This is based on notes for a public talk given at Stanford University’s Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies (CREEES), where I am a Fulbright visiting scholar until the end of January 2018. The talk was given in November 2017 at the generous invitation of CREEES Faculty Director Pavle Levi (Associate Professor in the Stanford Art Department’s Film and Media Studies Program).
1. “Children of the Decree”, middle-class teenagers in the late Ceaușescu era
The Decree 770, which completely banned abortion in the Socialist Republic of Romania, was issued in 1966, a year after the ascension of Nicolae Ceaușescu at the head of the Romanian Communist Party. The children born during the next few years were unoficially known as the decreței – “children of the Decree”. Some of the most important figures of what was to be, much later, the “New Romanian Cinema” – the “new wave” of Romanian filmmakers who would create a lasting sensation on the international film festival scene after the year 2000 – were born in that period: writer-director Cristi Puiu (1967), writer-director Cristian Mungiu (1968), writer and director Răzvan Rădulescu (1969), director Radu Muntean (1971).
Notwithstanding the hated Decree 770, Ceaușescu managed to make himself popular with many Romanian citizens during the first few years of his rule. His gestures of defiance directed at the Soviet Union played a role in his popularity, as did the relative openness of his regime towards the capitalist West. (Occupied by Soviet troops at the end of World War II, Romania had been an exemplary Soviet satellite during the pre-Ceaușescu 1950s.) Still, economic development, which had been a constant of the state-socialist era, would slow down in 1970s Romania – as everywhere else in the Soviet bloc – and vehement nationalist Ceaușescu would become increasingly fixated on making his country autonomous of both Soviet and Western interests. During the 80s, following the dictator’s decision that Romania’s foreign debt should be paid in its entirety, the Romanian population had to put up with dramatic shortages of food, heating, electricity, and consumer goods. Frustration spread and grew, intensified by the increasingly grotesque personality cult orchestrated by the authorities around the presidential couple.
2. Distrusting the state
The future luminaries of the New Romanian Cinema were middle-class teenagers growing up in that era, a time when the enforced regimen of austerity and applause engendered deep and durable individualism, cynical distrust of all egalitarian and collectivist thetoric, uncritical yearning for Western-style capitalism. Cristi Puiu and the others would later make films expressing a deep distrust of the state and its institutions – both the impoverished, yet authoritarian state of the late Ceaușescu era, and the debilitated, crumbling, corrupt post-socialist state. The seminal film of the New Romanian Cinema is Puiu’s 2005 film The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu, which, simulating the texture of an observational documentary, takes the viewer on a tour of Romania’s health system, built in the state socialist era on the principle of free healthcare for everybody, and turned after 1989 into an object of public hatred – a remnant of the old order, understaffed, underfunded, corrupt, inefficient, on its way to being privatized. Scenes of frustrating, absurdist interaction with pre- or post-1989 bureaucrats are frequent in these films. Again and again, various institutions of the state come under scrutiny.
It is worth pointing out that this critical scrutiny hasn’t extended yet to take in the local operations of international capital. The middle-class orthodoxy in post-communist Romania, unchallenged for many years, was that capitalism is beyond criticism. If things didn’t work right for a lot of Romanians, that had to be the effect of the many years of communist rule. It there was a flaw somewhere – and everybody agreed that there was – it had to be with local capitalism, with Romanian capitalists, and it had to do, at least in part, with the fact that some of those were ex-Communists, former members of either the bureaucratic or the technocratic elite of the Ceaușescu era. Non-Romanian capital and capitalism, capital and capitalism that had not been tainted by Communism, had to be different; they had to be good. It took the 2008 financial crisis – which made itself felt in Romania starting with 2010 – for this view to start being questioned by more than a handful of dissenters. And the New Romanian Cinema has been slow to respond to the crisis and join in this questioning.
