THE ROMANIAN MIRACLE


You never can tell where the next New Cinema will come from: Spain, Argentina, Iran, Mexico, Malaysia – they surge up like earth tremors, brief or prolonged and always unexpected.

So at the start of the 21st century few could have predicted that the most energising and distinctive new cinema of the first decade would come from Romania. With only 65 screens to serve the entire country and the lowest per capita spending on cinema tickets, Romania certainly does not boast a very evident film culture, and its film history is predictably slight. Nae Caranfil’s new period comedy THE REST IS SILENCE (2007) in fact commemorates the bold, quixotic beginning in 1912, when an unsuccessful young actor, Grigore Brezeanu made a sensation with a turgid, two-hour patriotic spectacle, THE WAR OF INDEPENDENCE. This portentous start proved a false spring, never followed up. In the silent period barely a score of films were made and in the 1930s, despite state encouragement, the number was even less. Inevitably the Ceaucescu period was to see the confection of a new “socialist” cinema, with the creation of studios and theatre chains and a sustained production of state-financed, politically dutiful films whose “social realism” offered a resistibly mendacious and instantly forgotten view of a totalitarian society. The only native-working artist who appears in 20th-century film histories is the animator Ion Popescu-Gopo: the most famous Romanian émigré cinema artists are Lupu Pick, Jean Negulesco and Edward G.Robinson.

The main sign of life In the decade after the collapse of socialism was the lone voice of the returning émigré, Lucien Pintilie (b.1933), with his scabrous view of the battered Romania that had emerged from totalitarianism, in THE OAK (1992) and TERMINUS PARADIS (1998). Less noticed at the time, the pioneering work of Nae Caranfil (born 1960), with his four ironic contemporary comedies - È PERICOLOSO SPORGERSI (1994), ASPHALT TANGO (1996), DOLCE FAR NIENTE (1998) and FlLANTROPICA (2002) - can now be seen as the advance guard of the new Generation of the First Decade. But film festival critics are creatures of habit and fashion, and Caranfil’s films appeared too soon, before Romania had established its place on the international cinema map.

California Dream'
Looking back, it seems that that place was first seized by Cristi Puiu (born 1967), with STUFF AND DOUGH (2001) a film whose origins were far from promising. On the eve of production Puiu discovered that his producer had made off with the small budget that had been raised, but went ahead nevertheless to make the film on a string and a prayer. It is a road movie about an enterprising village lad who accepts a well-paid but mysterious assignment to deliver some mysterious “stuff” to an apartment in Bucharest. Things get rougher than he and his travelling companion bargained for. Of necessity stripped down to essentials, Puiu makes the most of his constraints. This punkish couple rattle along on their mission, a good deal less concerned by the menace surrounding them than the spectator is made to feel. The film also marked a memorable new sighting of the iconic Balkan sourpuss, Razvan Vasilescu, who is a unique link from the old socialist cinema, through Puntilie to CALIFORNIA DREAMIN’. Puiu went on to win the Berlin Golden Bear for the best short with CIGARETTES AND COFFEE (2004) before collecting a remarkable run of international awards for THE DEATH OF MR LAZARESCU (2005) starting with the Cannes Prize for best film in “Un Certain Regard”. About the same time as Puiu’s emergence with STUFF AND DOUGH, Sinisa Dragin’s`(born 1960) parable about a fratricide, GOD KISSES US ON THE MOUTH EVERY DAY (2001), took awards at Rotterdam and Cairo.

Catalin Mitulescu (born 1972) had made his mark with shorts – TRAFFIC won the Cannes Palme d’Or in 2004 – before embarking on his first feature THE WAY I SPENT THE END OF THE WORLD (2006), the adventures and misadventures of an ordinary, unprivileged family in the final days of the Ciausescu regime. The bright young heroine, sent to a reformatory trade school, and plotting with her boy friend to escape Romania by swimming across the Danube, is Mitulescu’s exact contemporary. Despite the date of its setting, this is not the past, or history, but a story of life and formation of present-day Romanians.

FOUR MONTHS, THREE WEEKS, TWO DAYS
The historical and crowning moment for the Generation of the First Decade came,of course, with the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, when Cristian Mungiu’s FOUR MONTHS, THREE WEEKS, TWO DAYS won the Palme d’Or while Christian Nemescu’s CALIFORNIA DREAMIN’ took the award for best film in the section “Un Certain Regard”. Mungiu (born 1968), after a career as journalist, began making shorts in 1998 and directed his first feature OCCIDENT, a structurally complex sad comedy about emigration. He then acquired the independence of his own company, Mobra Films, which produced FOUR… THREE…. TWO…., a film without a false moment that stunned the jaded Cannes audience. The film is about a young student undergoing an illicit abortion in late communist days, with the support of her college friend. Like other new Romanian films set in the recent traumatic past culminating in 1989, it is essentially not “historical” or retrospective. These two girls establish a universal intimacy as individuals negotiating the traps of any society.

The euphoria of the Cannes successes in 2007 was darkened by the recent brutal death of Cristian Nemescu (1979-2006) leaves no doubt that Nemescu would have been one of the strongest and most individual new talents. Based on a real incident of the Kosovo war, the story tells how an American NATO train, with urgent military supplies, is halted at a rural station by the stationmaster whose apparent officiousness masks deeply cunning corruption. A black comedy with a violent end, it offers the village as a microcosm of a society plagued by poverty, corruption and bureaucratic carelessness, and explores the love-hate of the Romanians and their “guests” as witness to an ever-irreconcilable culture clash.

Radu Muntean (born 1971) survived a successful career as a director of commercials to make a first feature FURIA (2004), about an amateur race-driver and gambler and progress to the excellent THE PAPER MUST BE BLUE (2006), the chronicle, at once austere and casual, of the adventures of a young man’s fatal adventures in one confused night during the fall of Ceausescu.

