My Romanian Cinema

By Christina Stojanova (University of Regina)

© Christina Stojanova, 2007

When I sat down to write my editorial remarks, I realized that the “remarks” are gradually turning into an essay on Romanian cinema in its own right, and decided to publish them separately (oh, the blessing of an internet publication, where one can take such a decision without worrying about space constraints!). I also realized that I am actually the only author in this special issue who is not of Romanian origin, which probably warrants some explanation in times when the ghost of “cultural appropriation” looms even over the horizon of our shrinking scholarly field, with its ever shifting geo-political allegiances (from Eastern Europe to Soviet bloc to Central and Eastern and South-Eastern Europe or the Balkans—and back again to the current larger, but still rather nebulous entity within the European Union). Romanian culture, Romanian literature, and Romanian cinema have been a part of my interdisciplinary and cross-cultural research for more than fifteen years now and gradually my scholarly curiosity has become personal (isn't it always the case?), especially after I met the Romanian film critic and scholar Dana Duma at a symposium in 2000.

My personal interest in Romanian cinema was further prompted by my avid passion for the magnificent pre-World War Two Romanian literature, like Mihail Sadoveanu's novel The Hatchet (Baltagul, 1930) , short stories by Liviu Rebreanu, Ion Luca Caragiale, and Mircea Eliade. Eliade is also one of the best known scholars in the West with his studies on the history of religious ideas, comparative mythology, and the general anthropology of the Balkans. I was particularly fascinated by Liviu Rebreanu's The Forest of the Hanged (Padurea Spînzuratilor, 1929), which, to me, remains an unsurpassed pacifist work, whose exquisite style and powerful narrative leaves far behind such masterpieces of the genre as Erich Maria Remarque's famous All Quiet On the Western Front. Being of Bulgarian origin, I was mesmerized by Eliade and his profound observations on the region, particularly by his statement that “the Balkan peninsula is both a crossroad and a zone of conservatism in which the arrival of a wave of higher culture does not necessarily dissolve and obliterate the earlier form of culture simply by its success” (160)—a statement that has helped me tremendously not only in my research but also with my search of identity.

In any case, amongst the national cinemas I believe I know well, Romanian cinema enjoys its own uniquely powerful image, which I have humbly tried to recreate here, referring to a couple of my major publications from the last two years, “Beyond Dracula and Ceausescu: Phenomenology of Horror in Romanian Cinema” and “Fragmented Discourses: Young Cinema from Central and Eastern Europe.” My list of preferred Romanian films and filmmakers is by no means exhaustive, neither is it very original, but it does give an idea of names and titles most likely to have reached viewers well beyond Romania's borders. Throughout this article, I have referred the reader to more detailed and better informed discussions of specific topics and films featured in our special issue. Last but not least, “My Romanian Cinema” does not focus on any documentary films, which is a shame since I consider myself a connoisseur of Bulgarian, Czech, and Hungarian non-fiction cinema. That is why I believe that having Adina Bradeanu's article, “‘ Death' and Documentary,” an exceptionally learned insight into the past and present of Romanian documentary filmmaking, particularly enlightening and stimulating.

The earliest Romanian film I recall seeing in 1994, as part of my doctoral research, is Paul Calinescu's The Valley Resounds (Rasuna Valea, 1949), the first socialist realist film, so to speak, made after the nationalization of the Romanian film industry in 1948. And although the predictable plot of an averted act of sabotage targeting a youth brigade of “volunteer” construction workers has almost faded from my mind, I will always vividly remember the young brigadiers, running around busily, dressed most inappropriately in heavy and elaborate national costumes from every major Romanian region, with obvious ideological considerations in mind. Small wonder, since Calinescu was the director of the most famous pre-World War Two Romanian film, the anthropological documentary The Land of the Motzi (Tara Molitor, 1938)—winner of the Best Documentary award at the 1939 Venice Film Biennale—satiated with not-so-subtle nationalist fervor , propagating the “mystique” of the Romanian countryside. But what I can never forget about The Valley Resounds is a group of picturesque extras: rag-tag Romas (or Gypsies), staring shamelessly at the camera, making some funny extra-diegetic faces, and ingenuously sabotaging the stiff and sombre narrative!

