Eastern Promise

Film still for Eastern Promise

What has inspired Romanian cinema's new wave? Nick Roddick talks to its directors and traces the genesis of their hallmark humour and deadpan style

Alistair Whyte's 1971 Studio Vista monograph New Cinema in Eastern Europe devoted just two sentences to Romania, one of which asserted that the country had "produced some interesting cartoons but in the field of feature film there has been little of importance." Note that 'little': the classic critic's evasion, which means, "if there was something, I didn't see it." Not that Whyte is to blame: barring the occasional Cannes entry by Lucian Pintilie (whom Whyte name-checks in the other sentence), Romanian cinema from the 1960s to the 1980s was as closed to outside eyes as the country itself.

Not any more. Much of the interesting film-making in Europe at the moment is happening in the Balkans - in Bosnia, Bulgaria, even Albania (track down Artan Minarolli's extraordinary 2004 Rotterdam entry The Moonless Night if you can). But it is in Romania that the first real 'wave' has broken, as though the embers of the 1989 revolution had suddenly flared into cinematic life as the generation of film-makers who experienced it in their early 20s hits 40.

In the intervening years, like most of Eastern and Central Europe, Romania has passed from euphoria via economic meltdown to a more-or-less comfortable relationship with global capitalism. Perhaps inevitably, the events of 1989 (and in three recent examples the events of the traumatic night of 22 December that finally ended 24 years of increasingly totalitarian rule under Nicolae Ceausescu) still dominate the films that are being made - or, more properly, the films that are being exported, which may say more about festival selectors and arthouse distributors than about Romania itself. Local audiences display different tastes: reportedly, the most popular recent film at home has been Tudor Giurgiu's Love Sick (2006), a wryly comic romance in which two female students find themselves becoming lovers.

But the total break with the past launched in December 1989 is still the furnace that has forged modern Romanian cinema. Of course, films were made under Ceausescu: like all Eastern-bloc countries, Romania had a state film studio that here churned out features selling 95 million tickets a year - pretty good for a nation of only 20 million and certainly a lot better than 2006's rock-bottom figure of 2.7 million admissions. These films were made for local audiences and were rarely screened even at the annual Soviet-bloc showcases in Moscow and Karlovy Vary. But they weren't about local audiences. "The way life was presented was ridiculous," says director Cristian Mungiu, who put the icing on the Romanian-renaissance cake when his 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes. "There was a huge gap between the way people really talked and the kinds of things that happened on screen."

Even with Ceausescu gone, the only Romanian director to achieve international acclaim during the 1990s was Pintilie - who divided his time between theatre and cinema, Paris and Bucharest - with films such as The Oak (1992) and Terminus paradis (1998). And it is Pintilie's 2003 film Niki and Flo that provides the link between the two generations. The story of the fractious relationship between a former army officer and his aggressively modernising son-in-law, Niki and Flo was co-written by Cristi Puiu, who went on to direct The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, though the pair fell out and Puiu tried to have his name taken off the credits. By then, however, the younger director was already making his Berlin Golden Bear-winning short ­Cigarettes and Coffee, which tells much the same story in a more manageable 13 minutes.

Cinematic humanism

Two years later The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) - which tracks its protagonist's grim trek round Bucharest's hospitals in an unsuccessful quest for treatment over the course of a single night - launched the Romanian new wave. Premiered at Cannes, it became the first Romanian film to achieve significant international distribution - a real distinction given that it boasts one of the most uncommercial titles ever put on a poster. It also set the style for much of what was to follow over the next couple of years: a meticulous attention to detail delivered through very long takes and an often static camera that simply records what's in front of it. That attention to detail extends to performance and dialogue too, both of which are so strikingly naturalistic that Lazarescu's scenes with neighbours, the ambulance attendant and the hospital doctors could be mistaken for documentary. It is, of course, deceptive - less laissez-faire than a conscious choice to cast aside the flourishes and fripperies of film language (without, thank God, the posturing of a Dogma-style manifesto) and to focus instead on honing the script, casting and acting to perfection. The result is cinematic humanism in its purest form.

