The Tough Road to Minimalism: Contemporary Romanian Film Aesthetics

By Dominique Nasta (U of Brussels, Belgium )

© Dominique Nasta , 2007


Through a Glass Darkly: Lucian Pintilie as Role Model

Born and educated in Ceausescu's Romania (which I left during the early 1980s), I was able to watch East European films from the 1960s and 1970s on quite a large scale: “authorized” Romanian filmmakers — such as Dan Pita, Mircea Veroiu, or Mircea Daneliuc — but also geo-political “neighbors” such as Miloš Forman, Andrei Tarkovskii, Andrzej Wajda, or Aleksandar Petrovic. Not surprisingly given the political situation, the only non-familiar figure was my compatriot Lucian Pintilie, an auteur maudit whose films were shelved for almost twenty years. My parents happened to be among the happy few to have attended the screening of his seminal 1968 film The Reconstruction (Reconstituirea). They kept talking to me about the film as if it were a kind of hidden talisman, a bottle full of liberty thrown into the mysterious sea of exile.

The violent, savage, supposedly irrational process intended to put an abrupt end to Ceausescu's reign was—as we all witnessed via not always reliable media mise en scènes —much more radical in Romania than in other countries from the Eastern bloc. The long-closed bottle containing the only real dissident film from the late 1960s was miraculously found and opened. The film had barely circulated, so that it looked brand new in 1990. Considering its revolutionary content and stylistic composition, critics and audiences alike developed a “Reconstruction year zero” syndrome, unanimously calling it the first real Romanian work of film art.

After the international screening of two of his post-communist films shot in Romania—The Oak (Balanta, 1992) and Too Late (Prea tirziu, 1996)—film historians were tempted to talk about a coherent Romanian socio-historical trilogy that had been initiated twenty years ago with The Reconstruction. Critic Eugenia Voda argued in her 1995 book Cinema and Nothing Else:

Scenes, dialogues, images from The Reconstruction are now part of a collective conscience, they are real memory reflexes […] The film looks strange because it is so close to our everyday life. With a few minor changes, if you replace the ads and the type of music, the camera with a more sophisticated video one, everything seems to stick to life as it is today. Moreover, the film has a nearly documentary cinematography and an extremely fresh, modern sound. (Voda 19; my translation)

Quite common as a western, modernist self-reflexive device, but seldom found in East European films from the late 1960s, the prologue eventually proves to be a flash-forward, as its identical counterpart comes at the end of the film, when the young delinquents finally agree to reconstruct their felonious act and one of them is fatally injured. The second embedded discourse, that of the television set, will also prove a recurring device within the codified sub-stories dominating Pintilie's cinematic universe. In addition, the synaesthesic feeling unleashed by simultaneous stimuli (dialogue, radio and TV music, animal and lavatory door sounds, exasperating sounds off screen) acknowledge the Deleuzian principle of a “crystal image” (92-105). Time and space are literally suspended; the story looks timeless, somehow mythical.

More than twenty years later, Pintilie's first post-totalitarian film, The Oak, which has been quite well distributed throughout Europe, is far wider in scope, while strikingly similar in tone, discourse, and the moral world it depicts. In the breathtaking opening scene backed by a highly connotative musical citation from Wagner's Lohengrin, Nela is seen watching a home movie next to her dying father, a former high-ranking communist official. Pintilie's cinematic discourse once again makes use of self-reflexivity and the "crystal image," but in new, highly original ways. A super-8 family movie shot in black-and-white starts as a joyful Christmas party and rapidly degenerates into a surrealistic, macabre murder: the heroine subjectively re-infuses her hatred of and disgust with the communist regime into reinvented images from her childhood.

Pintilie's Too Late proves even more challenging in form, apparently aiming to close the trilogy on the evils of totalitarianism, but it is still very close to the Reconstruction paradigm. The film follows a young prosecutor, Costa (Razvan Vasilescu), entrusted with investigating the suspicious death of a coalminer in the Jiu Valley. During one scene, the miners are demonstrating in protest against the threat of closing the mines, while Costa watches the same event on the office TV set. What first appears to be a self-reflexive embedding, midway between a Godardian technique and the more general documentary tradition, is, in fact, the corresponding “rhyme” for a scene from The Reconstruction, where an ambulance arriving at a football game is first seen on a TV set only to be revealed in the immediate space through a swish pan.

In a recent article, “Mythopoetics of Contemporary East European Cinema,” I suggested that such occurrences are extremely close to Paul Ricoeur's re-definition of Aristotle's “three-fold Mimesis”: Story time, Historical time, and Audience reception time — all mix into one coherent signifying entity (1: 34). When the film premiered in Bucharest, established feature and non-documentary film directors—such as Mircea Daneliuc and Stere Gulea — reacted by saying that the subjects of their own films had been highly influenced by the violent, paroxystic miners' upheaval in 1990, fomented by the neo-communist Iliescu regime.