The communist state, as everywhere else in communist Eastern Europe, was extremely generous to Romanian cinema for obvious reasons, and by the late 1950s the craftsmanship and technological sophistication of Buftea Studios reached world standards. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Romanian cinema began to challenge the leading place of its national literature and even the stern socialist realist canon, profiting immensely from adaptations of best-selling interwar novels. Not unlike Polish cinema from that period, Romanian cinema experienced a truly golden age thanks to its immortal national literature. Among the most notable adaptations are the French-Romanian co-production Codine (1962), directed by Henri Colpi and based on a short story by émigré writer Panait Istrati [1]—doubtlessly a sign of thaw, one linked to the political interregnum covering the last years in office of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej (1952–1965) and the early days of Nicolae Ceausescu (1965-1989). It was followed by Liviu Ciulei's adaptation of Rebreanu's The Forest of the Hanged (1964); Mircea Muresan's adaptation of Sadoveanu's The Hatchet ( 1969); and The Stone Wedding (Nunta de piatra, 1972) and Lust for Gold (Duhul aurului, 1974), directed by Dan Pita and Mircea Veroiu, which brought world-fame to Romanian cinema. The role of the 1970s generation is further discussed in Calin Caliman's article, “New Waves in Romanian Cinema,” in this issue .

For me, two films—or rather two powerful images?stand out from the period. The first image is that of Anastasia, Codine's old mother who, in an act of ultimate betrayal, pours a bucket of boiling oil on him, killing him in a most horrific way. Codine is constructed as a benign monster, childishly ignorant concerning the intricacies of love and money. The demonic image of Anastasia, by contrast, originates in what the Bulgarian born and raised Julia Kristeva calls “the archaic mother”: the “mother-as-primordial abyss, … the cannibalizing black hole from which life comes and to which all life returns” (qtd. Creed 25). The archaic mother is closely associated with death, since “both signify a monstrous obliteration of the self, and both are linked to the demonic” (Creed 30). The Hatchet offers another forceful apparition of the archaic mother, the murdered shepherd's widow Vitoria in search of her husband's killer:

Vitoria wins our sympathy through the power of her love and her readiness to follow the mystical lead of her visions. Yet when she finds the bones of her husband at the bottom of a gorge, she turns into a cunning monster, enticing her young son to kill the already terrorized murderer just before his arrest, for she believes only in her own justice. (Stojanova, “ Beyond” 226)

The second memorable image comes from Lucian Pintilie's first film, Sunday at 6 O'clock (Duminica la ora 6, 1965) , one of the few Romanian modernist auteur films. The story, about a couple of young, anti-Fascist fighters who are persecuted and killed by the Iron Guard [2] after being betrayed by one of their own, meets the requirements of socialist realism to a point. The film's style, however,

takes on a life of its own, and the poetic parable about the Angels of Light confronting the Demons of Darkness is transformed into a disturbing psychological thriller, replete with sadistic torture scenes. From a close-up on the perspiring face of the hiding boy, the camera rapidly zooms down the elevator shaft to reveal the girl's body far below in the dungeons, and then cuts to a sun-bleached courtyard where young people are happily chatting, thus escalating the foreboding anticipation to the limit. The recurring audio-visual leitmotifs (the dark stairwell, the sounds of elevator machinery, the overexposed courtyard) trigger a series of flashbacks, introducing bit by bit the poignant story of two people destroyed by the uncanny forces of history. Thus, Pintilie's film yields a transparent existential metaphor for the despondency of young people in his country, trapped in the shaft of Communist dictatorship. (Stojanova, “Beyond” 226-227)

Small wonder, then, that his second film, The Reconstruction (Reconstituirea, 1968), revealing in a nutshell the idiosyncratic pattern of Ceausescu 's increasingly repressive regime through a judicial reconstruction of a teenage bar-brawl, was promptly banned and the director forced into emigration. The influence of Lucian Pintilie on New Romanian Cinema and of The Reconstruction , in particular, is discussed in detail in Dominique Nasta's article, “The Tough Road to Minimalism,” in this issue .

