© Petre Rado, 2007
Petre Rado (1946-2007) was an important Romanian critic. He emigrated to Israel in 1979, then moved to the United States, where he lectured at New York University. Author of an important book, Labyrinth of Shadows ( Labirintul umbrelor ), he was a regular contributor to the Romanian journal Scrisul Romanesc.
Romanian culture has recently appeared to be suffering from an acute outsider's complex, which has become the focus of an increasingly nervous public debate trying to fathom why it has been held, deliberately and stubbornly, at the margins of universal popularity. Judging by domestic media coverage and public statements of artists, frustration with the lack of a proper international market for Romanian cultural products seems to have reached an unparalleled level, and the apparently indecipherable mystery of how to find a place at the table of the privileged few preoccupies public discourse more and more intensely.
Without taking into account—as one always should—various fanciful and not exactly innocent conspiracy theories, I do not think that there is any kind of riddle, whose resolution could explain the hurdles blocking Romanians from darting into the Mecca of celebrity. The simple formula, recommending a successful step-by-step approach to the international stock exchange of cultural values, is not in the least miraculous and always involves—aside from the mandatory high quality of the products offered—a sophisticated and truly professional marketing strategy. This strategy must be cut to the measure of the product and must be enhanced by some luck, which, however, should not exceed by even a minute percentage the essential ingredient of the aforementioned formula, which is marketing! This defies the old-fashioned and, to a certain extent, barren notion that a work of art will impose itself, no matter how, by and through itself. This utopian view is shared by those who naively believe that valor and glory are evenly allocated in paradise, and, when the time comes, a heavenly messenger will ring the doorbell of the unknown creator and bestow upon him/her their long awaited share of world fame.
The best proof of the axiom that “proper advertising sells any deserving product”—and a recent proof of it, no less—was the major retrospective of the New Wave Romanian cinema shown at the Tribeca Cinemas in New York in early December 2006, which widely and timely opened the North American gates to fame for recent Romanian films.
To everyone's surprise, Romanian cinema, traditionally considered the underdog of Romanian arts, has become the worldwide spokesman for Romanian culture—an authoritative and eloquent one at that. This is especially true in the USA, where, by definition, foreign films constitute a quite separate category even at the Oscars, and happen to be universally disliked outside a closed circle of experts and devout film buffs, capable of detecting subtitled treasures in the few scattered art house cinemas courageous enough to screen them. Even more surprising was the reaction generated last year at the New York Film Festival by Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Moartea domnului Lazarescu, 2005). Its narrative premise, not a very appealing one, revolves around an old recluse who dies forgotten amidst the burlesque and tragic universe of moral irresponsibility, indifference, and institutionalized sluggishness. The story is told, however, with a great deal of talent and cinematic intelligence, and incites unexpected and intense emotional responses in both viewers and the specialized media.
History repeated itself recently, this time around on a larger scale, in the petite but prestigious movie theatres of Tribeca, located in lower Manhattan, where, under the generic title Talking About a Revolution , Romanian cinema demonstrated an extended selection of what, according to the catalog of this mini-festival, was defined as “the new wave of Romanian cinema.”
In addition to The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, the audience was able to see Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest (A fost sau n-a fost?, 2006) , scheduled for general distribution in the spring of 2007; Catalin Mitulescu's How I Spent the End of the World (Cum mi-am petrecut sfârsitul lumii, 2006); Radu Muntean's The Paper Will Be Blue (Hârtia va fi albastra, 2006); Tudor Giurgiu Love Sick (Legaturi bolnavicioase, 2006), as well as shorts by Cristian Nemescu, Hanno Hoffer, Constantin Popescu, Cristi Puiu, Corneliu Porumboiu and Catalin Mitulescu.
After so many decades of well-deserved anonymity (with a few exceptions, mentioned below), I believe, as others do, that Romanian cinema is thriving, promising a rich harvest. At the same time, I fear that the rich harvest is not as certain as the outcome of a spontaneous chain reaction. There is no doubt that the recent recognition of Romanian cinema on the international cultural market is real and has brought well-deserved success to some works of obviously high professional and artistic quality.
