A new issue of Close Up is out (a Film Studies journal edited by the National University of Theatre and Film, Bucharest) and I have an article in it. The article provides a critical look at some of the academic literature produced in English, in the year 2017, on the subject of the New Romanian Cinema (or the Romanian New Wave, as it’s alternately called). It engages with three works – two books and an article. The books are Monica Filimon’s Cristi Puiu (University of Illinois Press, 2017) and László Strausz’s Hesitant Histories on the Romanian Screen (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). The article is called “What’s Wrong with the Romanian New Wave? Auteur Cinema, the Communist and the Production of the Violent Working Class”, and it was published by Bogdan Popa in the journal Studies in Eastern European Cinema (vol. 9, no. 1/2018, 89-102).
A fear of the working class?
Bogdan Popa – author of a Romanian language book called Sexul și capitalul. O teorie a filmului românesc (Bucharest: Tracus Arte, 2017), and also of an article published in English, under the title “What’s Wrong with the Romanian New Wave? Auteur Cinema, the Communist and the Production of the Violent Working Class”, in the journal Studies in Eastern European Cinema– would definitely not agree with László Strausz that the NRC is a politically progressive cinema. Left-leaning Romanian intellectuals have tended to look at the New Romanian Cinema with suspicion, seeing it as a cinema which mostly speaks from a middle-class vantage point, a cinema mostly blind to other, non-middle-class experiences (especially experiences of political oppression), a cinema which tends to be complacent about capitalism and hostile towards anything vaguely resembling collectivism or egalitarianism. In the previously mentioned article by Bogdan Popa (who currently lectures on Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge, UK), suspicion of the NRC runs especially strong. To the question asked in its title – “What’s wrong with the Romanian New Wave?” – the article answers by indicting the NRC with a deep fear and hatred of the popular classes.
According to Popa, these were inherited partly from Lucian Pintilie’s 1970 Reconstruction (Popa refers to it by its alternative English language title, Reenactment), a film cited by NRC filmmakers like Cristi Puiu and Corneliu Porumboiu as an inspiration. In Pintilie’s film, two young men who got into a drunken fight are forced by the authorities, with tragic results, to reenact the incident for the benefit of an educational film. Openly critical of authority, Reconstruction was condemned at the time by Ceaușescu himself for also being anti-proletarian – for depicting the working class, in its final minutes, as a violent, irrational mob. Ceaușescu’s comment is not without insight – Pintilie’s crowd scenes can indeed be said to emanate a certain fear of (and hostility towards) the working class – but for this view of the film, embraced by Popa without any reservations, the characters of the two young men pose a clear problem: aren’t they also of the working class? And aren’t those two working-class boys – victimized by both the crowd and the state authorities – depicted sympathetically by Pintilie? Popa attempts to deny the existence of this sympathy. He argues that, in keeping with Pintilie’s supposed anti-proletarian animus, the two boys are depicted as impulsive, unreflective, animalistic. But the truth is that they are two cinematic specimens of innocent, poetic, victimized youth, far from uncommon in the international cinema produced around the year 1968. (With its anti-authority charge, Reconstruction is the one Romanian contribution to this cinematic ’68.) Yes, one of the boys is physically violent, but he’s acted by Vladimir Găitan in the James Dean manner, emanating vulnerability as he hugs himself against a cold that nobody else seems to feel, alternately lunging at the world in anger and retreating behind a mask of sullenness, fully inhabiting the cliché of “inarticulate sensitivity”. As for the second boy, the one who dies, the sacrificial lamb, played by George Mihăiță, he has something of another sixties cinematic type – The Holy Fool; he keeps gazing longingly at a distant mountain range and lyrically asking the other characters if they’ve ever been up there. So much for Bogdan Popa’s notion that, for Pintilie, those two are just emblems of the working class’s primitivism.
Reconstruction is widely considered to be the film with which a cinema of personal expression – as opposed to cinema as impersonal entertainment or cinema as a propaganda tool in the hands of the state – was born in Romania. In this sense, New Romanian Cinema films like Puiu’s and Porumboiu’s can be said to belong to its tradition. Switching to a more international perspective, Popa traces this tradition to post-war developments in French film criticism – André Bazin’s particular understanding of film “realism” and especially his disciples’ discourse on the director as auteur. This tradition itself seems somewhat suspect in Popa’s eyes. Unfortunately, he is ill-served by an inadequate knowledge of film history (including the history of film criticism). Contrary to what Popa’s article says, Bazin never championed something called “black realism”. His disciples’ auteur criticism was a 1950s – not a 1960s – development . And they were not against popular cinema per se – most of the directors they championed as auteurs were successful Hollywood entertainers like Hitchcock or Hawks; the enemy, in the auteur criticism of someone like François Truffaut, is not popular cinema, it is the French “tradition of quality” largely consisting of prestigious literary adaptations like Claude Autant-Lara’s The Red and the Black (1954) or Jean Delannoy’s Pastoral Symphony (1946).[i]Popa is also imprecise when he describes Reconstruction as an attack on socialist realism – “the main cinematic language of the time”. By the late 1960s, socialist realism was no longer the official or dominant mode in Romanian filmmaking.