My encounter with Dan Pita's collected oeuvre during the major retrospective of his films held in Montreal in 1992 was yet another revelation. In spite of the obvious artistry of the films screened—among others, Sand Cliffs (Faleze de nisip, 1983), November, the Last Ball (Noiembrie, ultimul bal, 1989), The White Lace Dress (Rochia alba de dantela, 1989), and Hotel de Lux (Silver Lion at the Venice IFF in 1992)— their lavishness and almost scandalously expensive look against the backdrop of the recently exposed, unspeakable moral and material suffering of his country under Ceausescu failed to attract my admiration until I saw his film The Contest (Concurs, 1982). An explicit metaphor of the regime, it tells a story of a wilderness competition, which gradually turns into a perilous expedition through the labyrinths of conscience. The bicyclist seems to be the only person among the participants who really knows the way, but the others mock and reject him. Surrounded by surreal images, the contestants delve deeper and deeper into an imaginary world where absurdity becomes reality. At the end, they run into a trap and are all blown to pieces—except for the bicyclist. It is an amazing film, a major example of Pita's fluency in the exquisite Aesopian language of Eastern European art cinema. Dan Pita is further discussed in Calin Caliman's article, “New Waves in Romanian Cinema,” in this issue.

Certainly, Mircea Daneliuc became one of my favorite Romanian directors with his The Snails' Senator (Senatorul melcilor, 1995), which was showcased at the Cinematheque Quebecoise in 1997 as part of a retrospective of post-communist cinema called Reeling After the Fall (which I guest curated). This retrospective was actually instrumental in forming my intuitive template or subconscious sense of what Romanian cinema is about, or what Margaret Atwood calls “ sweeping generalization,” “a single unifying and informing symbol” at the core of our understanding of a culture and its artefacts “be it word, phrase, idea, image, or all of these… functioning like a system of beliefs” (40). Such a “sweeping generalization” for me is the ubiquitous presence of an impersonal deity, of what both Jung and Eliade understand as a collective archetype, a psychic existent that should not be confused with the concept of a metaphysical, personalized God.

This “core understanding” has since been confirmed by films made both before and after The Snails' Senator, and has proven extremely helpful, at least in my own research. Like my other favorite films by Daneliuc, The Long Drive (Cursa, 1975) and The Cruise (Croaziera, 1981), The Snails' Senator tells a simple story in a simple documentary style. It is about a ubiquitous and invincible apparatchik, perfectly adapted to the new, post-communist circumstances. Edna Fainaru, the famous Israeli critic, has observed:

Daneliuc pursues his frontal attack on the state of things at home. Once again, this is a fierce political satire. The film revolves around a new type of political hero, this time a senator from the capital city who visits a forgotten village at the other end of the country to open a new hydraulic power station which, according to his flowery and bombastic prose, will put Romania technologically on par with the West, while simultaneously showing the national concern for safe, clean energy.

Apart from the long shot of villagers in tedious search of the senator's favorite delicacy, which is captured in their snail-like crawl on the hillsides, the most memorable moment is towards the end when the senator, scared to death from the powerful fit of nausea suffered as a result of indulging in too much food and drink, turns with a prayer to God—not in humility and awe but in a whiningly imploring manner as if addressing his new boss. And, indeed, at the finale, a divine presence lets itself be ominously revealed: it turns out that the persistent background sound of nails being hammered into wood, violating the pristine calmness of the week-end retreat, actually comes from the top of a nearby hill, where a mysterious Noah's Ark is being built.

A similarly mystical presence—divine or diabolical, sometimes earnest, at other times ironic—is felt in most of the best known Romanian films from the 1990s that deal with the communist past and are dominated by the theme of fear and betrayal. In Pintilie's best known film from the decade, The Oak (Balanta, 1992), both the theme and the mystical presence are reflected in its Shakespearean premise, where the traumatic social divisions in the early post-Ceausescu years are metaphorically epitomized by the family feud between two sisters (one good and the other wicked) over the burial arrangements for their recently deceased father, a former high-ranking Securitate (Secret police) official. O n her quest through the absurdities of Romanian rural life, the good sister, Nela, finds a reprieve in empathy and pantheistic spirituality, while the bad sister (also a high Securitate official) turns into the devil himself by ordering the army to destroy a school bus filled with kidnapped children. Two subsequent films, Serban Marinescu's The Most Beloved of Earthlings (Cel mai iubit dintre pamînteni, 1992) and Radu Mihaileanu's Betrayal (A trada, 1993), featuring explicit horrors suffered by political suspects and prisoners, forcefully take fear and betrayal to the infernal depths of the human psyche.