In fact, Cristi Puiu has repeatedly expressed his distaste for all politically commited cinema. The filmmakers whom he influenced seem to share this distaste. Cristian Mungiu, whose 2007 film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days tells the story of an illegal abortion in Ceaușescu’s Romania, has pointed out in interviews, with pride, that his personal opinion on the topic of abortion in general cannot be inferred from the film he made; such neutrality, he explained, is for him more “ethical”, more “honest” than taking a side in the debate through a film. As for Radu Muntean, who is another important contributor to the New Romanian Cinema, the simple fact that his work is sometimes labeled “social realism” seems to make him uneasy; the terms in which he rejects this label sometimes suggest that, for him, making films about the private life crises and moral dilemmas of middle class characters is somehow different from and better than being a social realist. For Puiu, Muntean or Mungiu – who grew up surrounded by Ceaușescu’s grotesque personality cult, by empty, ossified official talk of Communist ideals, by films whose vision of Romanian reality was tailored to fit that of the Romanian Communist Party – filmmakers in general should not work with political agendas; they should instead pursue different goals or concerns – moral, metaphysical etc.
3. Cristi Puiu
As a young man, Cristi Puiu was not a cinephile and wanted to become a painter. In 1992, after failing the entrance exam at the Bucharest Art Institute, he moved to Switzerland (two years earlier he had exhibited some paintings in Lausanne as part of a cultural exchange program) and enrolled at the Haute École d’art et de design of Geneva, originally planning to study the jeweller’s craft. After a year he switched to filmmaking (Gorzo, 2012: 193; Filimon, 2017: 27). By the time he returned to Romania, he had become obsessed with telling scripted and acted stories in a manner that would give them the appearance of observational documentaries (Puiu, 2001).
The 1990s were a time when a number of directors of fiction films, like the Iranian Abbas Kiarostami, were said to be redefining cinematic realism. Kiarostami’s films were documenting real places, people and events while fictionalizing them and being constantly open about their cinematic artifice. Danish filmmakers Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg came out in 1995 with a manifesto, Dogme 95, advocating a sort of cinematic return to basics – no tripod or filters for the camera, no post-dubbed sounds or music, no stories belonging to established genres etc. This attracted a lot of publicity to their films – Vinterberg’s 1998 The Celebration, von Trier’s 1998 The Idiots – and, during the next few years, a number of other filmmakers from Denmark and other countries joined them in making films according to the Dogme rules. And in 1999 the Belgian team of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival with Rosetta – a film anticipating in a number of aspects the aesthetic formula of the New Romanian Cinema. (It’s not surprising that the Dardenne brothers have later stated their affinity for the type of cinema being made in Romania by people like Cristi Puiu and Cristian Mungiu; they have even co-produced Mungiu’s 2012 film Beyond the Hills and his 2016 Graduation.)
However, Puiu has rarely, if ever, mentioned the 1990s work of Kiarostami, von Trier or the Dardenne brothers. According to Puiu, he has been influenced directly by the observational or “direct cinema” documentaries made by the American Frederick Wiseman and by the French Raymond Depardon. (He has singlehandedly made these two filmmakers known to Romanian cinephiles and, in general, he has been a tireless proselytizer for this particular type of documentary film practice. He has repeatedly explained that it was partly his temperament – his reluctance to intrude upon other people’s privacies – that prevented him from dedicating himself to documentary filmmaking instead of fiction.) As far as cinematic fiction goes, the most important influence acknowledged by Puiu is that of American independent John Cassavetes, whose filmmaking famously simulated the texture of direct cinema and centered on the capacity of interacting actors to produce unrepeatable moments.
As for the history of Romanian cinema, the kind of filmmaking that Puiu was interested in had almost no tradition in his own culture. Italian neorealism had not influenced Romanian cinema to a significant degree in the years following the end of World War II; neither had later currents like direct cinema or cinéma vérité. There were a small number of filmmakers – Lucian Pintilie, Mircea Daneliuc, Alexandru Tatos, Iosif Demian – whom Puiu could claim as precursors, which he graciously did. Pintilie helped Puiu financially to finish his first feature film, Stuff and Dough, in 2001, while Puiu and Răzvan Rădulescu, who was his screenwriting partner at the time, scripted the last feature film completed by Pintilie, Niki and Flo (2004). Yet for all these affinities, Puiu’s 2001 Stuff and Dough was in many ways like no previous Romanian film.