A similar approach - albeit with significant (mainly satirical) inflections - can be found in Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006), a film that focuses on the moment when Romania imploded seen through the mythologising filter of memory. Porumboiu's film is more traditional in style, but the hallmark humour - reaching its climax when the alcoholic intellectual who has dined out (or drunk out) on his role in the revolution is exposed on live television - is Balkan in general, and Romanian in particular.

Radu Muntean's The Paper Will Be Blue (2006), another film set during the hours when the people massed outside Ceausescu's palace, follows a young army recruit through the confusions of the night to the tragedy we know will come at dawn because the story is told in flashback. A less dramatic reliving of the revolution is found in Catalin Mitulescu's How I Spent the End of the World (2006), which views events through the eyes of a seven-year-old boy. But both films make clear that while the Romanian new wave has frequently used the 1989 revolution as a catalyst for personal epiphanies and private tragedies, it has yet to deal with the cataclysm head-on.

The nearest thing to a historical perspective, to an overview of Romanian society in the aftermath of the fall of Ceausescu, is Cristian Nemescu's California Dreamin' (2007), a movie of such epic ambition that it's easy to forgive its shortcomings (many of them probably the result of the fact that Nemescu, and his sound engineer Andrei Toncu, died in a car crash while still cutting the film). The story of a train of US marines held up at a country station because of a bureaucratic mix-up and a bloody-minded stationmaster, it begins as a deceptively familiar Balkan comedy - raunchy, ridiculous, awash with colourful characters - then narrows into a tragedy that manages to reference not just modern Romania but the aftermath of World War II and the blinkered vision that comes with the United States' 'war on terror' as well. Totally different to 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, California Dreamin' nevertheless belongs alongside Mungiu's film as a twin peak of the Romanian new wave.

Avoiding the spectacular

I have seen 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days - which traces the attempt by two female students to attain an illegal abortion during the communist 1980s - twice now and am still awed by the purity of the storytelling, the rigour of the shot and editing choices, the conviction of the performances and dialogue and the passionate concern for the characters that results. It's a directing style that calls to mind Ken Loach, who frequently sits with his back to the scene being shot, fully trusting the actors and cinematographer but wanting to make sure the dialogue sounds right. "Sound recordists hate me," jokes Mungiu. "I think people express their feelings more easily if they talk quietly. I'm not a fan of loud and clear."

Mungiu attributes his aesthetic to his way of working and his approach to his subject matter: "I try to make it simple and honest, not to take advantage of the things that a director can do and above all to avoid being spectacular. I had some spectacular shots in the film but I took them out in the editing." In the end, he says, it comes down to two things. "The first is that I only shoot locations, so I get a glimpse of the life that's already present. And the second comes from focusing on details. I like working with objects and with the depth of field. I start by setting the action, the actors, as in a theatre, to see what's the most concise way of getting the action staged. Then I take the camera and rehearse a few times until everybody knows what happens. Then I shoot."

The director denies that there's a 'style' that characterises the Romanian new wave. "We don't share the same values and we don't belong to the same school of cinema," he insists. "I think there's a lot of diversity in the way we understand films, though there are some things we have in common: the way of shooting, the humour, the attention we give the actors." Any further similarity between recent Romanian films, he says, is down to the fact that they are made by "a generation of people now turning 40, who have gained the distance to talk freely and with less emotion about what happened to them when they were young."

But that's only half the story. The other key to understanding the Romanian new wave is the rupture that happened with the overthrow of Ceausescu. The reference in the title of Mitulescu's film to 'the end of the world' is only partly ironic: over a one-week period in December 1989 Romania changed out of all recognition. And there was no cinematic tradition of discreet oppositionalism - as in the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary - for would-be film-makers to draw on. "We don't have much of a tradition in cinema," confirms Mitulescu. "We never had film-makers like the Poles or the Czech generation of the 1960s." To use a phrase that has been (over)used in films about Eastern Europe, it was 'Romania Year Zero'.