Based on Martin Preda's powerful novel about the psychological and mental destruction of Victor Petrini, a famous Romanian philosopher from the 1950s imprisoned for ten years in the Romanian Gulag on a minor charge, The Most Beloved of Earthlings (another film included in the Reeling After the Fall retrospective) literally indulges in recreating the hell where Petrini succeeds in preserving his moral integrity but loses his intellectual and emotional edge, and turns into a walking corpse. T he “characteristic display of naked male bodies in prison shower rooms is a visual metaphor for the victims' emasculation, since it positions them as passive objects of the gaze—homoerotic, sadistic, or vulgar—of men in power, thus yielding the ultimate form of psychological horror in any machismo culture” (Stojanova, “ Beyond” 229). Elena Dulgheru discusses other films about the GULAG experience in her article, “Two Insights into Romanian GULAG,” in this issue.

Serban Marinescu's latest film, The Bastards (Ticalosii, 2007), is yet another comment on the state of affairs in Romanian political and intellectual life, this time targeting—with his habitually strong aesthetic and narrative terms—corruption in the highest echelons of power, or more specifically, the unholy union of money and politics.

The representation of male victimization in Romanian cinema is typical of the general post-Communist crisis of masculinity . The place of the hero—tragic or existential, or a flamboyant “new man”—is arrogated by the Jungian ambivalent trickster, “ subhuman and superhuman, bestial and divine” (Jung 158-159), born in the no-man's land between Communism and post-Communism. Razvan Vasilescu , one of Pintilie's favorite actors, “owes much of his popularity to the trickster role of the rowdy provincial doctor in The Oak , Nela's saviour and consort” (Stojanova, “ Beyond” 230).

The epic battle between Good and Evil, or rather between God and Satan, reaches its culmination in a very unusual film, Sinisa Dragin's Every Day God Kisses Us on the Mouth (În fiecare zi Dumnezeu ne saruta pe gura, 2002). Its magic realistic aesthetics, strongly influenced by Emir Kusturica's Gypsy films, and its macabre subject matter, sets its hero's misguided god-search in high relief vis-à-vis the Romanian films made in the 1990s. T he male protagonist, Dumitru, is “yet another trickster figure, dominated by the inhuman and the bestial, as well as a victim of perennial betrayal”:

After his final supervised shower, Dumitru, a convicted killer and butcher by profession, is released from prison, but on the train home he meets a gypsy gambler, wins his money, his goose—an ancient symbol of potency—has a brief love-making bout with his beautiful wife, and kills him. She curses him, and from that moment on Dumitru's life takes a macabre downward turn, plagued by supernatural coincidences and omens. Once at home, he finds his timid wife pregnant with his brother's child. Devastated by this double betrayal, he kills him. On that very same night, the gypsy woman torches his house, burning his wife and mother alive. Strongly reminiscent of Codine , the film remains ambiguous as to whether this chain of misfortunes is explainable by uncanny social laws, or should be seen instead as divine retribution, brought about by the curse. The ubiquitous presence of weird birds, and of Gypsies—one of the few archaic symbols whose numinosity has remained intact—further blurs the boundaries between reality and unreality. (Stojanova, “Beyond” 230)

With his film, Sinisa Dragin has brought to almost hysterical paroxysm the theme of fear and betrayal, along with the mystique of divine redemption or damnation:

Haunted by surreal visions of his beloved wife, he marries a deaf-mute girl, but when she turns into a white goose Dumitru sees it as the beginning of yet another vicious cycle and summons death. In an act of diabolical reversal, God “kisses him on the mouth” once again by keeping him alive as evil incarnate, and Dumitru comes to believe that he is now a part of His plans. Thus Dumitru the trickster becomes a spiritual werewolf, both bestial and superhuman, stuck between life and death, the demonic and the sacred. (Stojanova, “ Beyond” 231)

Every Day God Kisses Us on the Mouth was an aberration of sorts, but it did put (at least for the moment) the finishing touches on the dark obsession of Romanian cinema with the horrors of the recent past and its even darker consequences in the post-1989 present. It actually stands quite apart from the entirely new cinematic style of what has come to be known as New Romanian cinema, which has powerfully taken center stage in the early 2000s and represents the focus of the current special issue.

