Realism and ideology in post-2000 Romanian cinema

This is a draft of a talk given on June 6, 2016, at BFI Southbank in London. The event, organized by the British Film Institute and the Romanian Cultural Institute under the title “The Romanian New Wave in Context”, also included presentations by film scholar Dominique Nasta and film critic Nick Roddick.

The Romanian cinema’s “revolution in realism” was ignited by director Cristi Puiu. Puiu wasn’t the only filmmaker in his generation who wanted to make a clean break with the Romanian cinematic past. Cristian Mungiu, Radu Muntean and others – all of the filmmakers who would become known as the Romanian New Wave – also condemned most of the filmic output of the Communist era as crude propaganda and/or cinematically primitive entertainment. Nor did they see much that was worth emulating in the cinema of the 1990s. The way they saw it, standards of craftsmanship had sunk even lower; released from censorship, some directors and writers were stooping to the level of the crudest exploitation filmmaking; other filmmakers (or the same ones) were carrying on in the exhausted aesthetic vein of the Kafkian-Orwellian Eastern European anti-totalitarian allegorical parable; while still others (or again the same ones) were dressing, with overbearing insistence, “as the sick soul of Romania” (to adapt a phrase used in another context by the American critic Pauline Kael). Puiu was certainly not the only one in his generation who wanted to distance himself from all of this, but he was the one who brought the solution: a realist aesthetic more radical than anything that had been done in this vein in Romanian cinema. This aesthetic can certainly be pondered within a purely local tradition – a tradition that would consist of a few sparse movies of the Ceaușescu era, by filmmakers such as Lucian Pintilie, Mircea Daneliuc, Alexandru Tatos, and Iosif Demian. But Puiu himself found it away from home, as a student at the Haute École d’art et de design of Geneva, whose film department is known to favor documentary filmmaking in the “observational” (or “direct cinema”) mode. “Observational” documentarists Frederick Wiseman and Raymond Depardon became two of Puiu’s acknowledged models, alongside actor-director John Cassavetes, famous for the intense, volatile interactions among his actors, captured by a camera in the “direct cinema” mode. It is worth keeping in mind that neither the films of Cassavetes, nor those of Wiseman or Depardon, had been previously released or written about in Romania.

So, from his first feature, Stuff and Dough, Puiu told scripted and acted stories from an observational stance – that of an invisible cameraman catching life unawares. He rejected any hint of expressionism or overt authorial commentary (or editorializing). He was partial to including in his dramas stretches of time in which nothing of dramatic import was happening – the downtime of daily life – and (being thus interested in capturing “real time”) he gravitated towards longer takes. At the same time, both his first and his second film, The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu, depict crises erupting and enfolding in their characters’ lives in the course of only a few hours, with the characters in physical danger and breathless with the effort to accomplish missions (driving a van from the city of Constanța to the city of Bucharest, or finding a hospital for a sick man). In both films, the theme is framed in moral or ethical terms: in the first, an innocent young man finds himself coopted by drug smugglers; in the second, a man in his early sixties, who, as it turns out, is very sick, is pushed about by doctors and other medical staff from several Bucharest hospitals, all of them busy, some of them unattentive, few of them polite.

The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu was widely understood, by the general Romanian public, as an attack on the public health system – a remnant of the ruined socialist state. Severely underfunded after 1989, this system had attracted a lot of hostility from citizens, with a lot of voices calling for its demolition to be completed. The film was felt by many to be contributing to this discourse. But Puiu denied being a political filmmaker. Moreover, he repeatedly scorned politically committed documentarists like Michael Moore, and other filmmakers who imposed their own political convictions on reality. He advocated Filmmaking as Witnessing, in terms that had a Bazinian ring and that sometimes seemed to imply belief in the existence of a truth which is inherent in the things of the world, waiting to be dug out by a camera unhampered by the filmmaker’s views and prejudices. (In addition to Filmmaking as Witnessing – and in a somewhat uneasy relation with it – he also advocated Filmmaking as Personal Confession: the Cassavetes to go with the Depardon.) In relation with The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu, Puiu has repeatedly explained that the issues he had been interested in had been more universal – and eternal: namely, the fact that everyone dies alone, deserted by all the others humans whose hearts keep selfishly pounding, whose lives keep racing towards goals, whose minds keep spinning thoughts of food and sexual gratification etc. But this way of seeing it is not necessarily less political, to the extent that it can lead to pitting human solidarity – the fundamental principle of a system purporting to offer universal healthcare for free – against nature. It can very well serve as grounds for demanding the privatization of the healthcare system.

