Two new books about the New Romanian Cinema

Monica Filimon, Cristi Puiu, University of Illinois Press, 2017; László Strausz, Hesitant Histories on the Romanian Screen, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

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Monica Filimon’s Cristi Puiu is the first book in English about the film director and writer who did more than anyone else to redefine Romanian cinema in the 2000s. An assistant professor of English at Kingsborough Community College, CUNY, Filimon doesn’t show much evidence of a broad and/or deep knowledge of film history, Romanian or international, but she is an adept practitioner of criticism-as-appreciation, richly descriptive of Puiu’s films, open to the sensuous, tactile qualities of their images. It is a welcome, engaging book, although its ideas are not always fresh.

A 1990s narrative

For instance, when trying to explain the world that Puiu comes from, Filimon tends to embrace too unquestioningly the moralistic, romantically anti-communist narrative about Romania in the 1990s. According to this myth, the problem with the power established immediately after the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu was that, far from being as anti-communist as it should have been, it was rather crypto-neo-communist (in other words, “nothing really changed” in December 1989, when Ceaușescu fell from power); and, being neo-communist, it naturally set the nation on a disastrous course for the rest of the decade. As for the right-wing regime which came to power through democratic elections in 1996, seen through this lens – which is abstractly moralistic and not at all socio-economic – that regime is made to look guilty not for its brutal capitalist measures, but only for not having fulfilled its promise of properly putting on trial the country’s communist past (and those who kept benefitting from it in the 1990s). In Filimon’s account, it is only around the year 2000 that capitalist brutality finally makes its entrance in Romania. Until then, it’s the “legacy of communism” that tends to get all the blame. This is a very 1990s narrative, which Alex Cistelecan has recently traced through the Romanian films of that era.[1] I would add that Puiu made his first feature film – Stuff and Dough – in 2001, and it was part of that film’s novelty, a sign of its belonging to a new era, that it contained no talk – none at all – of communists or neo-communists; it was a film about the first (soon to be over) era of post-communist free enterprise, an era of little entrepreneurs struggling to open Coke-cigarettes-and-chips stores in the very apartments in which they lived, on the ground-floors of the blocks of flats built by the communist regime. Now, although the view of 1990s Romania as a country in which “nothing changed”, in which the communist apparatchiks are still running the show and spoiling everything, is not to be found in Puiu’s Stuff and Dough, Puiu himself may have shared that view. Monica Filimon tells us that, immediately after the December 1989 regime change, Puiu enrolled in the outspokenly anti-communist National Peasants’ Party (p. 20); she also includes in the book an interview granted to her personally by the filmmaker, in which he describes his participation in the 1990 anti-communist protests against the new people in power (“I screamed against communism until I got sore.”) as a formative experience (p. 147). Still, it is somewhat disappointing that Filimon doesn’t question the romantic anti-communist politics of the 1990s, regardless of Puiu’s own investment in them.

A religious artist

Monica Filimon makes the point that this very influential director of cinematic narrative fiction is a documentary filmmaker at heart (p. 5): not only is he extraordinarily adept at giving his fictions the look of observational documentaries, at simulating the texture of teeming happenings not staged especially for the camera, but only witnessed by it; he also has an evident reverence or awe for what he calls “the real” (a reverence that other critics and scholars, including myself, have described as “Bazinian”). Filimon rightly insists on the religious underpinnings of this documentarist’s thirst for “the real” (another affinity, if I may add, between Puiu and André Bazin): after Stuff and Dough, Puiu has become a religious filmmaker. His 2005 film The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu (one of the canonical works of 21st century world cinema) is about people too involved in their own living to treat the dying of a lonely old man in their midst with the solemnity or at least the shudder owed to death. The film implicitly mourns the absence of this elementary sense of the sacred from the world it describes (contemporary Bucharest) and asserts the need for it. By the end, as doctors and nurses are finally preparing the old man (who has fallen into a coma) for an operation (which won’t save his life; at most it will postpone his death for a few weeks), their manner finally grave, almost priest-like and nun-like, giving the preparations the appearance of last rites, something of that transcendent solemnity seems to have been restored.