Before closing my observations on Romanian cinema, I would like to discuss briefly Christian Mungiu's West (Occident, 2002), which is mentioned in several articles in our special issue, and to emphasise its role as a bridge to other “new” post-communist cinemas of Central and Eastern Europe, a comparison that seems to fall by the wayside in most discussions of the New Romanian cinema. These discussions are usually dominated by debates about whether it is viable or not to look for similarities between the New Romanian cinema and the French New Wave from the late 1950s and early 1960s.

In my view, however, a wealth of meaning could be unpacked if new Romanian films are juxtaposed with films by young directors made in the Czech Republic and Hungary over the last ten years or so. With a cluster of remarkable films from the late 1990s and early 2000s, young Czech directors were the first to resuscitate the idea of a “school” or “wave.” Then came the long awaited resurrection (in the most literal sense) of the Hungarian cinema, approximately at the same time and again thanks to its versatile young directors.

In my study quoted below, I discuss a number of films by young directors concerned with the “unbearable lightness” of the episodic post-modern being, whose perfect reflection seems to be the mosaic narrative mode. Inspired by American indies, Quentin Tarantino's circular narratives, and Milan Kundera's literary experiments (Immortality comes to mind), the mosaic mode was launched in 1997 by Petr Zelenka's Buttoners (Knoflíkári) and was successfully followed by David Ondricek's Loners (Samotári, 2000) and One Hand Can't Clap (Jedna ruka netleská, 2003), and by Jan Hrebejk's Up and Down (Horem pádem, 2004). The characters featured were “engaged in a tragicomic pursuit of instant gratification…[where] chances, coincidences and even miracles are at work on another narrative level, proving that nothing is what it seems, and that, in the grand scheme of things, the unpredictable chain of events ultimately sets straight ethical and existential scores” (Stojanova, “ Fragmented” 218).

Christian Mungiu's West is a delightful contribution to this mosaic mode. It is an unobtrusively simple love triangle, where poor and impractical Luci loves Sorina who loves him too, but prefers a comfortable life in the West and therefore leaves Luci for the Belgian Jerome. The poet Mihaela falls in love with Luci soon after being forsaken by her drunk bridegroom on their wedding day, while her well-off parents prefer to see her married in the West, where “she could go to McDonald's every Saturday and be a soccer mom.” The ironic tone is enhanced by a couple of surreal “McGuffins,” keeping the three parts loosely together, like the bottle, accidentally thrown by Mihaela's groom in one scene and hitting Luci on the head in the subsequent one (Stojanova, “Fragmented” 223).

The character of Luci is a striking discovery in the hero-less, post-modern, post-communist narrative landscape. And although he looks and behaves like a drifter—idealistic, soft, and quiet, qualities irresistibly attractive both to Sorena and Mihaela—nothing is what it seems, as the film informs us in its disengaged, light manner. Luci turns out to be yet another suspended romantic hero, having wisely traded heroic gestures for patient resilience. Not unlike most of his young Czech and Hungarian colleagues, the director carefully avoids passing judgments, flaunting an “almost Buddhist tolerance to all characters and points of view,” leaving conclusions entirely open to the viewer. This ethical “laissez-fairism,” supported by the elegantly aloof style of the film, has contributed to the success of West with young foreign audiences, who prefer to communicate directly with their Romanian peers on the familiar terrain of an international youth culture without the need of burdensome lessons in the country's complex social and political history (Stojanova, “ Fragmented” 224).


1] Winner of the Best Script Award at Cannes in 1963.

2] Romanian fascist organization (1933-1944).

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2004.

Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1993.

Eliade, Mircea. Zalmoxis, the Vanishing God: Comparative Studies in the Religions and Folklore of Dacia and Eastern Europe. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1972.

Fainaru, Edna. “Senatorul Melcilor”.

Jung, Carl Gustav. “On the Psychology of the Trickster Figure.” In The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. The Collected Works, vol 9a. Trans. R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror. NY: Columbia UP, 1982.

Stojanova, Christina. “Beyond Dracula and Ceausescu: Phenomenology of Horror in Romanian Cinema.” In Horror International. Ed. Steven J. Schneider and Tony Williams. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2005. 220-234.

?. “Fragmented Discourses: Young Cinema from Central and Eastern Europe.” In East European Cinemas. Ed. Aniko Imre. London: Routledge, 2005. 212-227.