of their spare glass bottles by posing as an official who’s come to sample the water or the air of residences using glass bottles, she and her older tutor then go on to sell the bottles and make more money in a day than her father makes with a proper job. This final instalment being of particular interest as the motives are not simply greed but the increasingly westernised values of the younger generation who watch movies like Bonnie and Clyde and have house parties in secret. These values encroaching on the communist ideology they’ve been brought up with, capitalism is seen to be taking hold of the youngsters before the fall of the regime.
Unlike other films in the Romanian New Wave, Tales From the Golden age is set entirely in summer and boasts a distinct vivacity the other films discussed do not. This significantly contrasts the colder harsher autumnal films that are more commonly produced and critically adored. There is unfortunately something one-note and airy about even the more serious minded legends portrayed here, and it is, for the most part, unapologetically and overtly comedic in a way that Porumboiu’s 12:08 East to Bucharest and Police, Adjective are not. It is the weakest of the ten films examined here, weaker for its episodic structure, for it simplified historical pretentions and its lightness of touch. That it remains an excellent film despite it being the poorest example of the Romanian New Wave to date, is a testimony to the strength of this movement and its continued success.
Part Three – Relationships and Performances
Moving away from comedy and we have the work of director Radu Muntean, an altogether more serious minded filmmaker - not a comedian but not strictly a tragedian either. With three of his films belonging to the Romanian New Wave to date, he is the most prolific of their number; Corneliu Porumboiu, Cristian Mungiu and Cristi Puiu have only made two films each. But despite his greater output, he is probably the least recognised of the four. None of his films have gone on to win as prestigious awards as the aforementioned, none of his films have been showered with the kind of wide spread critical acclaim that Police, Adjective, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, or The Death of Mr. Lazarescu have received. Yet he is arguably the strongest of these filmmakers, producing more personal, powerful, relationship centric dramas, with less overt an emphasis on socio-political contexts or endemic failings within social-infrastructure – to the point that some of his films could be viewed as apolitical. In this respect his first film, The Paper Will Be Blue, is his most conventional film, if “conventional” is a word we dare to use in relation to the Romanian New Wave. Set over the course of one night, a popular structural devise used in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 12:08 East to Bucharest and would again be seen in Muntean’s next feature film, Boogie (2008). The film follows a Militia member Costi (Paul Ipate) on the cold December night of the 1989 revolution, he abandons his team after hearing details of the uprising on the radio and heads into the night to support the freedom fighters, his superior officer fails to prevent Costi from leaving because rioters see his attempts at detention and attack the Militia’s armoured vehicle. Fleeing into the grainy darkness of the night, Costi soon finds a group of rebels and tries to make his way to the TV station where a pitch battle is being fought for control of the airwaves. During the collapse of the Soviet Union TV stations made for tempting targets, TV stations were state run and he who controlled the airwaves effectively controlled the nation, if the revolutionaries seized it then it would provide them with their most effective tool for spreading the uprising across the nation; in Estonia in 1991, there was a famous incident where two Estonian-nationals fought and protected the TV tower from the control of Russian troops an incident that is credited as a pivotal event in the downfall of the Soviet Union as Estonia became the first nation to recede from the Union, one day before Russia followed suit. Heading to the TV station, Costi’s superior officer and the rest of his team search high and low for him, knowing that there will be a court marshal if he’s not found. But Costi doesn’t get as far as the TV station, instead he joins what he believes is a group of rebels fighting in a high rise building, things go badly wrong when Costi is mistaken for a foreigner and is held hostage. Meanwhile other members of the Militia meet resistance from the patronising and self-satisfied military (a separate organisation to the Militia in Romania at the time) and decide to wait for Costi at his family home. There is a palatable sense of chaos as neither side knows who to trust, jurisdictional confusion creates conflict and the violence escalates in this seemingly endless night. The Romanian New Wave has yet to tackle head-on the dictatorship of Ceauşescu or indeed the highly charged events which lead to his downfall, an unconscious but collective decision which benefits the films in question. Here the revolution is depicted from a very limited perspective, but it says more about the conflicting allegiances of the people and the energy of said revolution than a more direct Ceauşescu biopic ever could. These are the ordinary men who would later grow old and become the three TV hosts in 12:08 East to Bucharest, their memories distorted by time, not helped by the uncertainty of actual events. Who was right and who was wrong becomes that much harder when you don’t know which side each individual was on. The Paper Will Be Blue lacks the power the aforementioned films, perhaps because its relatively short runtime is split between the two storylines and an editorial mistake sees the film open with the slaughter of Militia members at the break of dawn by a confused military, after the opening titles the story flashes back to the beginning of the film and continues towards this tragic event. Where some dramatists might be able to sustain tension even though the ending has already been revealed, Muntean is unable to do so here; Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet makes the star-crossed lovers demise explicit in the opening monologue, the great play maintains tension via dramatic and situational irony, showing us how every mistake leads the young couple to their fatal conclusion – The Paper Will Be Blue is not structured in such a manner, there is no obvious causal linkage between the events of the night and the resultant tragedy – it simply occurs out of the blue.