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In Puiu’s 2010 Aurora, the object of his reverence is the mystery of other people’s lives, their impenetrability to external observation. As for his 2016 Sieranevada, with that film we’re back in a way to the world of Lăzărescu: a family gathered for a wake, everyone too self-absorbed to truly think of the dead man, a “fallen” modern world of “sin” (masculine adultery, mainly) and traditional structures that have become empty; and, in the end, an epiphany.

Filimon’s most valuable contribution to the exegesis of these major works by a major film artist comes in the form of her sensitive, meticulous descriptions. Two examples will have to suffice here. First, in her discussion of Puiu’s short film Cigarettes and Coffee (premiered in 2004, between Stuff and Dough and The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu), she notices the fleeting moment of bonding between father (an industrial worker turned by the post-communist dismantling of Ceaușescu-era industries into a useless man) and son (part of the emergent post-2000 middle-class) over a massage contraption bought by the older man for his ailing wife (the younger man’s mother): “[The son] seems puzzled by ‘the machine’, so the old man shows him how to use it. This is the only moment when the two seem emotionally intimate, but it is very brief. If the son dismisses the wooden mechanism as inconsequential to his life, the father perceives it as an instrument of affection.” (p. 56)

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Second, here’s Filimon’s description of how people in The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu – neighbors, doctors, nurses, everyone – are too self-absorbed to pay attention to each other: “In one revealing scene, Lăzărescu asks for water, [paramedic] Mioara complains about her liver pain, and [ambulance driver] Leo laments the fate of [the fellow-driver involved in an accident they have just heard about]. Within the small space of the van, the doctor’s office, the hospital, or the city, people talk a lot but do not listen or hear each other. With few exceptions, there is no malice intended: they are simply too busy and self-preoccupied to see those around. The death of others is not an event for them.” (p. 70)

The author also sheds light on Lăzărescu by discussing in some detail a little-known documentary about a retirement home, 13-19 iulie 1998 – Azilul de bătrâni Craiova, co-directed by Puiu with Andreea Păduraru and described by Puiu himself as “a trigger for Lăzărescu” (p. 127). It is a pity that, after lavishing so much attention on this neglected item, Filimon inexplicably chooses to pass over other marginal or apprentice works, as unsatisfactory as they may be to Puiu: his screenplays (co-written with Răzvan Rădulescu, from whom he was artistically inseparable at the time) for the television miniseries Hacker (2004, episodes directed by Stere Gulea and Alexandra Gulea), for German director Didi Danquart’s Bucharest-set Offset (2006), and (especially) for Lucian Pintilie’s Niki and Flo (2003). Puiu may wish to disown those, but there is no reason for a scholar to respect such a wish, and his collaboration with Pintilie, at least, is not artistically insignificant.

In telling the story of Puiu’s (very real) struggles to establish himself as a filmmaker in his own country, to gain recognition and financial support from a hostile and obtuse film establishment (and cultural establishment in general), Monica Filimon has a tendency to simplify events. For example, she writes that, when he started working on film scripts with Puiu, Răzvan Rădulescu (who was to be Puiu’s key partner up to The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu) had just attempted to publish a first novel and been rejected thrice (p. 42). But that happened to Rădulescu with his second novel, Teodosie cel Mic (eventually published in 2006, to critical acclaim). His first, Viața și faptele lui Ilie Cazane, had been published in 1997; it had also been well received by the literary establishment, winning the Best First Novel Award from the Romanian Writers’ Union.[2] This doesn’t excuse in any way the delayed publishing and recognition of Rădulescu’s second novel – a major work of Romanian contemporary literature – the obstacles put in his way. But Filimon has oversimplified her narrative of Romanian talent misunderstood at home. She does it again when she makes it look as if Cristi Puiu’s next project after the internationally celebrated Lăzărescu was denied financial support from the Romanian state (p. 72). In fact, Puiu’s very next screenplay, Food for Little Fish (his last co-written with Rădulescu), had been accepted for financing in 2005; it was Puiu himself who cancelled this project. A year later (having broken his partnership with Rădulescu), Puiu submitted another story (not yet a finished screenplay) for financial support of its development into a script. This is when he was rejected, consequently denouncing the National Cinema Center in a press conference, with the support of several film critics – including myself – who accused the “old” film establishment of maliciously and philistinely trying to hinder Puiu’s career. Such accusations were not unwarranted, Puiu’s success and his outspokenness having engendered a lot of resentment in the local film world. But, once again, Filimon’s narrative tends to streamline the mistreated-artist theme, sometimes at the expense of precision. In any case, it would have been interesting if she had also talked a little about Puiu’s local allies, who at the time included not just a number of Romanian film critics, but also a financially much more powerful figure like Bobby Păunescu, who owned a local television station and had directorial ambitions of his own. (His debut feature, Francesca, made with some apparent guidance from Puiu, came out in 2009, between Puiu’s Lăzărescu and his Aurora, both of which were co-produced by Păunescu.)