Puiu, Porumboiu, Mitulescu, Muntean, and, in my opinion, the scriptwriter Razvan Radulescu (the mastermind behind most of the recent hits) bring, in the hazy context of Romanian cinema, some of the striking freshness of Neorealism: its honesty of social examination and sincerity of reflection; the bravery of seeing oneself in the mirror of the screen without embellishments and at the risk of discerning some quite unflattering features—at times tragic, at times comic, more often than not grotesque and sentimental. In addition to being expressions of distinctive vocations, styles, and personalities, these films are also examples of straightforward cinema, of unspoken but noticeable allegiance to authenticity. Simply put, traditionally escapist Romanian cinema does not lie anymore: people are as they are, history writes itself as it happens, and the country is as it is. After so many years of producing unrealistic and morally inept films, Romanian cinema has returned home without inhibitions, without humility and timidity; it is noisy and polemical, self-assured and abundantly self-confident. Which is good. However, in my opinion, the limitless enthusiasm of the “specialized” media (the use of quotation marks is not accidental!), no matter how reasonable it may be today, must be toned down by a fair and unruffled act of reasoning: a “film movement” or a “film school” is built over time, and involves a certain degree of planning and a sense of a common goal (as was the case with the famous historical Czech, Polish, or Hungarian cinematic movements). A film movement should have access to a well-organized production system and possess a long-term visionary strategy, able to accommodate spontaneity and improvisation. And, if I may dare add, a “film school” should ideally enjoy the support of a compact and united guild of critics, who, by the workmanship of their pens, can uphold and sustain such a school. What would have become of the French nouvelle vague —of Godard, Resnais, and Truffaut—without the Cahiers du Cinéma team? How can we talk about a “film school” in a country that does not publish a single specialized film journal? Four or five movies, as good as they may be (and they are indeed remarkable!) make no summer.
Consequently, there is no guarantee that what we see and admire today is the direct result of a long-term process and not the fortunate outcome of a coincidence, of a beneficent but completely random incident. We need a sequential validation, a creative recurrence that would justify and sanction all of our hopes. I would recommend just a little bit of patience, before sanctifying a generation that has started on the right foot and is now marching on the long and winding road to world fame. I would also like to add that I do not believe in the myth of an artistic generation springing miraculously to life by virtue of spontaneous multiplication. Unless, of course, that generation is comprised of exceptional geniuses, defying rational interpretation. No matter how modest Romanian cinema might have been over the years, it has always had its auteurs and films worthy of worldwide exhibition—more or less recent, more or less successful. Liviu Ciulei's The Forest of the Hanged (Padurea spânzuratilor, 1964) still remains, whether one likes it or not, the only Romanian film awarded the highest prize at a major international film festival: Best Director at Cannes in 1965. Dan Pita and Mircea Veroiu's The Stone Wedding (Nunta de piatra, 1972) is still, at least for the time being, the only Romanian film preserved in the gold collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.
As an unconditional admirer of Cristi Puiu and Corneliu Porumboiu, I continue to think that the best Romanian filmmaker, in spite of some recent disproportions and until proven otherwise (I know I'm entering a mine field here!), is still Lucian Pintilie. And I also think that there is another outstanding filmmaker (and of late a remarkable writer) very close to Pintilie—Mircea Daneliuc. Should we simply forget all about them for the sake of newly found darlings?
It is certainly logical to acknowledge that I would not have been able to develop this concise and, I admit, superficial foray into the complicated (no kidding!) meanderings of the new Romanian cinema without its due recognition by the Romanian Film Festival of Tribeca Cinemas in New York, organized by the local Romanian Cultural Institute and managed, with flawless proficiency and a consummate professionalism, by Corina Suteu.
Translated from Romanian by Codruta Cretulescu
New York, December 2006