To see how radical the break has been, one need only look at a film by an older Romanian director that premiered at this year's Transilvania [sic] International Film Festival in Cluj Napoca (the region's cultural capital). The Beheaded Rooster is a telemovie directed by Radu Gabrea, who made his first film in 1969 but has since worked mainly in Germany, where his new film was largely funded. Dealing with the potentially fascinating subject of the Siebenbürger Sachsen - the community of German-speakers that flourished in northern Transylvania until World War II - Gabrea's film has a lot more to contend with than just a bad English title. Romania's German community enthusiastically supported Hitler but were bombed when the country changed sides in 1944 and were shipped off to Soviet labour camps by the incoming communist regime. There's a great story here, but The Beheaded Rooster is little more than a hackneyed tale of petty jealousies, cardboard villains, colourful costumes and adolescent love. Coincidentally, a far more compelling view of the last surviving Siebenbürger Sachsen was on show in Cluj in the shape of Beyond the Forest, a brave documentary by Austrian Gerald Igor Hauzenberger.

Seeking an audience

If Romanian cinema is entering a new era, so too is Romania itself, which became part of the European Union in January (and joined the budget-airline network soon afterwards). In the three years since I first went to Cluj, the change has been enormous. The streets, once filled with Dacias (the locally manufactured Renault 12 clone), now teem with the same silver hatchbacks you see in Colchester. Designer - and designer rip-off - shops have appeared. The outskirts of towns have begun to sprout strip-malls of car dealerships, mobile-phone warehouses and DIY stores indistinguishable from those in the US and western Europe.

Film-funding has likewise undergone a transformation - though Mitulescu still jokes: "We are doing well, we are healthy, but we don't have any money!" Administered by the National Centre of Cinematography (CNC), the new state support system was set up in the early 2000s. To fund it, an annual budget of around 8 million euros is levied from leisure-industry companies, which get corresponding tax advantages. No money comes direct from the government, though Romania's planners are hoping to add the National Lottery to their sources of revenue. Film-makers can get up to 50 per cent of their budget from the CNC, based on ticking a number of point-carrying boxes (script, director and so on).

A good thing about the system is that it was developed in consultation with local film-makers and is constantly under review. CNC chief Eugen Serbanescu admits that there have been teething problems: when I ask him why Puiu's follow-up to The Death of Mr. Lazarescu was turned down, he claims it was because the director submitted only a three-page synopsis, but says the rules have been changed so he can now resubmit. Particularly controversial was a requirement - now dropped - that scripts be handed in anonymously so juries wouldn't be overawed by the reputation of directors who'd won international acclaim. "When Mungiu got his prize they didn't know it was his script," says Serbanescu, "so the rule cannot have been all that bad! But any regulation can be improved, and we're trying to make it more transparent, more direct."

The real problem for Romania's emerging cinema lies not in production funding but in the terrible state of the country's exhibition infrastructure. Cluj, a university town of 260,000 people, has only three working cinemas (an equivalent town in the UK would have up to 20 screens). When the Transilvania Festival this year twinned with Sibiu, the Romanian city that's the 2007 European Capital of Culture, they had to build a temporary structure to show the films since Sibiu had only one screen - and even that had not been in use for some time. In fact, there are only 65 screens in the whole country. Multinational companies like the Israeli-owned, Warsaw-based Cinema City International are beginning to build multiplexes in Bucharest, but could have their work cut out filling them: the amount spent on cinemagoing by the average Romanian in 2006 was precisely ¢4 - an increase of just ¢1 since 1996 and one of the lowest figures in the world. However great the acclaim that greets its films internationally, a national cinema without a national audience is living on borrowed time.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012