The Paper Will Be Blue is Muntean’s most directly political film, the most interesting facet of which is the sense of confusion, we initially root for Costi as he abandons his brothers in arms, he enthusiastically throws himself into the rebellion, the dismissive attitude of his superior officers and other members of his team only amplifies our sympathy for him, but as the night continues it becomes apparent that the team genuinely care about him and a respectful visit to his worried mother’s house shows a capacity for forgiveness from most of the men and crucially Costi’s commander. Meanwhile the revolutionaries that Costi finds himself embroiled with are anything but forgiving, their paranoia and suspicion of all new members overrides any good their attempting to do and Costi learns this at the barrel of a gun. The lack of a simple adversarial line is an effective portrayal of a nation at war with itself; Muntean blurs the boundaries between good or bad and right or wrong. During his subsequent films he would continue this trend until there is no line at all.
With Boogie audiences witnessed a change in Muntean’s approach and setting whilst covertly maintaining similar themes. Set in the present day, the titular Boogie (Dragos Bucur), a thirty-something husband and father of one takes his family to a sea-side resort for spring break. After a day on the beach, he, his wife Smaranda (Anamaria Marinca) and his son go for a drink where they run into two of Boogie’s old friends Penscu (Mimi Branescu) and Iordache (Adrian Vancica) both of whom seem to be enjoying a free and easy single life away from any potential spouses. Boogie sees them with envious eyes, his desire to return to this older way of life is only increased by Smaranda’s acerbic attitude towards them and him when she realises she is being dumped with their child so Boogie can go out drinking. Tensions increase after Boogie returns home from the night early only to find Smaranda in bed after implying she was still waiting up for him, the couple have an intense and realistic row, which is neatly contrasted with Boogie’s earlier flirtation with a night club promotion girl, Smaranda nagging and belittling him for what Boogie views to be a trivial offence whilst the younger more attractive promotions girl whispers seductive words in Boogie’s ear, much to the annoyance of his two less attractive friends who are out looking for a one-night stand. Angered by his wife’s attitude, Boogie decides to leave her and rejoin his friends on their night out. The trio pick up a high class prostitute from a local night club and arrange for a night of sex in their hotel room – they decide to take turns having intercourse with the teenage hooker Roxana (Geanina Varga) and the dramatic question is raised – will Boogie cheat on his wife?