Finally, the limitations of Filimon’s knowledge of film history keep her from situating Puiu within Romanian and international filmmaking traditions. Although Puiu himself has always been eloquent about his debts to a number of international filmmakers – especially to documentarists Frederick Wiseman and Raymond Depardon, and also to actor-director John Cassavetes – Filimon never explores this filiation and she doesn’t attempt to enlarge it (by examining the emergence and maturation of Puiu’s artistic interests in the context of other – both contemporary and classical – attempts to redefine or radicalize cinematic realism). As for Puiu’s place in the history of Romanian cinema, the terms in which Filimon presents it are sometimes those of vacuous hyperbole. For example: “Puiu differs from previous Romanian directors in his compassionate understanding of his characters.” (p. 49) Really? Was a Ceaușescu-era director like Alexandru Tatos (1937-1990) lacking in “compassionate understanding of his characters”? Or: “[Puiu’s] heroes are no longer the radiant heroes embodying the best qualities of the nation in communism, nor the ‘debased’, ‘subhuman’ figures that populated the 1990s ‘gutter’ or ‘screaming’ cinema (…) For the first time, the people on screen look, behave, and talk exactly like the people in front of the screen”. For the first time? Reducing the protagonists of pre-1989 cinema to paragons of national-communist virtue is an unacceptable oversimplification. For one thing, there is Mircea Daneliuc, whose major Ceaușescu-era films are full of characters who “look, behave, and talk exactly like the people in front of the screen”, and apart from him there are other examples of slice-of-life cinema, such as Lucian Bratu’s Angela Goes on (1981), which deserve to be better known. This is not to deny Stuff and Dough’s aesthetic novelty in the context of Romanian cinema, nor the fact that, through the influence he exerted on other Romanian filmmakers, Puiu is an enormously important figure – probably the most important in the history of Romanian film. But rehearsing derogatory critical commonplaces about an inadequately known pre-Puiu Romanian cinema is not the best way of honoring Puiu’s achievement.

***

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László Strausz, author of Hesitant Histories on the Romanian Screen, doesn’t pay any attention, either, to Puiu’s – and the NRC’s (New Romanian Cinema) – trans-national influences and affinities (the tradition of the observational documentary – so important to Puiu –, or kindred artistic formulas like the one developed in the 1990s – a few years before the emergence of the NRC – by the Dardenne brothers from Belgium). However, the Hungarian scholar (who teaches at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest) shows himself better acquainted than Monica Filimon with Romanian film history (although he doesn’t stray far from its better-trodden paths – those Ceaușescu-era landmark films by directors Lucian Pintilie, Mircea Daneliuc, Alexandru Tatos, and Iosif Demian, praised in recent years by Puiu and other “Romanian new wave” filmmakers, and sometimes said to have anticipated the aesthetics of the NRC). Actually, Strausz’s book is an impressively ambitious work of film theory which attempts to trace a national (Romanian) tradition whose most recent flowering would be the New Romanian Cinema of Puiu, Mungiu, Porumboiu etc.  Although he mentions the “modernist tendencies in [1960s] world cinema” (pp. 38, 51) which surely exerted an influence on the self-reflexive cinema of Pintilie, Daneliuc, Demian, and Tatos (Strausz highlights precisely those films of theirs which critically interrogate the practice of filmmaking), the theorist doesn’t look much beyond the borders of Romania in tracing this tradition: Pintilie’s “tapping into the reflexive trends of high modernism [for his 1969 Reconstruction]” (p. 121) is acknowleded, but no word is said about Puiu’s own tapping into trans-national traditions (although this has been well publicized by Puiu himself). The tradition that Strausz hypothesizes appears to have been shaped by almost exclusively local factors – factors within Romanian social and cultural history. On the other hand, this tradition, as proposed by László Strausz, encompasses a lot – not only films, but other screen/media texts as well (the live television broadcasts of the December 1989 Romanian revolution) – and it seems to extend back in time to way before the era of film (to old folk myths, as we’ll see in a moment).