4. Stuff and Dough and the birth of a new Romanian cinema
During the 1990s – the first decade after the fall of the Communist regime – it had sometimes seemed as if nearly every new Romanian film was a shouted, desparing statement about “the state of the nation” in general, or even about some eternal “Romanian condition”. Unused to not having their films censored by the state, faced with cataclysmic social, political, economic and cultural change, Romanian filmmakers were finding it hard to resist apocalyptic generalizations. Some of them were jumping too easily, in their films, from the specifics of the characters, situations and milieu described to grandiose generalizations about Romania-and-its-sick-soul; others were unable to be specific at all. In some of these films, it was as if every plot incident, every line of dialogue, every camera set-up had to make a big, somber state-of-the-nation point (Gorzo, Filippi [eds.], 2017).
Stuff and Dough was nothing like that. It seemed to be simply putting on screen a few young Romanians from a specific social class, from a specific economic conjuncture in the history of their country. The degree of specificity was extraordinary for a Romanian film: the characters’ behavior and dialogue didn’t signal incessantly that the characters were meant to signify Romanian youth in general. But, more than anything else, what shocked Romanian audiences at the time was the fact that, after leaving their city for Bucharest, in a car, to deliver a suspicious package, these three young people talked and talked among themselves for minutes and minutes, and nothing “dramatic” or “significant” seemed to be happening. This use of duration was unpredented in Romanian cinema.
After half an hour, something did happen: the protagonists found themselves chased by another car. After all, the events of the film proved to be “dramatic” in a very basic sense – the protagonists were in physical danger. The film was a genre piece – a road movie involving drugs and gangsters. But Puiu and his co-writer, Răzvan Rădulescu, employed narrative strategies which “de-dramatized” it. These strategies add up to the aesthetic formula that, a few years after Stuff and Dough, would become more or less identified with the “New Romanian Cinema”.
First, Cristi Puiu and Răzvan Rădulescu work as close as possible to the “real time” of the depicted events – the time those events would take to occur if they occured in reality: in the case of Stuff and Dough, the real time of a two-way car trip from the Romanian city of Constanța to the country’s capital, Bucharest. The one-day-in-the-life-of focus is used to compel the viewer – in the words of scholar Monica Filimon – “to pay attention to minute gestures and voice inflections” (Filimon, 2017: 45). Most importantly, it blends suspense – because the story begins at a point in the protagonists’ lives when they are about to walk unsuspectingly into a crisis, and it ends a few hours later, when the crisis has been resolved (if only superficially) – with militant ordinariness or “kitchen-sink aesthetics”.
Then, the camera is made to behave like an invisible witness attached to a single character: in Stuff and Dough it is hand-held, but, more importantly, it always stays in the car with the three young people. There is no cutting between different locations, no God-like gift of narrative omnipresence. Individual scenes are not built on analytical – so-called “invisible” – editing as they are in cinema of the classical type. Dialogue exchanges are not built on shot-reverse-shot editing. Here nearly every time there’s an editing cut there’s also a temporal gap – even if only a two-second one. The film rigorously simulates the non-existent footage that could have been shot by an invisible cameraperson if he or she had accompanied the three main characters on their trip. The recording of events is all-external – there are no point-of-view shots (except one), no distortions of image and sound meant to convey character subjectivity: in other words, no expressionism (there is also no film music). Stating his preference for the plain, unadorned film image – the image as documentary recording of the externals of people, things and events –, Cristi Puiu, at that early stage in his career, quoted classic French theorist André Bazin’s distinction between those filmmakers who “believe in reality” and those who believe more in the image itself (Gorzo, 2017). In accordance with these principles, Puiu’s cinema – and most of the New Romanian Cinema which emerged from his example – became a cinema of long takes and sequence shots.
There was nothing radically new in international cinema about Puiu’s particular combination of aesthetic choices. But, once again, there had never been anything like it in Romanian cinema.
5. The moment of Lăzărescu
Cristi Puiu’s next feature film – once again co-scripted with Răzvan Rădulescu – was The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu. It appeared in 2005. And it was this film – or rather its international critical success, unprecedented for a Romanian film – that started the emulation which would result in the establishing of the New Romanian Cinema as a force on the international art cinema scene.
