You Can Run, But You Cannot Hide: New Romanian Cinema

By Mihai Chirilov (Editor-in-chief Re:Publik)

© Mihai Chirilov, 2007

Three Romanian films made in 2006 approach directly or retrospectively the December 1989 Revolution: Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest (A fost sau n-a fost), Radu Muntean's The Paper Will Be Blue (Hârtia va fi albastra), and Catalin Mitulescu's How I Spent the End of the World (Cum mi-am petrecut sfârsitul lumii). These films provide a good opportunity for investigating the relationship between Romanian cinema after 1989 with its past.

Close to the end of Lucian Pintilie's The Oak (Balanta, 1992), Maia Morgenstern's character performs a quasi-voodoo ritual when burying the ashes of her father, a Securitate agent, under an old, impressive oak. “Good father, tyrant father, dear, dear father…,” her incantation sounded something like that, inviting us to witness one of the most forgiving scenes of an otherwise vengeful film. Our heroine was parting serenely with a putrid personal past, but her strategy was to prove an illusion. The past remained an unfinished business, from which one can only hope to escape by digging a grave; its ghosts kept haunting and the best solution was to strike a deal with them. That's what Oana Pellea's character does in State of Things (Stare de fapt; dir. Stere Gulea, 1996), when she decides to keep her baby in the tormented aftermath of the 1989 Revolution after a Securitate agent had raped her.

In the beginning of the 1990s, the compulsory return to the past and need to display on screen post-Revolution issues was not only a legitimate impulse, but was also salutory. Free from the tyranny of censorship, Romanian directors were exorcising themselves in their films. What hitherto had been hidden in innuendos and subtle jokes could now be told in the open, without any additional makeup—even though, out of habit, some filmmakers preferred metaphors and heavily burdened associations. In a contextual delirium, we saw familiar scenes over and over again—people standing in lines or shivering in theatres, or tap water stubbornly refusing to run as the faucets issued heavy burps—and we were exhilarated. We were watching more or less transparent confrontations, in which the Securitate was pushed against the wall, or attempts at shedding some light into the chaos of the Revolution. And we were warned about agents living amongst us, exhorted to carry on and, maybe, live a better life than ours, which was already better. As a bonus, we were offered suburban slang and dirty sex scenes, something we had been denied for so long, leaving us frustrated for what we thought would be an eternity. There were very few who tried to grasp the spirit of the time in those turbulent transition days. As long as you can run, but cannot hide, coping with the demons of the Revolution-era proved, for lack of anything better, the best exorcism we could hope for—despite the deepest regret that we didn't have our own Good Bye, Lenin! (dir. Wolfgang Becker; Germany, 2003) to wrap up, in an acceptable manner, our growing nostalgia.

Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. It is also true that those who don't forget are even worse off. With no intention of turning such a statement into an axiom, we must admit that, in the long run, this has proven true for Romanian cinema. The past became the scriptwriter's milk cow and the director's plaything, and films kept hitting the wall of the past, head-on, with an obsessive determination worthy of a better cause. Ten years after the Revolution, the “Securitate agent” trend was still scoring points and the "Late" (as deceased dictator Ceausescu was dubbed) was still a fashionable target. The time for readjustment had passed, but some filmmakers were still tailoring from leftovers.

In retrospect, it seems quite natural that the “age” of obsessive reassessment began with The Oak and ended with State of Things. The Oak brought back to life the ordeal of an era from a perspective that indulged in uncontrolled rage, as well as in dark humor, while in State of Things a compromise was reached, not a comfortable one, but one that was necessary. We have got to accept the ghosts of the past without having to point them out anymore. But it was not that easy. For 10 years, the Romanian cinema—a prisoner of the past—kept swirling around without even noticing that the prison door was wide open…

In the case of Lucian Pintilie, the most famous director in Romanian cinema, I believed that The Oak would be enough to excorcise his ghosts of the past. And it did, at least when he made his subsequent three films— An Unforgettable Summer (O vara de neuitat, 1994), Too Late (Prea târziu, 1996), and Next Stop Paradise (Terminus Paradis, 1998) . In them, Pintilie's cynical approach and predilection for criticizing Romanian society found satisfactory topics in, respectively, a costume novel, a present-day short story about the miners' riot, and a newspaper expose on the social isolation of the army. After this break, however, he went back to where he had started. The Afternoon of a Torturer (Dupa amiaza unui tortionar, 2001) represents a dialogue between a reporter and an ex-torturer, and, bearing in mind Pintilie's taste for unexpected psychological reversals, it is not difficult to guess who is the torturer and who was tortured in this dramatic confrontation. In his subsequent film Niki and Flo (Niki Ardelean, colonel în rezerva, 2003) , the eponymous character, a prisoner in the no man's land squeezed between a gangrenous but fairly comfortable past and an annoying and threatening present, is so devoted to the 23 August celebration of communist Army Day and to the Army in general that the deprecation of these two supremely valuable symbols pushes him to committing murder. The coup du théâtre that wraps up the stand off (announced in the title) is a triumph for a man who cannot bear the idea of someone stealing his past. His children yes, but not his past.