The tradition of „hesitation”

Strausz has a name for this tradition: it is the tradition of “hesitation”. On the first page of the book it is defined thus: “a mode of representation that visualizes an uncertainty about the status of the profilmic that these moving images, revolving around social-historical topics, represent.” In the case of the modernist films of the Ceaușescu era – Pintilie’s Reconstruction, Daneliuc’s Microphone Test (1980), Demian’s A Girl’s Tear (1980), Tatos’s Sequences (1982, although Strausz dates it to 1986 – closer to the end of the Ceaușescu years) – this is accomplished through stories involving (fictional) directors and cameramen who attempt unsuccessfully “to produce an image of reality commissioned by an official institution (the prosecutor’s office, the state television station, the police, and a film studio shooting a political propaganda film)” (p. 52). Strausz’s meticulous descriptions of the films show how, in each case, the attempt goes awry, “sabotaged by the quotidian”. This makes the films subversive, “the real” chased after in vain by the fictional/diegetic filmmakers appearing “in the context of the symbolic-ideological mode of control as a result of political calculation and manipulation” (p. 39). As persuasively shown by Strausz and by many other commentators, these films are critical about “the [communist] regime’s attempts to define prescribed identities for individuals and the nation, and forge national history” (p. 51).

Something similar goes on, according to Strausz, in the films of the New Romanian Cinema. The strategies may differ from those of the Ceaușescu-era subversives – Strausz talks about the “modernist hesitation” in Pintilie or Tatos, versus the “performative hesitation” of a NRC film like Cristian Mungiu’s 2007 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (which Strausz treats as the exemplary NRC film)but these newer films also “counter the hegemonic social imaginaries of the state socialist past and the dominant narratives about post-socialist transition” (p. 115). Strausz makes a case for Mungiu’s 4 Months (which is set towards the end of the Ceaușescu era, in 1987) as a “multivocal and hesitant representation of history” (p. 125), one that makes the viewer move “between various interpretations of the past” (p. 128), thus opposing, and implicitly critiquing, “uniform [recollections] of the shared past” (p. 119), attempts to uniformize recent history and cultural memory – such an attempt being President Traian Băsescu’s 2006 official condemnation of Romanian state socialism as “illegitimate and criminal”.

Between the handful of Ceaușescu-era films committed to “modernist hesitation” and the “performative hesitation” characterizing (in his view) NRC films like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, László Strausz puts a selection of media objects of a very different kind: the December 1989 television broadcasts of the Romanian revolution which overthrew Ceaușescu’s regime. Strausz’s brilliant analysis of the broadcasts is indebted to Harun Farocki’s and Andrei Ujică’s essential essay-film Videograms of a Revolution (1992). To summarize: in covering the live events of the violent regime change, Romanian television didn’t just document or reflect those events, but also participated in their construction, in the production of the reality it was covering. “While [broadcast] discourses around the definition of the events often directly contradicted each other, they were advantageous for the several political actors to authenticate their presence and their own political maneuvers” (p. 100). Strausz calls this “legitimizing hesitation”: hesitation “as a specific subject position constructed for the viewer was used to produce the impression of ambiguity and chaos, which in turn legitimized the acts of an incoming power formation” (pp. 83-84). The revolution as seen on TV, with that televisual rhetoric of “legitimizing hesitation”, left a very deep impression on the future directors of the Romanian New Wave (who were very young in 1989: Puiu was 22, Mungiu 21, Radu Muntean 18, Corneliu Porumboiu 14), and, according to Strausz, the New Romanian Cinema’s aesthetic of “performative hesitation” in the representation of history and social change is a “cultural response to the unsettling power of the visual witnessed during the days of the revolution” (p. 3).