Tuesday, After Christmas is the natural narrative successor to Boogie, again there is a middle-class family of three, Paul (Branescu), his wife Adriana (Mirela Oprisor) and their young child. The difference in age between the two families mirrors the development of the patriarch’s indiscretion. Here Paul is in the midst of a full blown six month affair with dental nurse Raluca (Maria Popistasu) and has resolved to either leave his wife or his mistress before Christmas, this resolution coming as a result of an accidental meeting of the two women at the dental clinic, an incident which forces Raluca to question her position as Paul’s mistress. Actors Branescu and Bucur here switch places from their roles in Boogie, Bucur playing best friend Cristi, whose free and easy life style and younger girlfriend are hinted to have inspired Paul’s infidelity. Paul, Adriana and Raluca are what could quite easily become of Boogie, Smaranda and Roxana - Tuesday, After Christmas extends and develops the conflict. In contrast to Boogie’s wife, Adriana is not unpleasant to Paul, in fact the couple seem to have a fairly ordinary marriage, untroubled by turbulent bickering or marital strains. Paul also contrasts Boogie, his motives for conducting the affair maybe just as fickle as Boogie’s motives for cheating on Smaranda, but there is an extra emotional dimension to Tuesday, After Christmas, Paul seems to be genuinely in love with Raluca, and most significantly, not out of love with his wife yet either. While the central characters of both films are all flawed, the characters of Boogie are all unsympathetic, Boogie is selfish and hypocritical, Smaranda is inconsiderate and domineering. By contrast, the characters in Tuesday, After Christmas are all sympathetic, Paul is confused but genuine, Adriana is perfectly accommodating and at ease with her adulterous husband, blissfully unaware that the relationship is rotting away under her feet. This key distinction between the films indicates a maturing of Muntean as a filmmaker; in Boogie, Muntean makes a judgement on these individuals, they lack moral courage, they lack moral strength; whereas in Tuesday, After Christmas the characters are neither bad nor good - they’re just people. Boogie and Tuesday, After Christmas share a similar style, long scenes often covered by a single shot, Boogie, like The Paper Will Be Blue, uses handheld photography often following characters around the varied locations; Tuesday, After Christmas employs a stately and static approach, observing the films subjects for long stretches from a singular position. Both films have stripped their narratives bare, the stories, as you can probably tell from the plot summaries, are minimalist. The unfussy approach to story offers Muntean greater scope for characterisation not in what people do, but in what they say and how they say it. So many scenes from all three of his films seem on the surface to be unconcerned with narrative causality; they linger on seemingly insignificant details, small-talk, reminiscences or innocuous tasks. That they amass such dramatic power through their prismatic realism is a testament both to Muntean’s power as director and his trope of re-occurring actor’s abilities to bring these men and women to life on screen. There is something very theatrical about Muntean’s style of filmmaking, in particular Tuesday, After Christmas, by “theatrical” I do not mean that the performances tend towards overacting or that the sets feel stagy (far from it as the Romanian New Wave tend to avoid sets and use real locations), but rather that Muntean’s real skill is in allowing the drama to unfold with limited interference from the usual dramatic devises of cinema: edits, close-ups, cutaways, music etc. Our position as observer is set from the first frame of each scene and it remains almost constant until a new scene begins much in the same way as an audience watching a play wouldn’t have their perspectives changed mid scene. In this sense there is a natural comparison to Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, which also used longer scenes often photographed with an uncharacteristically sober lens and followed a married couple who are split apart by infidelity. Comparing Bergman with Muntean seems natural enough, both made more conventional dramas in their formative years, both moved on to relationship centred pieces that re-worked the same themes from different perspectives – although with three films it might be a tad early to seriously make this comparison, but it is the highest praise I can offer Muntean that with Tuesday, After Christmas he is operating on the same level as Bergman was at his peak. But where Bergman offered us esoteric dialogue and sexual dispositions, Muntean’s work has a universality that Bergman lacked. Bergman’s films, in general, begin with Bergman and end with Bergman; they are films about the director himself. Muntean’s films are about any couple in the same position. Like Bergman, Muntean has built up a regular cast of superior performers, the Romanian New Wave is populated by re-occurring faces, some of the best actors in modern Europe can be found here and Muntean has worked with most of them, Dragos Bucur being the most prolific, recently making the transition to Hollywood with Peter Weir’s The Way Back (2010) but previously staring in Tuesday, After Christmas, Police, Adjective, The Paper Will Be Blue, The Death of Mr Lazarescu and Liviu’s Dream, he is a performer of great skill and agility, playing a wide range of roles with total assuredness, like his contemporaries he refrains from emoting and knows how to balance the characters he adopts. Mimi Branescu shares similar credits for Tuesday, After Christmas, The Paper Will Be Blue and The Death of Mr Lazarescu; Anamaria Marinca is most notable for her leading role in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days but can also be seen in Boogie. Marinca was first seen in the leading role of David Yates’ Sex Traffic (2004) along with Maria Popistasu. Whilst these are all relatively young actors it’s perhaps not surprising, considering Romania’s history, that most of their filmographies begin in the early 2000’s. Together like the numerous directors and writers, this generation of performers they have formed an unofficial acting style; one based on extreme naturalism and relaxed unselfconsciousness. There is an honesty in everything they do from their appearances to their manner and body language, they look and act like real people which is of course completely appropriate to the unwritten doctrine of the Romanian New Wave.