Niki and Flo (Niki Andelean, colonel în rezerva, 2003), Pintilie's penultimate film, actually proves closest to the future minimalist aesthetic paradigm. A sarcastic, static, eventually tragic tale about “new Romanians,” it confronts two symptomatic representatives of the social post-revolutionary upheaval—their departure for the United States within the macabre context of post-9/11 and the accidental death of an innocent victim, who is shown in a sepia home movie via a TV broadcast. It thus re-affirms Pintilie's strong belief in a self-reflexive mise en abyme that constantly blurs the limits separating fiction from reality, which only the power of images may still challenge.

Playing it Mild: The Transitional Model

The Romanian “New Wave” has been acknowledging its huge debt to Pintilie, the only internationally acclaimed Romanian filmmaker who has continued his oeuvre into the post-communist era after a long exile while still maintaining the same high artistic standards. This acknowledgement can be seen in the young filmmakers' overall refusal (even if economically conditioned) to produce large-scale spectacular movies—that is, action films that unfold in exotic locales and are studded with national and/or international stars and lots of special effects, ideally backed by a fashionable score, with lots of easily recognizable musical hits. More implicitly, via their artistic “credo,” these filmmakers have demonstrated a strong belief in the virtues of textual and visual messages that are both very close to the ironic and absurdist Romanian psyche, on the one hand, and able to achieve an international audience appeal, on the other. The ongoing aesthetic parti-pris , however, that has helped directors such as Cristi Puiu or Corneliu Porumboiu to achieve international recognition, has effectively emerged at the beginning of the new century, after what we may call a “transitional phase,” which includes amongst its flag-bearers such directors as Nae Caranfil, Cristian Mungiu, and more recently Catalin Mitulescu.

In terms of subject matter, this transitional phase reveals a post-totalitarian chaotic society, whose longing for “Western paradise” is so strong that it breaks all existing barriers, overtly neglecting personal identity and integrity. Caranfil's acclaimed tragi-comedies about the difficulties of dealing with the Western dilemma set the tone as early as 1994 with his Rashomon -like tale about defection, Don't Lean Out the Window (È pericoloso sporgersi). He stuck to the same vein with a less coherent road-movie about young girls bound for Paris, exploited by a female pimp in Asphalt Tango (Asfalt Tango, 1996), whose pendant in the next century is most certainly Cristian Mungiu's more intricate, overtly metaphoric West (Occident, 2002). With Philantropy (Filantropica, 2002) Caranfil went even further, with a devastating, hyperbolic black comedy about a Bucharest mafia of beggars thriving through emotional manipulation, thus allowing the audience to benefit from the same mixture of social critique and devastating situational humor.

Quite close in subject matter and style to Caranfil's Don't Lean Out the Window, Catalin Mitulescu's recent Romanian Oscar candidate for Best Foreign Film, How I Spent the End of the World (Cum mi-am petrecut sfarsitul lumii, 2006) is a tale about 17-year-old Eva, who with her boyfriend accidentally breaks a bust of Ceausescu in school during the last year of his rule. After a failed attempt to leave the country, she will eventually “make it” a hostess on an international liner, while her small brother will witness the long-awaited fall of the dictator on television.

Paradoxically, a quite nostalgic, slightly nationalistic flavor emanates from these films, implying that Ceausescu's reign also had some good points and that there was considerable joie de vivre behind the totalitarian barricades. This explains why—in terms of style—the visuals stress the country's uncontested beauties in a lyrical way, quite close to mainstream cinema, flashblacks and voice-over are used quite often, and musical scores are not far from emotionally pre-formatted Hollywood standards.

Putting it Bluntly: The Minimalist Model

Two co-authors, whose debut is to be found symptomatically in Pintilie's screenplay for Niki and Flo , are largely responsible for generalizing the minimalist model and for its international recognition as ground-breaking: Cristi Puiu, who after a first promising feature Stuff and Dough (Marfa si banii, 2001), co-scripted and directed the seminal film The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Moartea domnului Lazarescu, 2005), and screenwriter/novelist Razvan Radulescu, from whose incisive and metaphysical writing technique almost all important recent films originate.