Still, Strausz suggests that the “tradition of hesitation” has even older roots – older than television, older than cinema – in Romanian culture. Searching for such roots, he embraces the view (something of an old-school cliché in Romanian culture) that the old folk ballad Miorița – about a shepherd who, warned by a talking ewe that two friends and fellow-shepherds are planning to kill him, serenely instructs the ewe what to do after his death – contains some sort of “national matrix”, some sort of key to the “Romanian collective imaginary”. Strausz is walking here in the footsteps of scholar Dominique Nasta, who, in trying to explain the New Romanian Cinema of Puiu, Mungiu, etc., also invoked Lucian Blaga’s 1936 essay The Mioritic Space, in which the Romanian poet and philosopher “delineates the ballad as some kind of geography of the Romanian poetic imagination”.[3] For Strausz, “the moves of the ewe in Miorița wandering across the hilly Romanian landscape” have something to do with hesitation; and this hesitant “mioritic spatial practice” is a “recurring signifier in the complex web of Romanian cultural performance in general”, elements of “the mioritic” having “important implications for the establishing of hesitation as a trope in Romanian cinematic discourses” (pp. 30-32).

Do talking sheep explain anything?

There are several problems with Strausz’s ingenious theoretical scheme, beginning with his attempt to link the magical ewe’s movements (vaguely described as “hesitant”) through “mioritic space” with the artistic gesture of hesitation as performed by the directors of the NRC. The underlying view of Romanian identity, of a “Romanian collective imaginary” with an old folk ballad as its key, smacks of essentialism and exoticization. It remains unclear what the talking ewe’s movements through the hilly landscape have to do with “hesitation” – Strausz’s use of the term becomes so elastic that it risks losing all meaning. Strausz tells us that “mioritic spatial practice” becomes a “recurring signifier in the complex web of Romanian cultural performance in general”, but he doesn’t give any examples – he jumps right to hesitation as a “trope in Romanian cinematic discourses”, supposedly influenced (in ways that remain unspecified) by elements of “the mioritic”. It’s a tenuous link. Why should old Romanian folk myths about talking sheep be more relevant to an understanding of the New Romanian Cinema than Cristi Puiu’s cosmopolitan artistic education, and his (and his colleagues’) exposure to things that were happening in the European cinema in the late 1990s (the Dardennes, Dogme ’95 etc.)?

The second problem has to do with Strausz’s vision of this Romanian specialty, “hesitation”, “transforming itself across different periods” (p. 112) – in other words, mutating from “modernist hesitation” to “legitimizing hesitation” and to “performative hesitation”. The problem has to do with the fact that the terms “modernist hesitation” and “performative hesitation” describe artistic (cinematic) strategies, while “legitimizing hesitation” is Strausz’s term for something that occurred in social-political discourses disseminated through television in the days of the 1989 revolution. It is, of course, very possible to see the modernist films of the Ceaușescu era and the films of the NRC as forming a “national cinematic tradition” (p. 40), a “limited authorial tradition in Romanian screen culture” (p. 112); Cristi Puiu himself (of the NRC filmmakers, the most open and eloquent about such things) has sometimes described himself as working in a tradition that began with Lucian Pintilie’s Reconstruction. (Still, Strausz never properly explains what would be so uniquely Romanian about this tradition: this unicity is only asserted – for example, on page 19 Strausz talks about “the radical novelty that New Romanian Cinema has introduced to world cinema”, while on page 25 he talks about “Romanian cinema’s unique configuration between realism, modernism, and space” – without being supported through comparisons with other film cultures; such comparisons are by and large avoided.) There are also reasons for contemplating the possibility that watching the broadcasts of the 1989 revolution at an impressionable age is part of what formed Puiu’s, Mungiu’s and the others’ taste for “hesitation”, for ambiguity etc. (another factor would be their recoil from the certainties of Ceaușescu-era propaganda, particularly the grotesque cult of personality cultivated around Ceaușescu himself as the future filmmakers were growing up); non-fiction filmmaker Andrei Ujică (co-director of Videograms of a Revolution, director of The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu) has suggested this possibility in a conversation with me (quoted in my 2012 book about the New Romanian Cinema[4], from which Monica Filimon also quotes it)[5].