Muntean has said that each of his protagonists are searching for something new and tragically decide to look to the past in order to find it. In The Paper Will Be Blue, Costi abandons his new life, returning to his family and his fellow Militia members; he pays for this return with his life - he doesn’t have the courage of his convictions. Boogie will find nothing but disappointment with his friends, as it becomes clear that Penscu and Iordache are miserable and lonely, both looking for love themselves, although neither reciprocate Boogie’s envy, they are both searching for an equivalent love. The cold hard reality is that we’re all getting older and behaving like teenagers when you’re closing in on your forties is no longer a viable way to live your life. They must pay for sex with a young beautiful woman and the undignified circumstances of their four-way fuck party exposes their failure to accept the reality that their days of being wild are long since behind them. In Tuesday, After Christmas there is however a different resolution, Paul’s final decision about whether to commit to his mistress or stay with his wife offers him an uncertain future, one full of potential disappointments and delights. We never find out how this decision affects Paul’s life as the films focus is the decision itself rather than the long term consequences. Boogie and Costi both retreat into their pasts to escape the present - Paul however does not retreat. If Muntean remains true to form then perhaps we’ll find out what happens to Paul with a new set of characters in his next film.
While on the surface Boogie and Tuesday, After Christmas are both refreshingly middle-class, contemporary relationship dramas with no direct connection to Ceauşescu, “the Golden Age” or the 1989 revolution; there is an indirect thematic connection: Boogie’s searching in the past can be interpreted as the nations uncertainty with a free-market economy, looking to the past for security and stability, no matter how dark that past may be –forgetting for a moment that there is a reason he’s married with a child and that there’s no easy way to go back. Paul’s family problems and adulterous ways can be read as an extension of national freedom, with modern democratic principles and a capitalist economic system come choices and options that weren’t previously available – that Paul has the option to restart his life is indicative of the new freedom he enjoys. When individualism reins supreme over collectivism, the price is choice. There is no longer right and wrong, there is just a choice.
Part Four – Aesthetics and Metaphysics
Beyond the political commentary, the comedic undertones and the penetrating insights into modern relationships; the one area that the Romanian New Wave is universally adored and admired by critics is their consistently naturalistic aesthetic sensibility. From The Death of Mr. Lazarescu to Tuesday, After Christmas, the filmmakers involved have remained faithful to an unspoken aesthetic procedure, unblighted by “cinematic” temptations - yet not dogmatic in the application of said procedure. Across the Romanian New Wave there are slight yet distinctive variations on these loosely applied rules, from director to director and indeed film to film there are gentle shifts in tone and image - but speaking broadly they follow each other in their iconoclastic methods. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu paved the way in many respects, very long shots through mainly static camera angles, observing the proceedings with stylistic detachment - amplifying the naturalistic performances as a result. As already described, Tuesday, After Christmas follows a similar format, although Muntean prefers to remain closer to his subjects than Puiu; he would rather let his actors wonder out of frame and back in again than set the camera far enough back to contain the action with minimal movement. Both of Porumboiu’s films employ the same technique; detaching us from the action to the point of abstraction to let the drama unfold with limited interference from the director, editor, director of photography etc. The Paper Will Be Blue, Boogie, and Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days opt for a handheld approach, maintaining the longer takes but adding predation to the visual mix, relentlessly stalking their protagonists, never letting them out of sight for a moment. Muted, cold and monochromatic colour pallets with grainy and highly textured imagery are part and parcel of this particular strain. Deliberately sloppy optical focus and miss-framing are also common; the static approach gives the view point a quazi-documentary feel by virtue of the cameras relative objectivity – a fly-on-the-wall perspective - the handheld approach creates a similar result via different means, the lens struggling to keep up with the action rather than dictating what occurs within its view. In both cases the view point is abstracted from the action, creating the illusion that the camera is documenting the proceedings. You won’t find any crane, dolly or steadycam shots here, no dutch tilts or quirky angles – everything is shot at eye level.
The documentary inflected nature of these films extends to the sound design; it must be hard life being a Romanian film composer as almost none of the films explored in this article have a traditional film score, any music present is diegetic or incidental, playing in the background on radios and televisions, in nightclubs or bars. If there is original music it is usually limited to the opening titles and the end credits. Only Tales From the Golden Age breaks this rule with a brief scene covered by score; Tales From the Golden Age representing the most commercially and artistically safe of all of the Romanian New Wave and as such it is also the least adventurous and or minimalist in its visuals. Most of these films use real locations, dressed if necessary for period accuracy, most employ natural light where possible and style any additional lighting to appear as realistic as possible – the realist ethos runs through every element of these films.