Nae Caranfil, one of the few important newcomers in the post-communsit period, burst onto the Romanian film scene in 1992 as a tornado, as a promise of a new wave. Even though Don't Lean Out of the Window (E pericoloso sporgersi, 1994) also looks back at Ceausescu's Romania, it does so tenderly and is based on a solid and clever story, filtered through personal experience, in which the elements of communist imagery are used for a maximum impact.

However, the present requires its own chroniclers, and the younger and more in touch with current reality they are, the better. The veterans were growing stiff and were too bogged down by the plagues of the past. Romania had gone through a revolution and Romanian cinema also desperately needed one in order to get rid of the ballast. And this revolution began in 2001 with the premiere of director Cristi Puiu's debut film, Stuff and Dough (Marfa si banii). It took Romanian cinema out of the black corner into which it had painted itself, and threw it into the international film festival circuit, launching a new wave of young filmmakers who, while having lived in the old regime, were not obsessively clinging to it.

Stuff and Dough is stylish and Puiu's courage to go against the current is something to admire. The story is fresh; the young actors are invigorating and do justice to the notion of cinema acting, so deeply compromised by the solemn theatrical pose of the older generation; the relations between characters are credible and their dialogues are sharp, with a touch of Tarantino-esque stew flavor. Moreover, Stuff and Dough validates the risk of using a handheld camera, whose images are far removed from the templates taught at the Film University, and the characters use a harsh underground slang. Puiu's film mirrors the new reality, as uncomfortable as it is, but that is not necessarily its biggest asset. The qualities of the film reside in its narrative structure, in creating the impression that nothing happens, and in the way it builds up suspense and winds down to a resolution. Its open and unresolved ending triggers a moral tension that keeps haunting you deeper and deeper long after the final credits. Stuff and Dough is, essentially, a film about the loss of innocence and moral guidance. It is a movie about compromise, survival, and adaptation that does not teach any lessons, but from which you learn without even knowing it. A film about the invisible Mob and corruption, it reveals in a few spare details the whole picture of present Romania. The same contempt for the past and an extra universal significance is demonstrated in Puiu's second film, the much awarded Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Moartea domnului Lazarescu, 2005).

Nae Caranfil did not cling to the past either. After Don't Lean Out of the Window , his most recent film, Philanthropy (Filantropica, 2002), speaks again of innocence lost, and of the Mob. True, it is a peculiar Mob—the beggars' underworld. Inspired by a newspaper column, Caranfil tells a modern fable, a kind of The Prince and the Pauper set in today's Romania. Like Puiu, the director is a story freak and a sophisticated screenwriter, as the fake philanthropist's credo indicates: “If the hand that begs doesn't have a story to tell, there is no reward!” Most interesting is the mechanism—free from any linguistic clichés—through which one can still find references to the past in this story of the present. You can run from the past but you cannot hide from it! So, Caranfil's way is at least to make a joke about it.

In his film debut, Occident (2002) , Cristian Mungiu speaks of young people leaving for the West, a subject deeply rooted in the past. Romanians have always dreamt of fleeing to the West, in Ceausescu's time as well as now. Mungiu cleverly parallels the two temporal dimensions of emigration. Instead of sending the story into a gaudy flashback, he breaks it into three chapters, which either contradict or complete one another in the course of the film. Occident takes place in poor Romania, and his characters are immersed in a world of local jokes, a place where leaving could be just as good as staying.

Radu Muntean's Exit (Furia, 2002) is the third important debut after 2001. For Muntean, the present represents the target, the raw material and the energy source of his protest. Exit is a bomb dropped into the bed of a sick society on the verge of apocalypse, a desperate film about young people adrift in a world governed by money. At the same time, it is a courageous insight into the Gypsy crime underworld with its ghastly details. The loss of innocence is just a matter of time here, and murder comes to be a natural outcome. Much closer to the straightforwardness of Stuff and Dough than to the narrative ornaments of Occident or Philanthropy , Exit incorporates the clip editing style (Muntean is the most famous local filmmaker of commercials and music videos), which lends visual elegance to a dark reality without making it shine for art's sake. The explosive finale, equally thrilling as that of Stuff and Dough , is a sign that the present maybe needs more treatment (cinematic as well as social) than the past.