But the existence of a “genealogical” link between the cinematic practice of “modernist hesitation” and the December 1989 televisual discourse of “legitimizing hesitation” (to the extent that Strausz implies such a link, which is not very clear) is much more doubtful. Strausz writes: “While in the modernist films hesitation serves as an authorial commentary on or a reaction to the [the communist regime’s] manipulative distortions of social-political reality, a comparable rhetoric in the television broadcasts is employed to legitimize the production of a certain reality.” (p. 84) Everything in this sentence stands, with the possible exception of the word “comparable”: is it really so comparable? Once again, Strausz uses the word “hesitation” in a very elastic way: in this case, the two phenomena which he calls by the same name of “hesitation”, and about which he implies that they are somehow related, are so different (on the one hand, a handful of modernist films from the 1960s and 1980s; on the other hand, the televised discourses of the participants in the December 1989 revolutionary events), that it is doubtful whether they are fruitfully comparable.

Another problematic point (the third) is László Strausz’s reading of a film like Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days as opposing the “[anti-communist] uniformization of history and cultural memory” (p. 239) attempted at the time (the mid-2000s) by politicians like Traian Băsescu (president of Romania between 2004 and 2014) – who based his December 2006 condemnation of the 40-year communist rule (in a speech delivered in the Romanian Parliament) on a report compiled by a specially constituted presidential commission (the Presidential Commission for the Analysis of the Romanian Communist Dictatorship). Strausz (who is generally very well informed about recent Romanian history and culture) denies trying to establish a causal link between such political moves and an artistic product like 4 Months (p. 119). Nevertheless, he argues that Mungiu’s film challenges the narrative that the Presidential Commission was trying to impose by offering “a multivocal and hesitant representation of history” (p. 125).

But how is the film doing that? What is Strausz’s evidence? His claim that the camera style signals the viewer’s “movement between various interpretations of the past” (p. 128) remains vague; it doesn’t rest on much, besides the equation of hand-held with “hesitant” (once again, the too-elastic use of that word). Which would be the “various interpretations of the past” offered by this film? The central narrative of the film (about a girl trying to have an abortion in a closed, isolated country in which this act is severely punishable by law) and most of its side details add up to a very grim, very oppressive, at times even nightmarish representation of the terminal phase of Romanian state socialism. (The film is set in 1987 – though not in Bucharest, as Strausz wrongly surmises on page 125, but in a generically gray and shabby Eastern bloc city which remains unnamed, although, at one point in the film, a character – a hotel receptionist – distinguishes it from Bucharest.) Few (if any) of the reviews the film got in 2007-2008, when (after being awarded the Palme d’Or in Cannes) it was an international arthouse sensation, forgot to mention how harrowing it was; Strausz, too, acknowledges this, when he comments that the film’s focus “on the humiliating consequences of the state’s pronatalist policies” is “unrelenting” (p. 126). So what puts the film, in Strausz’s view, on an entirely different wavelength from the Presidential Commission’s wholesale condemnation of Romanian state socialism? How does it accommodate a more diverse range of voices and narratives?