Of course this style is not without precedents, the Danish Dogma movement for example follows similar aesthetic rules, although their abhorrence towards any kind of “cinematic” constructs is taken to the furthest extremes demanding that productions be shot on video and in the 4x3 aspect ratio, with entirely improvised scenarios. In many ways they are much bolder than anything the Romanian New Wave has thus far produced, boldness does not always guarantee success; not that the concepts are mutually exclusive, but the number of failures in the dogma movement far outstrip their successes – the same is most certainly not the case with the Romanian New Wave.
Although there are no unqualified failures in this movement, there are several films that are tame by comparison; Cristian Nemescu’s California Dreamin' (2007) for example, embodies in rather less obvious ways all of the praise worthy assets of the Romanian New Wave and as a consequence spreads itself a little thin, it’s too much of everything and not enough of anything. Its 1999, a NATO train manned by Romanian and American troops is carrying special equipment to the front to assist in the Kosovo war, they are delayed in a small village when a cantankerously stubborn old station master Doiaru (Razvan Vasilescu) refuses to let them pass without appropriate paper work. The Commanding Officer, Captain Doug Jones (Armand Assante) tries all means at his disposal to get the train moving: he attempts to threaten, bribe, manipulate and befriend the station master – all of his tactics fail and Doiaru remains resolute in his absolute stubbornness even after it is made abundantly clear by his superiors that the train has the right to pass and he’ll be fired if he does not - he still refuses to let it through. Meanwhile the American troops have been invited by the unpopular village mayor to participate in a local party to celebrate the village centenary; a “We’ll Meet Again” scenario ensues as the young Romanian women are seduced by the charms of these exciting foreign soldiers much to the discomfort of the local men who see them as a threat to their community. The station masters daughter falls in love with one of the sergeants even though neither of them can speak each others language, her male best friend translates for them even though he harbours a secret love for this young woman. The mixture of an ideological battle between two older men and the teenage love triangle would on paper feel uneasy but in actuality it is entirely watchable. California Dreamin’ has two overt flaws: firstly its length, unlike the agonisingly long The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, there seems to be no legitimate justification for the films bloated two and a half hour runtime; this flaw can be overlooked on account of the tragic death of director Nemescu and his sound engineer Andrei Toncu in a car accident. The film remains as it was at that point in post-production and had Nemescu lived on the film would doubtlessly have been shorter. It must be pointed out that California Dreamin’ remains an impressive debut, particularly for a director who was just twenty-seven years old at the time and might well have gone on to bigger and better films in the future. The second problem is the films erratic shift in tone during the last act, a violent final confrontation feels out of place and shows a lack of maturity in Nemescu, maturity he may have gained in later years. Visually the film has a wider range than most of the Romanian New Wave, flashback sequences to the station master’s childhood during the bombing of Bucharest at the end of World War II are presented in Black and White, the largely handheld photography is in keeping, but the rapid editing is not, nor is the use of high shutter speeds for the clashes of violence. California Dreamin’ is a mess; it does not conform to the monolithic rejection of classical form found in the other films described. However, Nemescu’s piecemeal approach, use American character actors, visual/tonal inconsistencies as well as a macabre fascination with the director’s demise before the film was completed, make California Dreamin’ as enticing a mess as you’re ever likely to find. It is made up of everything you’re likely to find in other Romanian New Wave classics, gut wrenching, laugh-out-loud funny and politically insightful; the basic argument of the film is that where ever the American military goes trouble follows, to get their way they will inspire civil conflicts - divide and conquer being the oldest trick in the military book. Captain Jones’ mendacious attitude being an extension of U.S foreign policy, his histrionics being a classic example of America’s ability to rouse foreign nationals to their feet only to abandon them at the first sign of conflict.
The one area California Dreamin’ significantly deviates from the other films discussed is in the use of metaphysics, static shocks between the various characters indicating sexual chemistry and the heartbeat of the young lovers shown visually by the throbbing of a window view of the town, exist outside of the films otherwise realistic parameters. California Dreamin’ is not the only film to shy away from observational naturalism, a last minute breaking of the fourth wall at the conclusion of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is another notable example as the one of the central characters turns and looks directly into the camera. Tradition dictates that if you’re going to break from your own conventions then you do it at the end of the film, California Dreamin’ breaks with its own conventions at random intervals. The song “California Dreamin” from which the film takes its English Language title, features lyrics that connect to the themes and plots of the film:
“All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray.