The aesthetic formula is the same as in Stuff and Dough, only more rigorous. Puiu and Rădulescu have dispensed with the genre elements – here there are no analogues to the gangsters and drugs from the earlier film. However, the narrative is, once again, that of a crisis; we enter the title character’s life as a crisis is about to erupt and we leave him a few hours later, when the crisis has somewhat subsided. And, once again, the crisis is a life-and-death affair.
In The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu, the crisis is medical. One evening, the title character – a retired engineer in his early sixties, living alone in an apartment in one of Bucharest’s housing projects from the socialist era – doesn’t feel well. He calls an ambulance and, for the rest of the night, he is taken from one understaffed, overburdened hospital to the next, only slowly gaining access to diagnosis and treatment while his condition speedily deteriorates. The scope of this work is much wider than that of Stuff and Dough. Instead of any melodramatic heightening, there’s a documentary emphasis on process. The influence of American documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, acknowledged by Puiu, is evident here. What is being processed is an individual, and it’s the state, through its health system, that does the processing. This happening in 2005 Romania, the health system is still the one built in the state socialist era (supposedly offering medical attention to everybody for free), only increasingly underfunded and increasingly mistrusted – perceived by Romanian citizens as inadequate and corrupt. This mistrust also animates The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu, although, very far from being a work of crude propaganda, the film presents a wide variety of medical staff, everyone with their own reasons. There is a pervasive scepticism about collectivity in general (Mr. Lăzărescu’s neighbors), an emphasis on the loneliness of the human animal before death (although the film suggests the emergence of something of a human bond between Mr. Lăzărescu and the woman paramedic ferrying him from one hospital to the next).
6. In Lăzărescu’s wake
More than a decade after the film appeared, the credits of The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu read like the first draft of a Who’s Who of what was not yet known, internationally, as “the Romanian new wave”. Virtually all the actors in the cast (with the sad exception of Ioan Fiscuteanu, who played Lăzărescu himself and who died two years later) would become “faces of the New Romanian Cinema”, turning up in film after film. Lăzărescu’s director of photography, Oleg Mutu, would go on to shoot Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (from 2007), which, after winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, would become the most internationally famous film of the New Romanian Cinema (and the most internationally famous Romanian film ever). Radu Jude, who served as an assistant director on Lăzărescu, would become an acclaimed writer-director in his own right, and an exceptionally adventurous one, breaking new thematic and aesthetic territory for Romanian cinema after 2010. But of all the contributors to Lăzărescu, it can be argued that it was co-writer Răzvan Rădulescu who played the key role between 2005 and 2010, collaborating with other directors and writers (after splitting with Puiu), and helping with the dissemination of Lăzărescu’s aesthetic formula, with the replication of its virtues – in short, with the vigorous emulation that took place in that period.
With director Radu Muntean and another writer, Alexandru Baciu, Rădulescu formed an artistic partnership that is still lasting to date. Their first collaboration, The Paper Will Be Blue (from 2006), was also the first Romanian feature film showing the aesthetic influence of Mr. Lăzărescu. Coming right on its heels was the second feature film showing the influence of Lăzărescu: Mungiu’s worldwide critical smash of 2007, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.
Unlike The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu, which is set in the post-communist Bucharest of 2005, both The Paper Will Be Blue and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days are set in the near historical past. The fictional events narrated in The Paper Will Be Blue take place during the bloody revolution which overthrew Ceaușescu’s regime in December 1989, while the events narrated in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days take place towards the end of the Ceaușescu era – in 1987. What connects the two works, and what connects them to The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu, is the basic set of principles governing the artistic presentation of the events.
Once again, the events unfold over just a few hours. Once again, what unfolds is a crisis: in The Paper Will Be Blue, a young soldier deserts his platoon because he wants to fight in the revolution, and his commanding officer goes looking for him in the gunshot-filled Bucharest night; in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, a young woman tries to help a female friend get an illegal abortion. Although in both films there is some cross-cutting, narration tends to follow – observationally – a single character, the camera often sticking to his or her back as the character moves through his or her environment. We find again that documentary-like emphasis on process and procedure, and that mixture of the highly dramatic and the ordinary, of decisive events and intervals of so-called “dead time”. As in Lăzărescu, there is an acuteness about social and professional hierarchies and their attendant tensions, about the faultlines of class and caste (the medical, the military etc.). And in both films there are scenes of difficult negotiation with representatives of the crumbling pre-1989 state (from officers in the army to hotel receptionists), the same state among whose hospitals – even more ruined post-1989, and still crumbling – Lăzărescu’s ambulance had so influentially raced. In a few years, scenes with state functionaries of one sort or another, from both before and after the fall of communism, displaying rudeness, corruption, authoritarianism, absurdity, exhausted irascibility etc., would become almost a specialty of the New Romanian Cinema.