Much has been written about the thematic virtues of Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, winner of the BBC 2006 World Cinema Award, a Dantesque journey featuring an old retired, sick man, shunted from hospital to hospital until he slowly expires, revealing the dehumanizing process of delayed medical treatment. In terms of style, however, Puiu strongly recalls the minimalist techniques already present in Pintilie's Niki and Flo: recurrent use of long shots; lateral framing of tableaux-like compositions (wonderful cinematography by Oleg Mutu); minute scrutiny of everyday, often non-spectacular details; a consistent refusal to use any score except some additional musical citations at key moments; plus constantly challenging audiences' emotional participation through the lack of ellipses and the use of everyday small talk close to documentary “live shooting.” As often happens, this duo's minimalism has its origins in the mixture between Puiu's initial training as a painter—wanting to fill the frame with striking, albeit ordinary details—and Radulescu's natural gift for combining textual lucidity and absurdist hyper-realism with everyday life that is eventually decoded metaphysically.

The opening of Puiu's film reveals the same shabby, unglamorous interiors and characters as those of Porumboiu's and Muntean's subsequent prize-winning films: a theatrical, static mise en scène is systematically rendered dynamic by a witty, sarcastic dialogue mostly conducted on the phone. Textual and (subsequently) visual repetitions and variations on the same topic obviously echo Ionesco's legacy, a mixture of sarcasm and absurdist humor: “Of course I drink”; later on: “I drink on my own money”; doctors and nurses at different stages on the multiple hospital journey: “Your liver will burst with drinking, pops,” “Hospitals are full of people like you who soak their brains,” “His liver is as big as the Parliament House,” etc.

The low-key lighting from the first sequence proves to be a constant stylistic feature, especially as the hospital odyssey unfolds at night, inside an ambulance or in overcrowded waiting corridors. The only bright identifiable source in Lazarescu's home is a TV set that is constantly turned on (as in all contemporary Romanian films and, as a matter of fact, in real life). True to Pintilie's previously established mise en abyme paradigm, images shown and commented on TV anticipate the future parallelism between Lazarescu's personal journey into medical hell and a bus accident that turned the trauma center “into a slaughterhouse.” One of the nurses is heard commenting: “Fourteen have been operated and only three are alive, those people are driving like hell. It reminds me of the 1977 earthquake.”

Long takes and very little classical shot-countershot editing patterns do not bar the way to numerous close-ups: Mr. Lazarescu , perfectly played by the famous theatre actor Ion Fiscuteanu (who had already appeared in two of Pintilie features), is often framed in extreme close-ups; so are some of the neighbors, the accompanying nurse, and some of the hospital personnel. Acting performances favor underplaying—instead of the hysterical, aggressive overplaying that has characterized most Romanian films so far—and are part of the minimalist aesthetics.

The mytho-biblical significance of the hero's “Lazarescu Dante Remus” onomastics (the same goes for other names such as Anghel/Angel, Virgil, the nurse Mioara—a Romanian diminutive for the Mystic lamb) not only echoes the Divine Comedy, the creation of Latin Rome, or the resurrection of Lazarus from St. John's Gospel. It is meant to set up a double discourse, oscillating between the unbearable reality of pain and suffering, and a sustained ironic mode. The latter unmistakably provokes laughter, challenging the viewer in multiple ways. Thus, hospital rooms turned into theatre scenes implicitly provide Puiu and Radulescu the opportunity for innumerable puns that spring from the absurdist situations. The old “alcoholic” is eventually suspected of having a brain tumour, so before his delirium tremens phase starts, all doctors relentlessly indulge in the same repetitive textual patterns. As in Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest (A fost sau n-a fost?, 2006), codes of social hierarchy are subverted: “I thought I was the doctor here,” wonders one of them after hearing a patient suggest the list of medications to be administered to himself.

The second recurrent setting is actually another chronotope, similar to the TV studio in Porumboiu and the armored vehicle in Radu Muntean's The Paper Will Be Blue (Hartia va fi albastra, 2006): it is the ambulance that drives Lazarescu and his faithful nurse as he “lies dying” from one hospital to another, always making him and implicitly the audience believe one has finally reached the right place. As the “end” approaches, Mioara utters a sentence that again confirms Ricoeur's reading of Aristotle's three-fold Mimesis: “We've been running around since 10pm… It's 3am… He needs an operation right away… Our shift is almost over.” We then see Lazarescu a lmost naked, his head shaved by a nurse, his body covered by a white sheet, the stretcher brought away. After a fade out to a black screen, a very nice and entertaining Romanian hit from the 1960s is heard over the ending credits: “When night is falling/ Over the sea/ Everything seems motionless…” Story time, Historical time (old nostalgic hit as counterpoint), and the audiences' suspended reception time are significantly blended into one single, strong emotional state. Death, as heralded in the title, is actually never shown.