The individuals aspirations for a better life away from the hardships of their current location, contrasted with an authority figure content to stay put and enjoy what they have, the fake performance of faith more loosely linked to the Captain Jones’ fake aspiration for the people of the village when actually all he wants is to move on.
Catalin Mitulescu’s The Way I Spent the End of the World (2006) is another example of relative timidity and metaphysics (perhaps the two go hand in hand?) This rite-de-passage film tells the story of a seventeen year old girl Eva (Doroteea Petre), her younger pre-adolescent brother Lali (Timotei Duma) and the events in their personal lives during the six months leading to the revolution – both of them growing and changing in different ways as the stress of the dictatorship slowly fractures the nation. Eva is sent to a school for troubled students after being falsely accused of breaking a statue of Ceauşescu, she is implicated for it by her own boyfriend who is actually guilty of the crime she’s convicted of. At her new school she meets a peculiar young man who wants to escape Romania and together they train for the arduous task before embarking on their mission. Meanwhile Eva is pressured by her parents to give her ex-boyfriend a second chance on account of what his family can do for them. Lali’s story is a little less organised; he escapes into a world of fantasies and imagination – it is the only film of the ten discussed that features any sort of overt dream-sequences, sequences that are accompanied by a childish score as well as crane shots and fish-eye lenses breaking all of the unofficial rules of the New Wave as outlined above and one of the rare examples of an effervescent photography in a movement known for its dour aesthetics. Both the stories are charming in their own right and gently linking together when necessary. The drama lacks the weight of the other films discussed, like California Dreamin’ the films visual style is all too familiar, with only a particularly greeny blue colour grade distinguishing it from the others, but a rapidity in the films editing pushes it closer to conventionality. The films most successful endeavor is in paralleling the growth of Eva as a person, standing up against inequality and searching for a better life, with the growth of Romania as a nation, standing up against Ceauşescu and searching for a new way to govern. As with The Paper Will be Blue and 12:08 East of Bucharest which directly examine the events of that fateful winter day, the action is abstracted from the exact details of the revolution, favoring a commentary from afar and presented through the prism of individualism.
Finally, at the opposite end of the quality spectrum, we have Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007); at this point one would assume that there is very little left to write about the Romanian New Wave, indeed this film has been covered in this article to a large extent already. Without even considering the plethora of awards and nominations as well as glowing to exceptional critical approval upon the films release – is there anything left to write about 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days? Are there any adjectives remaining to adequately present the films uniqueness? As mentioned already, it is practically required viewing for any one with an interest in world cinema; on Left Field Cinema alone it has been covered in a listener review by Ben Conway, was rated at number three in the Top Ten of 2007 and at number fifteen in the Top Twenty Films of the decade. What is it about this film that so solidifies its position as the best of the Romanian New Wave along with The Death of Mr. Lazarescu? Both place an ordinary and innocent protagonist in a nightmarish position and then watch them suffer at the hands of the morally reprehensible individuals that come their way. These films haunt their audiences; the gut wrenching relationship dramas of Muntean and the dry comedies of Porumboiu, simply put, have not captured the hearts and minds of international audiences in the way that 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days has. There are two factors which can easily be attributed to the films unparalleled success: firstly, the boldness of the films aesthetics and secondly, the universality of the issues raised by the film. Originally intended as a satire of Ceauşescu’s regime more inkeeping with Mungiu’s follow-up Tales From the Golden Age (this films working title), it details the plight of student Otilla (Anamaria Marinca) who arranges an illegal abortion for her friend Gabriela (Laura Vasiliu). The story is minimal, Otilla barters and bargains for soap and cigarettes from her fellow students and must deal with impolite hotel clerks for the room where the abortion is to be performed, she is torn between visiting her boyfriends family because it’s his mothers birthday and staying with her friend, and is pressurised by her boyfriend to join the party because he is unaware of the circumstances Otilla has found herself in. While in a more pernicious turn of events the abortionist Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov) rapes both women when they can’t pay his full fee. Leaving Otilla to wonder if she too will have to endure the same dreadful process in a few months time. The sober and matter-of-fact approach draws the audience into the film, there is a purity in Mungiu’s story telling; his ear for believable performances (Mungiu’s technique involves him turning away from the performers and listening out for false notes) and his ability to write naturalistic dialogue; is here unmatched by any of his contemporaries. Mungiu draws together almost all of the various facets of the Romanian New Wave that have been discussed in this article (with the possible exception of comedy, although the film is riddled with rather more tragic ironies). Visually the film is amongst the starkest and bleakest of recent cinema, the natural lighting, long takes, sloppy focus, hand-held camera and grainy darkness is unflinching in its purity; forgoing any kind of traditional stylisation in favour of uncompromisingly unembellished visuals.