Radu Muntean’s The Paper Will Be Blue (2006)
Cristian Mungiu and Radu Muntean would rarely mention Cristi Puiu and his Death of Mr. Lăzărescu in their interviews (if they mentioned them at all). When asked to explain the emergence of such a group of Romanian filmmakers of close ages and related artistic interests, they would generally mention their similar formative experience of late Romanian communism, its 1989 fall and its immediate aftermath; they would also point out that they are not a group in the sense of being friends, of having close personal ties, and that they all have very different artistic personalities.
Which they do have. Ever since 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days – which is the story of two young women fallen in the clutches of a sexual blackmailer – Cristian Mungiu has consistently shown a predilection for melodrama which is absent or weaker in the work of other Romanian filmmakers. (This predilection has probably helped make his work more accessible, more directly affecting to a wider national and international audience than Puiu’s, for example.) As for Radu Muntean, after The Paper Will Be Blue he has developed, in the course of three films, into the New Romanian Cinema’s foremost chronicler of the new (post-2000) Romanian middle class – its rise, but also its troubles, its feelings of unease and discontent, seen by the filmmaker in terms which to him are emphatically those of ethics and not those of politics (Rogozanu, 2014).
Still, The Paper Will Be Blue, which was Muntean’s second feature film, and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which was Mungiu’s second feature-length effort, have more in common with each other, in their artistic aims and strategies, than with their directors’ respective first features (both from 2002). They have more in common with each other – and, of course, with Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu (which had come out in 2005). Lăzărescu’s international success – measured in festival awards, glowing reviews and sales – offered an aesthetic model to Puiu’s same-age colleagues, who were looking for their way at what was a difficult time for Romanian cinema.
Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007)
7. A little background sketching: the Romanian film industry
The 1990s had been even harder. After the fall of Ceaușescu, the Romanian film studios of the state-socialist era had been divided among a few well-known directors. These directors turned studio heads were still funded by the state. Hopes that the post-communist Romanian film industry would soon draw massive private investments from local businesses proved unrealistic. Co-production investments from Western countries (meaning France) worked better, but very few Romanian filmmakers could secure them at a time when Romania wasn’t yet part of European co-financing structures. What the directors turned studio heads mainly did was make their own films, finance the films of their friends and also allow a number of younger directors to make their first films – before this system collapsed. Few of those younger directors ever got to make their second films.
During the last years of that decade, very few Romanian films were still getting made. For the year 2000 (one year before Cristi Puiu’s Stuff and Dough), the number of Romanian releases was zero. (During the Ceaușescu era, the average number of yearly releases had been 25-30. Now it has climbed back to 15-20.) Access to state funds was reorganized at the end of the decade as a national competition for producers who had to submit screenplay-and-director packages. These competitions are dodged to this day by accusations of being rigged (at the time of their second films, Cristi Puiu and Cristian Mungiu used to be very vehement accusers), but, for all the corruption, it was a better system than the one from the early 90s, with those directors turned studio heads enjoying near-discretionary power over their shares of the national film budget.
Still, for a young Romanian filmmaker preparing a first feature in 2001, prospects hadn’t brightened much. Privatized after 1989, many Romanian cinema theatres had been closed down and turned into other kinds of spaces (like bars); important cities were left without a single movie screen. This and other factors – the economic hardships of the post-communist 1990s, the post-1989 boom in television entertainment – had made cinema attendance decline dramatically from its pre-1989 levels. In the Ceaușescu era, when the official population of the country was 23 million, a Romanian film could easily sell 500,000 tickets; selling over one million tickets was not uncommon. (Several other factors helped make this possible: the fact that a Romanian film back then usually stayed in release for a long time; the fact that television – at the time meaning only official state television – represented much less of a competitor; and the fact that Western imports were limited.) Well, by the end of the 1990s, such figures had become unattainable for both local and imported (i.e., Hollywood) films products. And attendance kept declining through the 2000s (by 2008 it looked as if the goal of selling 100,000 tickets was becoming unreachable regardless of what the film was and where it was produced), before picking up in the next decade. Now, a number of films each year sell two or three hundred thousand tickets in Romanian multiplexes (built during the last 15 years). None of those films are Romanian, though. (Needless to say, they are all Hollywood blockbusters.)