Having thus attempted to establish that the whole tradition of personal filmmaking is somehow tainted by anti-popular feeling (and not only in Romania), Bogdan Popa proceeds to show Reconstruction’s legacy of classism, antisocialism etc. at work in two films of the New Romanian Cinema: Cristi Puiu’s 2016 Sieranevada and Corneliu Porumboiu’s 2009 Police, Adjective. Sieranevada is about a large middle-class family gathered in a Bucharest apartment to commemorate the recent death of one of its members. Popa attempts to show that the apartament functions in the film as a middle-class safe haven against the threat of “the other” – poor and non-white. His evidence comes from a scene in which the protagonist and his wife, having momentarily left the apartment, find themselves in a conflict with some strangers over a parking space. The protagonist is even submitted to some (not severe) physical humiliation. For Bogdan Popa, this scene is about “the threat of the poor and uneducated”; the man who physically attacks the protagonist is “the poor other react[ing] to the privilege of those who have a better social standing”. What is Popa’s evidence? The attackers “are brown-skinned, use slang to talk to Laura [the protagonist’s wife], are racialized and seen as violent”.
But Popa simply misdescribes the scene to make it fit his interpretation. In fact, the attackers (one of whom is played by the director’s brother, Iulian Puiu) are not noticeably darker-skinned than some members of the protagonist’s family (like uncle Toni, for example, played by Sorin Medeleni). It’s not Cristi Puiu who racializes them, but Bogdan Popa. Nor is there any evidence in the scene that they are significantly poorer than the protagonist. The man who kicks the protagonist also has a car, and apparently not a very cheap one; like the protagonist, he is with his wife and they seem to return from a shopping expedition; they are not less well-dressed than the protagonist and his wife. It may be possible to say that their position within the middle class is one or two rungs lower than the protagonist’s, but there is too little evidence even for saying that, and it is certainly misleading to describe them (repeatedly) as poor.
It is also misleading to imply that, for the bourgeois characters of Sieranevada, trouble starts when they leave home – their apartment functioning as a safe refuge from conflict. In the world of this film, conflict can erupt from anywhere, not least of all from within the bourgeois family; people seem to find it impossible to agree on even the simplest matters. So conflict is everywhere in this film – but not class conflict. Popa’s insistence to read Sieranevada as being (at an unconscious level) about the bourgeois fear of the violent lower classes leads him to completely fabricate his evidence.
In the case of Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective, Popa reads the character of the police chief (Vlad Ivanov) as the caricature of a socialist official (like the characters representing the law in Pintilie’s Reconstruction). It would seem that, many years after the end of Romanian state socialism, NRC filmmakers like Porumboiu continue to maliciously lampoon socialist views by attaching them (in a manner learnt from Pintilie) to characters designed to be easily labelable as “dogmatic”. But it is simply inaccurate to describe the character of the police chief from Police, Adjective, as Bogdan Popa describes him, as a character who in the course of the film expresses “socialist views”, dogmatic or not. (Popa doesn’t provide any examples.) In fact, the writer-director makes the character betray fascist leanings – for example when, showing irritation with the dictionary definition of “police state”, he suggests that a police state should be defined as a good thing, since police is necessary to all states; right after this, he also corrects the dictionary on the origin of the Romanian word for “policeman”, insisting that it descends from the Greek word polis (city) and adding approvingly that, in ancient Greece, the policemen were “those who were running the city”. It should be clear that the views that Porumboiu is lampooning here are not socialist.
An apriori identification of the New Romanian Cinema as an ideological enemy leads the critic to consistently misdescribe characters and scenes, in order to make them conform to a reading that nothing or almost nothing in those characters and scenes would otherwise support. This problem is not uncommon in left-wing critiques of the New Romanian Cinema, written in Romanian, of which there have been a few in recent years. Popa’s article thus has a symptomatic relevance which makes it worth lingering on, despite a certain carelessness in its research and writing.
[i]For a wonderful history of French film criticism in the post-war years, see Antoine de Baecque, La cinéphilie. Invention d’un regard, histoire d’une culture 1944-1968, Paris: Fayard, 2003.