The great international acclaim (unprecedented in Romanian cinema) that greeted Puiu’s film quickly led to emulation. Puiu’s co-writer on his first two films, Răzvan Rădulescu, played a key role in this process. First, he co-wrote Radu Muntean’s internationally underseen The Paper Will Be Blue, which appeared in 2006, one year after Lăzărescu. And he is credited as a script consultant on Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which appeared in 2007. Unlike Lăzărescu, The Paper Will Be Blue and 4, 3, 2 told stories set in the past: The Paper Will Be Blue was set during the bloody 1989 revolution which overthrew Ceaușescu’s regime, while 4, 3, 2 was set in 1987. On the other hand, just like Lăzărescu, these films were centered on characters who, in the course of only a few hours, had to negotiate life-and-death crises – an officer trying to find a soldier who has run away from his platoon to fight for the revolution, a young woman trying to help a female friend get an illegal abortion; this negotiation involved an amount of friction with institutions and representatives of the crumbling bureaucratic state – the same state in whose even more ruined post-1989 healthcare sector raced Lăzărescu’s influential ambulance. The scenes with state functionaries displaying rudeness, corruption, authoritarianism or absurdity became thus a staple of the emergent “new Romanian cinema”.

In addition to using melodrama (the virtuous, self-sacrificing girl falling with her friend in the clutches of the sexual blackmailer) to make the Lăzărescu-derived aesthetic formula more pungent, Mungiu had the inspiration to apply Puiu’s “observational”, no-comment ethics to the presentation of a controversial act like abortion. In interviews, Mungiu pointed out with pride that his personal position on abortion in general cannot be inferred from the film, which – he seemed to believe – makes it more “ethical”, more “honest” than explicitly committing to a position and trying to argue its rightness. Like Puiu, Mungiu may have associated the idea of such political commitment with the use of the cinema by the state in the Ceaușescu era to disseminate its official ideology, to indoctrinate its citizens.

Radu Muntean also resented being labeled a social realist, a label which he associated with grim films militantly rubbing their viewers’ noses in punishingly thorough descriptions of poverty. His 2008 Boogie, co-scripted again by Rădulescu with Alexandru Baciu and Muntean himself, adhered to the by-now well-established formula: the narrative timespan of only a few hours, the narration following a single character through a crisis, the long takes. Moreover, with its story channeling that of Cassavetes’s Husbands, it paid homage to one of the “new Romanian cinema”’s original inspirators. On the other hand, it was a fresh departure (and it was advertised as such) to the extent that it was about characters in their early thirties, for whom both the Ceaușescu era and the traumatic socio-economic convulsions of the 1990s were just memories. They were busy living the capitalist dream – jobs in the private sector, relocation (through marriage) in a Western country – which had come true, although in a form that gradually revealed itself to be very far from perfection. However, the shabbiness in Boogie, the financial anxiety, the specter of failure – all of these things had evaporated by the time of Muntean’s next film, Tuesday, After Christmas (2010), which set its story in a middle-class universe of flawless prosperity, almost perfectly sealed off from the rest of Romanian society and threatened only by the convulsions of adultery and divorce. First of All, Felicia (2010), Răzvan Rădulescu’s first directorial effort (in collaboration with Melissa de Raaf), seemed to share this fascination with Romania’s newer, more prosperous face (the mid-2000s had been booming years for the economy), although it did set the new in gentle contrast with aspects of the old, of what had been imprinted by the Ceaușescu era.