Strausz can only come up with feeble evidence in support of his view. He notes, for example, that the film doesn’t deal in the shrill, absolute polarities of 1990s Romanian cinematic anti-communism – satanic secret police types versus noble dissidents, perpetrators versus victims. Low-ranking state officials like hotel clerks are presented as harassed, overworked and, in one case, suffering from a cold, instead of being demonized as oppressors. The film also shows the creative solutions and strategies adopted by people to make ends meet, and their solidarity against the state – the parallel economy, the underground system of reciprocal help that they’ve set up. (On the other hand, this underground system of reciprocal help is shown as breeding monsters: the man who helps girls have abortions turns out to be a sexual blackmailer.) Even the monstruous abortionist is shown as having a mother. And, of course, the sober directorial style – little editing, no point-of-view shots, no non-diegetic music – doesn’t press on the viewer’s emotions in an authoritative or bullying manner.

But all of these simply mean that the film is written and directed with a sense of nuance and finesse – especially compared to the shrill rhetorical style of 1990s Romanian anti-communism. It hardly means that the film accomodates multiple voices and other interpretations of the past than the hostile official one. The points emphasised in the film are precisely those that are well-known from anti-communist discourses: the shortages of consumer goods, the general air of dilapidation, the state of inervated exhaustion in which most people seem to live, the triad hunger-cold-fear (particularly well-known in the Romanian language, where it is alliterative: foame-frig-frică).

A much better example of a NRC film set in the past, and cultivating a hesitant stance towards the historical moment it is representing, would have been Radu Muntean’s 2006 The Paper Will Be Blue (co-written by the director with Alexandru Baciu and Cristi Puiu’s former screenwriting partner, Răzvan Rădulescu). The story told by Muntean is about soldiers caught in the violent events of December 22-23, 1989, and Muntean’s narration, rigorously respecting the street-level perspectives of the participants, their incomplete comprehension of what was happening, pointedly refuses to provide viewers with a totalizing narrative of the Romanian revolution. Therefore, Muntean’s approach to the historical realities he is representing stresses their ambiguity and can very well be deemed “hesitant”. Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a different matter, though. The events and details selected by Mungiu converge in a summarizing statement on the late Ceaușescu era, which, contrary to Strausz’s claims, is very much in line with wholesale condemnatory discourses such as President Băsescu’s. (If 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is ambiguous in one respect – and it is –, it’s in its representation of abortion: it doesn’t push at the viewer any readable opinion about abortion in general – pro or against it. But this aspect is not analyzed by Strausz.)

Nor is a NRC film like Mungiu’s 2016 Graduation so critical of “prefabricated explanations of social change” (p. 239). Isn’t its exclusive emphasis on the evil of local corruption (and that only in the public sector), at the expense of any allusion to the violence of global capitalism – isn’t it related to the “prefabricated explanations” favored by the political right? It is a bit strange that Strausz shows himself very willing to criticize Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó for indulging in the auto-colonial exoticization of Hungarian realities (“Subsequently, [his] gestures are rewarded in the cultural centers of high art, such as Cannes, each time he makes a film” – p. 159), while not contemplating even for a moment the possibility of similar criticism directed at Mungiu’s films and at the New Romanian Cinema in general (which Strausz aligns with the critical attitude of postcolonial thought – p. 240). Actually, there is a body of criticism in the Romanian language, produced by left-wing intellectuals since 2010 and targeting the NRC.  Some of it may not stand up to serious scrutiny, being easy to dismiss as mechanical, insensitive to nuances, ill-informed etc. But the fact that he doesn’t mention at all the existence of such critiques (even if only to dismiss them) is a problematic overisight on Strausz’ part.