Beyond the performances, the style and the narrative are the films themes: in this area the film has different readings domestically and internationally. At home this is one of the only films of the Romanian New Wave to really dig into the oppression and misery that was suffered under Ceauşescu; after the birth rate dropped to fourteen per thousand people and thus threatened to slow the pace of the nations industralisation, abortion was made illegal in Romania for all but special cases, contraception was difficult to come by and abortion had previously become a popular method of birth control. Over 10,000 women died over a twenty-three year period because of back street and self-induced abortions, it was a tragic irony that by attempting to increase the population and thus the work force, the anti-abortion policy simply created more death. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days acts as painful reminder of how their freedoms were curtailed, how ordinary people were driven to extraordinary lengths to secure their future and unlike Tales From the Golden Age, there is no lightness of touch in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, no satire or slapstick to smooth out the rough edges of the past.
Abroad and the film has a somewhat wider reading, although still centered on the issue of abortion, it becomes a film about libertarianism and a woman’s right to choose. Abortion is of course a contentious issue even in the most liberal of states and there are controls in place in almost every nation on earth (at what stage in the pregnancy you can abort etc), in liberal nations these controls are mainly for the woman’s safety, in more conservative nations they’re usually in place for social, religious or political reasons. There is a wide variance in what is and is not permissible across the globe, and like euthanasia and capital punishment there is no right answer as such, just different social and religious sensibilities and dispositions. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days makes a firm case for the legalisation of abortion, we’re not talking about degrees of legality but just that the option should be available for the women who want it. Ultimately it comes down to human desire, promoting abstinence has been proved time and time again not to work as it is hard-wired into our DNA to procreate and relying on human will power to fight against our natural desires is probably the least reliable form of birth control. Prophylactics and birth control medication are not 100% reliable and in a nation where there is no mandatory sex education mistakes are bound to happen. In a patriarchal state, an unwanted pregnancy can destroy a woman’s chances of a career or of finding a partner they truly love – it can ruin lives and sometimes an abortion is the only option available to them. The lengths our protagonists go to in order secure an abortion demonstrate that it is impossible to legislate against abortion, it will just go underground, as prohibition on drugs, alcohol or prostitution have proven – human desire will always trump any governments attempts at legal condemnation. It forces the activity into the hands of criminals, filling the pockets of gangsters and putting innocent people at risk. The social argument for legal abortions that I’ve laid out here is not overtly apparent in the film, the characters do not discuss the ins and outs of the procedure or accredit blame for their predicament, instead we are forced to watch as the scenario unfolds and forced to ask ourselves how the lives of these two women would differ were abortion legal. In this sense the film resonates in nations across the globe, particularly in those states where the issue is still hotly debated. This is the films legacy and the primary reason it is so critically adored.
So now the wave has broken, what’s next? What comes after the wave? If previous waves in cinema have proven anything, it’s that they tend to pettier out rather than end with big crash. British cinema fell into camp send-ups and pastiches from 1967-1979 and never regained the class decimating force those angry young men once attained. French and German cinema also became increasingly tepid as the audience for Goddard style end-of-narrative and the guilt-ridden my-father-was-a-Nazi cinema, shrank substantially. The Romanian New Wave will also eventually pettier out. If audiences don’t get bored with these films then the filmmakers who produce them will, for any writer or director capable to creating such original works is always striving for the next big challenge - all we can hope is that when the Romanian New Wave does end it is replaced by something equally inspired. Be that within its own borders or further a field in one of the many other nations rising from the ashes of communism and the trauma of despotism.