Even at the time – with the label “social realism” being really unpopular with Romanian filmmakers, and their prospective audience often using it interchangeably with “miserabilism” – not all filmmakers began to avoid dealing with harsher social realities and contrasts. A film that stands out is The Happiest Girl in the World (2009), Radu Jude’s first feature. A biting satirical comedy about a teenage girl from the provinces, who, coming to Bucharest to appear in an advertisement, gets her initiation in the world of advertising and, more generally, her initiation into capitalism, the film has echoes of Visconti’s neorealist Bellissima (just as Jude’s earlier short film, The Tube with a Hat, presented obvious similarities with The Bicycle Thief). It also has an explicit self-reflexive dimension: the director – who, like other participants in the “new Romanian cinema”, has supported himself by working in advertising – is questioning here his own practice. Self-reflexive discourse would become more and more blatant in Romanian films over the next few years, with the ethics of filmmaking and the possibility of realism coming under question – though usually not from a strongly political angle. An obvious example is Corneliu Porumboiu’s 2013 When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism, which is about the shooting of a film.

Porumboiu’s previous film, the 2009 Police, Adjective, had stood out from the by-now steady flow of Romanian films that tried to follow closely the Puiu-Rădulescu-Mungiu model (films like Bobby Păunescu’s Francesca, Călin Peter Netzer’s Medal of Honor, or Adrian Sitaru’s Best Intentions). What Porumboiu had done with this realism in Police, Adjective was to push its concerns with real time, observation and ethics into a new direction – that of absurdist comedy. Porumboiu’s “realism”, his representation of the daily routines of a policeman living in a medium-sized Romanian town, was carefully emptied out, thus standing in contrast with the teeming detail, the high density of the mundane characterizing the world in which Mr. Lăzărescu dies. Observation – the policeman’s job – was made to look meaningless. The accumulation of “real” time in which nothing much was happening took on the appearance of a joke, of a deadpan tease. Ethical issues all but disintegrated in pedantic arguments about the definitions of words. Police, Adjective could certainly be seen as an irreverent riff on some of Puiu’s concerns, and Puiu publicly disapproved of it, saying that it was a film built to demonstrate a thesis and speaking about the harm that such intellectual constructions do to the real upon which they impose themselves.

Puiu’s own next film, the 2010 Aurora, was also partly an act of criticism directed at the aesthetic formula derived by his followers from the Lăzărescu model. It said that all those fictions that borrowed an observational documentary stance really made things too easy for their viewers: observation in those films led too easily to comprehension. Aurora could also be described as an imaginary observational documentary – one following the comings and goings through Bucharest of an obscurely troubled citizen, over 30 hours, during which he kills four persons. The difference was that those comings and goings, just like the protagonist’s motives and his relationships with other characters, only partially emerged out of the obscurity by the end of the film. And what emerged of them did so very slowly. Complicating and trying to problematize those “realist” techniques which he himself had introduced to Romanian cinema and which in a few years had become conventionalized, Puiu was also reaffirming that quality of the world, of “the real”, that André Bazin had called its “ambiguity”. I haven’t yet had the chance of watching Puiu’s 2016 film, Sieranevada, but I wouldn’t be surprised if his skepticism about the possibility of attaining objective knowledge about the world has only increased after Aurora.