While both Mitulescu's How I Celebrated the End of the World and Muntean's The Paper Will be Blue (the recent winner of the Eurasia Film Festival) focus on young and inexperienced characters whose coming of age is inextricably linked to the turmoil of History being remade in front of their eyes, Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest (awarded many prizes, most importantly the Cannes IFF Camera d'Or for best debut) obviously reveals the post-revolutionary times through different lenses.

Porumboiu uses comedy to examine the past: a small town TV show organises a phone-in with hilarious results to try to establish whether anyone in the area actually took part in the revolution to overthrow Ceausescu. Porumboiu's ironic alter ego, the inefficient cameraman, consistently unveils a small-scale universe where material and moral wounds still lie wide open. Despite dynamic opening credits paced by an inventive ethno-folk clarinet solo, the narrative set-up of 12:08 East of Bucharest is unusually long. The camera (Marius Panduru) wanders through the deserted, still awakening city at dawn, strangely echoing Antonioni's modernist syntax from the early1960s. The same shots will symmetrically close the film at dusk, with lampposts going on and off against an almost sepia-like, chromatically desaturated cityscape .

The intervening sequences once again reveal shabby interiors, depicting the poverty-stricken environment through stage-like frontal views, obviously a stylistic device of many contemporary East European auteurs —such as Bela Tarr or Sharunas Bartas. Close to Bunuel's surrealist taste for “interruption as style,” Porumboiu follows his three main characters with a subtle cross-cutting that renders faithfully, through constant comic interludes, a chaotic but still witty post-revolutionary country. Jderescu attempts a self-reflexive TV show rehearsal with a totally inexperienced, Keaton-esque cameraman, but is interrupted by a joyous young local band whom he scolds for playing “Latino tunes” instead of traditional Christmas carols.

Starting halfway through the film, the pivotal show meant to answer the question in the Romanian title first looks like a burnt out soufflé : the studio appears so improvised that it seems that the familiar town hall poster in the background will fall off at any moment. After a brief “theatrical” interlude, things appear to be reaching a dead end, as no real answers emerge: “this means,” says Jderescu to a person from the audience, “there was no revolution in our town.” Before the lights go off for good, the film nonetheless offers a second pay off, welcoming tragic irony in the most typically East European vein. Piscoci tells the audience the story of his love for his deceased wife, to whom he offered stolen magnolias “the very day some people appeared on TV to tell us the revolution had won.” Similarly, a mother whose son died in Bucharest fighting for the revolution, does not seem to worry about unanswered questions: “I just called to say it's snowing, go out and enjoy, maybe tomorrow there will be mud again. Merry Christmas.” [1] The same three-fold Mimesis is at stake here, stressing the spatio-temporal unity achieved through minimalistic devices between story time (the present chronicle of past events), historical time (the revolution had won according to the TV broadcast), and audience reception (the embedded reactions on the telephone).

The Paper Will Be Blue— Radu Muntean's third feature after a promising action film on the Bucharest mob, Fury (Furia, 2002) and many commercials directed for television—tells the story of a young conscript who is only months away from completing his military service when he is caught up and sacrificed in the dramatic events of 1989. The film's chronotope is thus closer to the transitional model as depicted by Mitulescu. However, only historical time is similar. Story time has nothing mild or nostalgic about it. On the contrary, its minimalist syntax (significantly co-scripted by the same Razvan Radulescu) renders past things strikingly present. Its astounding, symmetrical final round up is closer to Pintilie's Reconstruction and to Porumboiu's opera prima: Muntean reveals that the action we've been through for more than an hour has actually been a flashback.

An opening day-lit scene, backed by almost documentary-like surround-sound, shows two soldiers coming out of an armored car to light a cigarette: they are instantly shot down by unseen enemies. Then the context changes abruptly and only after a very long, visually narrated night of chaotic combat (actually a few hours after the fall of the Romanian Dictator, 22-23 December 1989) does the story return to the car in daylight, making it clear that one of the victims, militia man Costi, was the film's main hero. During subsequent scenes, shot in the same low-key nocturnal tone backed by a myriad of overlapping sounds from different sources (radio, walkie-talkie, telephone calls), Costi will impulsively decide to join the revolutionaries at the TV station. Hyper-realistic dialogue contributes to the feeling of immediacy about the ongoing events: “What do you suggest, Rambo? Kill them all?” “Fuck it, I want to go there and fight.” Considered a deserter by his own squad, he will be absurdly arrested and wrongly accused of being a terrorist after a gun-shooting episode with paranoid protestors. During the same night, cross-cutting reveals the militia squad ending up at the young man's shabby, kitschy apartment, where his mother and fiancée—guess what?—constantly watch the ongoing revolution on their TV set.