So, a Romanian filmmaker who started out in 2001 was faced with a local market so shrunken that by itself it could not turn a film into a financially profitable investment, even if budgets were small – a few hundred thousand euros. (Right now, the average budget of a Romanian film is one million euros.) That was objectively near-impossible (and it remains so). What was left? The possibility of finding an international market through the festival circuit. But how to get there? Romania’s art cinema tradition was little-known internationally compared to the traditions of neighboring countries like Hungary and Poland. In the early and mid-nineties, a few Romanian films had aroused some interest at the major European film festivals, but that seemed to have cooled off by the beginning of the next decade.
Until The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu came along and provided a model for a Romanian cinema that could become sought after in film festivals. A model for other filmmakers to be inspired by and take up at least as a starting point in the development of their own artistic interests.
8. Turning inward
The 2009 film Police, Adjective, written and directed by Corneliu Porumboiu, inaugurated a new phase. It was Porumboiu’s second feature film. His first, 12:08 East of Bucharest (from 2006), had already shown a talent for inventive, form-conscious deadpan comedy that made him stand out among the young Romanian filmmakers coming fast in Puiu’s footsteps on the festival scene. Police, Adjective can be described as a film which takes the New Romanian Cinema’s preoccupations with ordinariness, observational aesthetics, “real time”, and ethics – preoccupations which by 2009 were already well established – and pushes them in the direction of absurdist comedy. In contrast with the high density of mundane detail characterizing the world in which Mr. Lăzărescu dies, Porumboiu’s depiction of the daily routines of a policeman (from a medium-sized Romanian town) is radically emptied out. The “kitchen-sink” aesthetics (dedicated to ordinariness etc.) lead thus to stylization, to abstraction. The accumulation of “real time” in which nothing much happens takes on the appearance of a joke. Observation – a word describing both the stance of the New Romanian Cinema in general and the work of Porumboiu’s policeman – is made to look meaningless. Ethical issues all but disintegrate in pedantic arguments among the film’s characters about the definitions of words. Porumboiu himself has sometimes used the word “deconstruction” to describe what he was aiming at in Police, Adjective (Porton, 2010).
Porumboiu’s next film, dating from 2013 and titled When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism, would be even more open in its self-reflexivity – in its interrogation of the observational/recording/epistemic function of the cinema and of the ethics of filmmaking. This film even deals with the making of a film. As a matter of fact, back in 2009, when Porumboiu had released Police, Adjective, another Romanian release had been The Happiest Girl in the World, Radu Jude’s first feature, about the shooting of a commercial. But the most radical contribution to this “difficult”, self-interrogating, inward turn of the New Romanian Cinema came from the director who had started everything: Cristi Puiu.
Puiu’s film Aurora (from 2010) did not tell a story about the shooting of a film. The story it told was that of an apparently ordinary man (from Bucharest) who one day went out and committed four shootings; and this story was narrated in an “observational” manner which initially didn’t seem to depart from what had become the norm in ambitious, festival-oriented Romanian cinema. The difference was that, this time, observation didn’t lead smoothly to understanding; it left in partial obscurity the protagonist’s deeper motives, as well as selected details in his behavior – and in the behavior of other characters, too. Puiu’s film was meant to problematize his own artistic formula, his own brand of “realism” – its knowledge claims, ist explicatory claims – and thus challenge the colleagues who had followed in his footsteps (and whom he also used to criticize openly in his interviews).