EAST OF BUCHAREST
Corneliu Porumboiu (born 1975) had already established a name with several prize-winning short films before 12:08 EAST OF BUCHAREST (2006) – a comedy of untruths which explodes when a local tv talk-show investigates whether there was a 1989 revolution in this small town - won the Cannes Camera d’Or for best first film.

The proof that there is no common ground in the choice of themes is the 2006 Berlin entry, Tudor Giurgiu’s (b.1972) LOVE SICK. This delicate and polished film plays mostly as a chamber drama as it explores – with affection and pleasure that excludes judgment – a complex love triangle involving an affair between two vital, contrasted young women, one of whom is torn by a deep-rooted incestuous relationship with her brother.

The new Romanian cinema is not entirely a man’s world though it sometimes appears so: one woman director Ruxandra Zenide (born 1975), has made her mark with RYNA (2005), especially distinguished by the central performance of Doroteea Petre as a girl from a poor family whose despotic father has brought her up to be a boy to satisfy his primitive yearning for a son. Zenide’s film has been quietly picking up as many festival awards as the boys’.

The talent is rich and not finite. Most of the now-established feature directors first exercised themselves in fiction shorts, and a whole new wave of short-film directors is already achieving success and prominence. At the 2008 Berlin Festival, Bogdan Mustata (born 1975) won the Golden Bear for best short with A GOOD DAY FOR A SWIM, a sinister and atmospheric horror film about three young boys who have hijacked a truck. Adrian Sitaru’s (born 1971) WAVES, a near-surreal impression of non-relations on a crowded public beach has won prizes at Locarno and Sarajevo. Radu Jude (born 1977) follows the much-prized THE TUBE WITH A HAT (2006) with ALEXANDRA (2008), the story of a divorced couple battling over their child which has more substance and meaning than most current features. Other directors who have shown outstanding talent in short fiction include Alexandryu Mavrodeanu (born 1976; THE BOXING LESSON), Paul Negoescu (born 1984; LATE), Gabriel Sirbu (born 1970; ON THE CRANE), CONSTANTIN POPESCU (born 1973; WATER). Jude, Sitaru and Mustata are already at work on feature productions.

As new waves go, this is one of the largest, with a dozen or more directors, mostly between 30 and 40, to watch with big expectations. How did it happen that this whole generation of talents emerged in the space of a year or two? It may be no accident that the new wave has coincided with the establishing of a state-support system, which levies a budget of some eight million euros a year from the leisure industry, administered through the National Centre for Cinematography under its director Eugen Serbanescu. Approved films (which did not, as it happened include THE DEATH OF MR LAZARESCU, though Serbanescu says the selection process has been polished since then) can receive up to 50 per cent of their budget for the CNC. At the very least CNC has been able to prime pumps.

Undoubtedly the phenomenon reflects Romania’s historical trauma. In 1989, a kind of Year Zero for the nation, this generation were in their late teens going on twenty and acutely impressionable. Since then their lives and contemporaries have been conditioned by a society struggling to keep up with the rapid changes that have led to membership of the European Union. Short-sighted foreign critics murmur that the new generation is too concerned with the past, that the majority of their films linger on events of 1989: on the contrary the tendency represents a long view, a perspective on the two decades which are the making and the basis of life today.
Rightly the new directors insist that they do not form a school or represent a single tradition. It is a cinema of individuals. Nevertheless one can recognise common characteristics. All favour a plain, undecorated filmic style: Mungiu is on record as saying, “I try to make it simple and honest, not to take advantage of the things that a director can do and above all to avoid being spectacular. I had some spectacular shots in the film (FOUR… THREE.. TWO…) but I took them out in the editing”. This is a cinema free of endemic narcissism: the directors’ vision is intensely directed on people and their stories, undistracted by needless flourishes..
Paradoxically, one of the unlikely advantages of this cinema is its financial impoverishment. By the standards of any other European producing company, budgets are minimal. But the discipline of constraints – not least economic constraint - has traditionally been the true artist’s greatest asset. In this case necessity has pushed Romanian film makers (not least Mungiu) into rewardingly creative use of locations. Many of the films’ greatest merits can be identified as coming from concentration on less costly but ultimately the most productive preparatory work – scripting, rehearsal and work with the actors. Perhaps in consequence, the overall standard of performance in the new Romanian films excels for its intensity and truth.

Perhaps one can identify another rare asset in contemporary Romanian cinema. Though prophets are rarely heeded in their own land, exceptionally Romanian cinema has the positive support of a very strong body of film critics (and one wonders how they came into being given the country’s overall lack of cinema tradition). In early March 2008 the Association of Romanian Film Critics organised a constructive international round table on “Romanian Film Today”

New waves rarely last. The Iranian cinema that flowered in the wake of Kiarostami has now for the most part (there are still exceptions) staled and ossified into stereotypes. The Generation of the First Decade has the strength of numbers, but how can it sustain its form against the inevitable threats. Pursuing the paradox, one inevitable danger is that success will attract ambitious foreign financing and co-production. Big budgets from external sources must inevitably threaten the independence which is one of the great glories of this cinema as it stands. An alternative peril is a sense that there is a distinction between the “art” and the “commercial” or “entertainment” cinema, and that the new generation belongs to the former category. This old distinction is as unreal as dangerous (are STAGECOACH and KANE commercial and FANNY AND ALEXANDER art?). Accessibility is no disgrace, and it is positively alarming to hear Serbanescu defining the “art” movie as being characterised by unusual and difficult structural form, and characteristic of the new Romanian cinema.