Comic absurdity in violent times is rendered even more poignantly than in Puiu's or Porumboiu's films. Nonetheless, Muntean uses the same minimalist syntagm, which favors interruption as style, recurrence of the same unsettling hand-held camera shots, and self-reflexive “bracketing” techniques: “Let's call a TV crew,” says one of Costi's captors at one point in the film; “Let's watch TV, maybe we'll see him there” suggests his mother to his chief at another point. A false pay off confronts the audience with Costi's release and return home, where he promises everybody “he'll never do such stupid things again.” Back in the armored car, a secondary auditive discourse is unleashed, with lots of embedded action going on (as was the case inside Puiu's ambulance). Still maintaining an acting style that favors underplaying, the revolutionary for a day makes plans for his wedding. A walkie-talkie announcement eventually reveals the meaning of the film's title: “Please identify yourselves with your password… ‘The paper will be blue'.”

The real pay off explains the prologue while brilliantly introducing a stunning ellipsis: we do not see the shooting again, as, for instance, in the case of the classical “duplicated scene” in David Lean's Brief Encounter (1945); it is implicit, hence, minimalistic. A medium frontal shot reveals the car's driver while a voice is heard off screen: “Can we step out, just for a minute?” Then there is a fade-out, as in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, with closing credits introducing music for the first and only time in the film—with the exception of some barely audible hits on the car radio.

Our emotional involvement with Muntean's ending is very close to a form of Aristotelian catharsis because the musical citation—Nana Mouskouri's reworking of Verdi through her hit “Quand tu chantes, je chante avec toi liberté” (“When you're singing, I'm singing with you, liberty”)—has already been mentioned previously by the squad leader, nostalgic about “beautiful music from the past.” It is a perfect oxymoron, pointing to the innocent victim who wanted liberty so badly.

Conclusion: Keeping it Simple — Tougher Topics, Unobtrusive Style

If my main focus has been on Romanian contemporary arthouse cinema (rather than commercial films), which has received world-wide acclaim in spite of modest production costs and quite tight shooting schedules (not to mention the refusal to use “established” film stars), lots of other interesting creations by young, previously unknown filmmakers are now part of what has already been coined as the “Romanian New Wave” (though actually, no “old wave,” no structured movement ever existed, just isolated auteurs such as Pintilie, Ciulei, Daneliuc, Gabrea, Gulea, or Pita).

The stylistic choices of newcomers—such as Titus Muntean in Exam (Examen, 2003), Ruxandra Zenide in Ryna (2005), or Tudor Giurgiu in Love Sick (Legaturi bolnavicioase, 2006)—do not always manage to stick to the orthodox minimalism marked out by their contemporaries, strongly recalling such style radicalists as the Dardenne brothers or the Danish ex-Dogma members. However, their topics go beyond the previously inescapable paradigms of the 1989 Revolution, allowing audiences to become familiar with previously “taboo” story-lines: a masculinized girl from the poverty-stricken Danube Delta is sexually abused in Ryna (played by extraordinary Doroteea Petre, the Romanian “Rosetta”); a womanizing driver is falsely accused of rape and murder in the 1980s in Exam ; two student girls indulge in a sincere lesbian relationship that gets thwarted by an incestuous liaison in Love Sick. Shot in a naturalistic, often documentary style, with sparse use of music and voice-over commentary, favoring underplaying though not devoid of hysterical moments, their aim is somehow similar to the one defended by their more sophisticated contemporaries—to prove to national and international audiences that contemporary Romanian cinema is here to stay.


The author wishes to thank Marian Tutui from the Romanian CNC (National Centre for Cinematography), professor Dina Iordanova from the University of St. Andrews, film critic Alex Leo Serban, as well as Jean Timmerman from the European First Film Festival in Brussels, for enabling her to watch most of the films discussed here.

1] For an in-depth analysis of Porumboiu's film, see my review in the forthcoming Special Balkan Issue of Cineaste (edited by Dina Iordanova), Summer 2007.

Works Cited

Deleuze, Gilles. “L'image-cristal.”   In Cinema 2: L'Image-Temps. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1985.

Nasta, Dominique. “Mythopoïetique et Cinéma Contemporain: Trois Cas de l'Est Européen.” CD-Rom of the First International Conference on Contemporary European Cinema. Barcelona: Universitat Pompeu Fabra, 2005.

Ricoeur, Paul. Time and Narrative. Trans. K. McLaughlin and D.Pellauer. 3 vols. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990.

Voda, Eugenia. Cinema si nimic altceva. Bucuresti: Ed. Fundatiei Romania Literara, 1995.


Updated: 15 Jun 07