A fourth problematic area in László Strausz’s book is his discussion of what he sees as the New Romanian Cinema’s evolution from “a more flaunted modernism toward more classical narratives” (p. 210). Strausz’s insistence that the general aesthetic of the NRC is realist-modernist is welcome in itself, as is his insistence on a reading of André Bazin (who continues to provide a useful starting point in the discussion, as it did for other commentators of the NRC, including myself) that highlights points of contact between modernism and Bazin’s notions of cinematic realism. (Strausz’s reading of Bazin is guided in part by Colin MacCabe’s 2011 essay “Bazin as Modernist”.) However, Strausz is not far from indulging in straw man tactics when he suggests that Romanian realism has only been discussed so far in terms of unproblematic “transparency and immediacy” (p. 19). In fact, Christian Ferencz-Flatz’s discussions of films like Cristi Puiu’s Aurora (2010) and Corneliu Porumboiu’s When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (2013), while holding on to Bazin as a point of reference, have shown how these films insist on “the real”’s lack of transparency, on its opacity, on the gap between its perception and its comprehension, on the continuities between realism (of this non-classical, non-Hollywood kind) and modernism demonstrated by these artists’ practice.[6] However, Strausz passes in almost perfect silence over Porumboiu’s When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism, although, this being a blatantly self-reflexive film (involving the making of a film-within-a-film and also involving diegetic discussions of film theory, and explicit references to classics of cine-modernism such as Antonioni etc.), it is essential to any discussion of the NRC’s modernist dimension. Strausz sees this modernist dimension as being more blatant in the first years of the NRC, 2005-2007 – his main example is the heroine’s fourth-wall-breaking look into the camera at the end of Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days – and later becoming more covert, more suppressed. But the grounds for arguing the opposite are at least as strong, if not probably stronger. That look into the camera in Mungiu’s film is an isolated gesture, which Mungiu saves for the end of a film that, for most of its duration, skillfully aims at immersivess and immediacy; it is also a gesture of rather generic modernism, a token of self-reflexivity. It is nothing like Corneliu Porumboiu’s sustained reductio ad absurdum of realism in his 2009 Police, Adjective, the film which arguably inaugurates an era of increased modernist self-consciousness continuing with Puiu’s Aurora and Porumboiu’s next film, Metabolism. 

metabolism

Porumboiu’s When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (2013)

 

[1] As Cistelecan sees it, this narrative, put forward by the cultural-intellectual bourgeoisie, muddles the fact that it was an alliance between the same bourgeoisie and the technocratic elite of the communist regime that carried out the transition from communism to capitalism in Romania and in the whole East European region. In Cistelecan’s summary of the events, cultural intellectuals and technocrats were initially allies against the bureaucracy of the old regime. Then the alliance broke, with the technocracy prospering while the cultural-intellectual bourgeoisie was left only with its social prestige (which by the end of the first post-communist decade had been completely eroded) and with its stance of high moral disgust. It is this stance which finds expression, again and again, in the Romanian films in the 1990s. A lot of these films, in Cistelecan’s reading, show us technocrats as being now the allies of the old communist bureaucrats, while the poor intellectuals, left with their high ideals, are fighting everybody else – not only the bureaucracy and the technocracy at the same time, but the whole Romanian people (guilty, in these films, of allowing itself to be manipulated and/or bought). See Alex Cistelecan, “Istorie și conștiință de clasă medie în filmele românești ale anilor ’90”, in Andrei Gorzo, Gabriela Filippi (eds.), Filmul tranziției. Contribuții la interpretarea cinemaului românesc “nouăzecist”, Tact, 2017.

[2] The fullest discussion to date of Rădulescu’s work (including his two published novels) is my own essay (titled “Rădulescu”) from Andrei Gorzo, Andrei State, Politicile filmului. Contribuții la interpretarea cinemaului românesc contemporan, Tact, 2014, 9-25.

[3] Dominique Nasta, Contemporary Romanian Cinema: The History of an Unexpected Miracle, Wallflower Press, 2013, 4.

[4] Andrei Gorzo, Lucruri care nu pot fi spuse altfel. Un mod de a gîndi cinemaul, de la André Bazin la Cristi Puiu, Humanitas, 2012, 230.  

[5] Filimon, 118.

[6] Both discussions can be found, in Romanian, in Ferencz-Flatz’s outstanding collection Incursiuni fenomenologice în noul film românesc, Tact, 2015, pp. 43-51 and 53-77. A somewhat different version of Ferencz-Flatz’s essay on Aurora has also appeared in English – “Aurora: Elements from an Analysis of Misunderstanding”, Close Up 1/1, 2013, 32-43.

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