As for Mungiu, his 2012 Beyond the Hills, though using methods different from Puiu’s, also proclaimed “the ambiguity of the real”. Mungiu’s real-life source of inspiration was the death of a young woman, in an isolated Romanian monastery, when a priest and a few nuns attempted to “exorcise” her. Mungiu’s fictionalized dramatic reconstruction was one that, as he saw it, attempted to give the viewer nothing but facts, without any privileged interpretation. Judging from Mungiu’s interviews, not taking sides, not wholly committing to an interpretation of the facts and, implicitly, of the world in general, was a point of particular pride for him. Being neutral meant being more “honest”, more “ethical”. For Mungiu, as for most of the Romanian filmmakers of his generation, consciously committing to a political explanation of the world is something to be avoided. It’s something they associate with the communist propaganda they suffered through in their youth, in cinematic form and in other forms, too. Mungiu’s strategy in Beyond the Hills is to simultaneously and parsimoniously feed competing grids of interpretation, competing ideological agendas, without privileging any single one over the others. Thus, the girl who dies while being “exorcised” can be seen as a total victim; at the same time, she can also be seen as a woman strong enough to make choices (no matter how self-destructive), or even as a rebel who fights for a forbidden (same-sex) love, and who questions patriarchy and superstition. The drama at whose center she is can be seen as a clash of momentous individual choices (worldly love versus love of God); or it can be seen as a social drama about a pocket of East European poverty and backwardness where, on the contrary, there are no choices (the protagonists being born in circumstances which severely limited their possibilities of development); or it can be seen as a metaphysical drama about how evil can work in tortuous ways, and even through humans whose intentions are good. Is this a superior realism, which allows us to contemplate from a critical distance, beyond the fact of the girl’s death, the competing ways of making sense of that death, the competing explanatory systems? Or is it just a tactic to push everybody’s buttons, to feed back to all of us the prejudices we brought to the cinema? And, under the solemn art cinema manner, isn’t the film relying on exotic and sensationalistic come-ons like lesbianism in a monastery or exorcism in an Eastern European backwater?

Mungiu’s latest film, Graduation, is about an honest provincial doctor whose efforts to ensure that his teenage daughter gets top marks in her high-school final exams result in his being contaminated by the local corruption. A corruption which seems to have permeated all institutions in the public sector, from school to police, from healthcare to municipal administration. Illustrations of this corruption – familiar from many other films of the “new Romanian cinema”, and even more familiar to Romanian audiences for being media clichés – are piled on very thick here. The characters who are not yet rotten with corruption are suffocating from its surrounding miasma. Ironically, the reason why the doctor is trying to arrange high grades for his daughter is that he wants her away from this kind of thing, safe in a Western university. The doctor’s wife seems to suffer from chronic depression, which he explains as the result of living in Romania and remaining honest. While a colleague of the doctor’s acknowledges that in recent years progress has been made in bringing the corrupt to justice, only to add mournfully that it’s loo late for their generation. At moments like this, Graduation can feel reminiscent of those sick-soul-of-Romania films of the 90s, although it is crafted with much more precision. It’s not like Mungiu’s previous one, Beyond the Hills, in that it doesn’t balance between two ore more possible interpretations of corruption, partially feeding both or all of them. It is committed to one discourse on corruption – one that enjoys a wide circulation in middle-class Romania. This discourse tends to look at the state with an automatic suspicion not extended to private capital, particularly if it’s Western capital. And it tends to explain local corruption in terms of weak national moral fiber, rather than looking at it in a wider, in a more global economic and political context – that of the post-1989 world order, and of the possible violence this may have done to countries like Romania. Unlike the brothers Dardenne, whose filmmaking provided another model for the Romanian realists (and who have co-produced Mungiu’s last two pictures), the Romanian filmmakers have been timid about engaging critically with this neo-liberal world order.

Still, Călin Peter Netzer’s 2013 Child’s Pose shows itself sensitive to harsh social contrasts – and also to the self-absorption to the privileged. Radu Muntean’s 2015 One Floor Below – which is about a man who overhears violent sounds in a neighbor’s apartament, but refuses to tell anyone about it after the neighbor is found dead, acting as though it were no concern of his – obliquely tackles issues like the hypetrophy of individualism and the dissolution of community feeling, issues that are very political and very relevant to Muntean’s (and the other filmmakers’) generation. (I must add that Muntean has typically denied wanting to explore in this film such social issues; his concern, he says, was once again solely moral.) And Radu Jude’s 2015 Aferim!, though set in the past, in the first half of the 19th century, is politically a very acute and relevant film. Focusing on the plight of the Roma slaves, it delineates very fully and precisely a brutally hierarchical, patriarchal, anti-semitic, homophobic and xenophobic social order made up of various rapports of domination, oppression and exploitation – of women by men, of non-slave servants by their masters and so on.

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