This turn towards modernist self-searching, with its increased opacity, did little to further endear the New Romanian Cinema to Romanian audiences. From the very beginning, this cinema had aroused a lot of hostility in many quarters of Romanian public opinion. For one thing, it had been criticized for betraying its supposed duty of exporting “positive images”of life in Romania. It had also been insistently misperceived as a cinema tackling only in two basic subjects – that of pre-1989 communist repression and that of the Romanian revolution. After a while, it had been accused, less unjustly, of a certain visual and aural monotony, a lack of stylistic excitement: the long takes, either hand-held or static, the rejection of music and of any expressionism, the remorseless use of repetition and real time joined to the studied ordinariness of many moments and actions. Finally, the young left-wing intellectuals (about 10 years – 10 crucial years – younger than the most prominent New Romanian Cinema filmmakers) whose critical voices were beginning to make themselves heard after the 2008 financial crisis were often suspicious of the New Romanian Cinema (Rogozanu, 2012). They saw it as being mostly a cinema of the middle-class, by the middle-class – more specifically, by middle-class heterosexual males – a cinema which left out a lot of what constituted Romanian reality: working class and peasant experience, the experience of racial and sexual minorities. They accused the New Romanian Cinema of being politically complacent about the new world order which had emerged after the fall of East European communism: the New Romanian Cinema filmmakers kept criticizing the state – its overbureaucratization and inefficiency, its pre-1989 authoritarianism and post-1989 corruption –, never criticizing the shaping work of global capital on the new Romania. The new left-wing intellectuals accused the leading New Romanian Cinema filmmakers of still subscribing to early 1990s myths according to which Romanians were held back, as a people, either by the “legacy of Communism”, or by a more mysterious, maybe eternal flaw in the “national character”, in the “national moral fiber”; local capital being largely corrupt or soiled (either by its pre-1989 “communist” sources or by the “mentalities” of those wielding it), our saviours could only be Western investors – their capital and its operations were sacred, they could not be criticized.
A good example would be Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation (from 2016), for which Mungiu was once again acclaimed at the Cannes Film Festival. The implied discourse of this film is that it’s only the – seemingly eternal – corruption of its state institutions that makes Romania lag behind the West. The film’s main characters see corruption as a purely local problem, unconnected to the way things work in the highly developed West, and there is very little in the film to problematize this division, there is no attempt to address the reality of Romania’s subalternity in the post-Cold War global economic arrangement of power.
This timidity of Mungiu’s film was made apparent through contrast with another film that became a hit of the 2016 Cannes Film Festival: Maren Ade’s satirical comedy Toni Erdmann. This was a German, not a Romanian film, but it was set in Bucharest, among the expats working for multinational corporations, whom the film described in ruthless satirical detail as a neo-colonial force. The film’s humanistic concern with the injustice of the neoliberal world order, its sensitivity to Romania’s subaltern status, made Mungiu’s concerns – his blaming everything on the corruption of those who work in the public sector, and his tendency to make corruption look like some sort of Romanian national trait, curse or disease – seem tired and dated, part of a 1990s explanatory narrative whose inadequacy stood out in 2016.
Despite everything, for 15 years or so, the New Romanian Cinema has kept turning out high quality work. Its 2010 turn towards abstraction and self-reflexivity engendered suspicions that it was becoming sterile, but films like Călin Peter Netzer’s Child’s Pose (which was co-scripted by Răzvan Rădulescu and won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 2013) showed that it could still pack an emotional punch. And if the New Romanian Cinema has sometimes been accused of a certain repetitiveness of subjects and style, as well as of certain political complacencies and blind spots, recent films life Radu Jude’s Aferim! (from 2015) and Ivana Mladenovic’s Soldiers: Story from Ferentari (from 2017) have opened up promising new directions – the politically committed exploration of the historical past beyond the state socialist era, and the representation of historically oppressed and marginalized minorities like gays and the Roma population.
Monica Filimon, Cristi Puiu, University of Illinois Press, 2017.
Andrei Gorzo, “In the Name of ‘The Ambiguity of the Real’: Romanian Cinematic Realism after the 2000s”, Film Criticism, volume 41, issue 2/2017, https://quod.lib.umich.edu/f/fc/13761232.0041.206?view=text;rgn=main, accessed on November 1, 2017.
Andrei Gorzo, Lucruri care nu pot fi spuse altfel. Un mod de a gîndi cinemaul, de la André Bazin la Cristi Puiu, Humanitas, 2012.
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