From what has been said thus far it does not follow that ignoring the past is the solution. One of the most promising young directors, Corneliu Porumboiu, has chosen as a theme of his medium-length feature film, Liviu's Dream (Visul lui Liviu, 2005), a young man's recurring nightmare of his unborn brother, aborted by his mother in Ceausescu's times. Another director, Titus Munteanu, also believes that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, for that is what comes to pass in his debut film, Exam (Examen, 2004). Two film production students are investigating, for a documentary, the case of a guy, wrongfully accused by the old regime. Here we are in Ceausescu's times once again, fairly less demonized during the picnic episode, but we find ourselves again in the Securitate torture chambers, confronting a past where one could easily lose everything because of someone else's ill will; and again we reach a point where only revenge can ease the pain.

Under these circumstances it is hard to tell whether Romanian cinema should or should not look back. The year of cinematic grace, 2006, might offer a possible answer, since it was the year when three young filmmakers—teenagers during the 1989 December events—launched their works, successfully integrating the Revolution into history. Maybe “integrating” is a bit stretching it: if you ask them about the role of the Revolution in their films, they would run as if from the devil. When discussing his film How I Spent the End of the World, Catalin Mitulescu says that it is not about the Revolution, which is given little room in the story, but is in fact a nostalgic kind of recovery therapy. As for 12:08 East of Bucharest , director Corneliu Porumboiu claims it is not about the Revolution but of how those events still percolate in people's minds today. Radu Muntean, the director of The Paper Will Be Blue, says his film is not about the Revolution, but about characters living in an extreme situation and reacting as best as they can to the general chaos.

Apart from the curious thematic coincidence—a sure sign that the ghost of the Revolution has been hovering for quite a while, waiting to be conjured up on film—the most intriguing thing is the similarity of the directors' open reluctance to associate their films with this apparently doomed perspective, as if the R-word is itself the boogie man. Mitulescu identifies it with the end of the world; Porumboiu has deleted it from the initial Romanian title (A fost sau n-a fost Revolutie la noi în oras); as for Muntean—he is the most cryptic of all. Hence the conjecture: what is wrong with making a film about the Revolution? Nobody wants, I think, to burden himself with resolving the puzzle of those turbulent days. There is also a certain degree of fatigue involved. It seems that since 1989 we keep getting a Revolution film every year. Admittedly, the 1989 December Revolution was a key historical event that made headlines around the world. And if you take a look over the fence, Germans are still making films about the fall of the Wall. National obsessions are the hottest and most reliable film topics and one should feel happy to have them. And if you succeed in putting on the screen all the innocence and irresponsibility, all the thrill, exhilaration, and urgency of those days, so impossible to quantify without the benefit of the seventeen-year distance, the bet is as good as won. In such a case, you only need a story to package history and a perspective that is as revealing and as unvengeful as possible. From such a standpoint, the truth about these three films may lie somewhere in the middle: they are about the Revolution, but not only about it. The last line in The Paper Will Be Blue (“Look how beautifully it burns!”), spoken by a soldier who lights a Kent and inhales, is the most beautiful image of freedom inspired by the Revolution. Maybe the best thing to do is to inhale, but not hide behind the smoke. How I Spent the End of the World , 12:08 East of Bucharest , and The Paper Will Be Blue are three films about the Revolution. Therefore, they are about the past and are as essential as the air we breathe.

How I Spent the End of the World, Romania, 2006
Color, 106 minutes
Director: Cătălin Mitulescu
Scriptwriter: Cătălin Mitulescu and Andreea Valean
Cinematography: Marius Panduru
Art Direction: Daniel Raduta
Original Music: Alexander Balanescu
Cast: Doroteea Petre, Ionut Becheru, Jean Constantin, Mircea Diaconu, Timotei Duma, Valentin Popescu, Marius Stan
Production: Les Films Pelléas, Strada Films

The Paper Will Be Blue, Romania, 2006
Color, 95 minutes
Director: Radu Muntean
Scriptwriter: Răzvan Rădulescu, Alexandru Baciu, Radu Muntean
Cinematography: Tudor Lucaciu
Cast: Paul Ipate, Adi Carauleanu, Andi Vasluianu, Dragoş Bucur, Tudor Aaron Istodor, Dana Dogaru

12:08 East of Bucharest, Romania, 2006
Color, 89 minutes
Director: Corneliu Porumboiu
Scriptwriter: Corneliu Porumboiu
Cinematography: George Dascalescu, Marius Panduru
Original Music: Rotaria
Cast: Mircea Andreescu, Teodor Corban, Ion Sapdaru, Mirela Cioaba, Cristina Ciofu, Constantin Dita, Luminita Gheorghiu, Lucian Iftime
Production: 42 Km Film

Niki and Flo, Romania and France, 2003
Color, 90 minutes
Director: Lucian Pintilie.
Scriptwriter: Cristi Puiu, Razvan Radulescu.
Cinematography: Silviu Stavila.
Cast: Victor Rebengiuc, Razvan Vasilescu, Coca Bloos, Doina Tufaru, Serban Pavlu, Dorina Chiriac, Marius Galea, Andreea Bibiri
Production: Filmex and Movimento Productions

Updated: 11 May 07