The New Waves of Romanian Cinema

By Calin Caliman (critic, Bucharest)

© Calin Caliman, 2007

During the various phases that have marked the uneven development of Romanian cinema, first films by young filmmakers have always highlighted the aesthetic effervescence of any period, inspired moments of progress, and popularized national film production across zones of greater cultural interest. Thus, they have secured their place in Romanian film history as evidence of the time in which they were released.

The first Romanian feature length film, The Independence of Romania (Independenta României, 1912) was made by Grigore Brezeanu, barely 20 years old (born in 1891), following his medium length debut film Fatal Love (Amor fatal, 1911). And if Brezeanu had not passed away so young in 1919 from the typhus pandemic unleashed by the First World War, his role would have probably been much more important during the subsequent phases of the emergent Romanian cinema. When he died, his friend, the poet Emil Isac, exclaimed:

Such ideals gone to waste along with your fading body! For how many times, late at night, we built and re-built the castles of Spain! “We will bring the Romanian world into Europe,” you said, Grigore Brezeanu. And now death took you to a world where cinema never flickers. And the ideal was left widowed…

Sadly, the first great hope of young Romanian cinema came to an end.

Skipping over a few decades, it is worth lingering for a while on contributions by the young filmmakers from the “1970s generation,” those who made their debut in 1970 with Water Like a Black Buffalo (Apa ca un bivol negru; dir. Youssouff Aibady, Andrei Catalin Baleanu, Pierre Bokor, Iosif Demian, Stere Gulea, Roxana Pana, Dan Pita, Dinu Tanase, Mircea Veriou, 1970) , a documentary about the catastrophic floods of the 1970s, a film that was to become a promotional manifesto for its young directors and cameramen. Back then they were described as the “flood generation” or the “Pita-Veroiu,” and, a bit later, as the “Daneliuc generation,” and went down in history as the “1970s generation.” Thanks to that film, new names came into view and although not all of them would meet expectations in the long run, they nonetheless represented a solid and important “creative front.”

The most ingenious filmmakers to launch their first works in the early 1970s were Dan Pita (b. 1938) and Mircea Veroiu (b. 1941), both around thirty at the time. Together, they made two remarkable films, The Stone Wedding (Nunta de piatra, 1972) and Lust for Gold (Duhul aurului, 1974) , both inspired by the stories of Ion Agarbiceanu, a Romanian literary classic. The two films displayed emphatically the distinct narrative and stylistic preferences of their authors, and were balanced by a sense of the tragic, a ballad-like tone, and modernist expressionist imagery (bearing the trademark signature of their cinematographer, Iosif Demian). The filmographies of the two filmmakers define the fault lines of Romanian cinema. From the important oeuvre of Mircea Veroiu one could single out the literary adaptations Beyond the Bridge (Dincolo de pod, 1 975), inspired by the classic author Ioan Slavici; Between Facing Mirrors (Intre oglinzi paralele, 1978), after Camil Petrescu; Adela (1985), based on Garabet Ibraileanu; as well as his films on contemporary subjects, like The End of the Night (Sfarsitul noptii, 1982) or the drama To Die Wounded by Love for Life (Sa mori ranit din dragoste de viata, 1983). In 1986 Veroiu escaped to France. Upon his return after the Revolution and before his premature death in 1997, he made two films that can be interpreted as his testament: The Sleep of the Island (Somnul insulei, 1994) and The Woman in Red (Femeia in rosu, 1997).

Dan Pita has also produced a solid and respectable filmography, with titles like Filip the Kind ( Filip cel bun , 1975) , A Summer Tale (Tanase Scatiu, 1976), Poor Ioanide (Bietul Ioanide, 1979), November, the Last Ball (Noiembrie, ultimul bal, 1989), The White Lace Dress (Rochia alba de dantela, 1989), and—after the Revolution —Hotel de Lux (awarded the Silver Lion at the Venice IFF in 1992), Pepe & Fifi (Pepe si Fifi, 1994), The Man of the Hour (Omul zile, 1997), and The Dream Woman (Femeie visurilor, 2005) .

Mircea Daneliuc (b. 1945) made his first film, The Long Drive (Cursa) in 1975, which instantly propelled him to the foreground of Romanian cinema. His subsequent films, Microphone Testing (Proba de microfon, 1980) and especially The Cruise (Croaziera, 1981)—an incredibly courageous film for the early 1980s when censorship was simply paralyzing—established him as a strong artistic personality, a true auteur who sustained a continued public interest in his work with Glissando (1985) , Iacob (1988), and, during the 1990s, with The Conjugal Bed (Patul conjugal, 1993), Fed Up (Aceasta lehamite, 1994), and The Snails' Senator (Senatorul melcilor, 1995) .

The films of the “1970s generation” brought a breath of fresh air to the film production of the 1980s and firmly established the important filmmakers in Romanian cinema. The post-revolutionary landscape saw a brief triumph of debuts: in twelve months, from May 1991 to April 1992, eight feature length premiere films were theatrically released. For a short while it looked as if a “new wave” was in the making. But soon enough it became clear that this was a misapprehension. The eight films in question were Forgotten by God (Ramânerea) by Laurentiu Damian (b.1956); Bat Hunt (Vânatoarea de lilieci) by Daniel Barbulescu (b.1946); I'm Losing my Mind and I Feel Sorry (Innebunesc si-mi pare rau) by Jon Gostin (b.1952); The Red Rats (Sobolanii rosii) by Florin Codre (b.1943); Where the Sun is Cold (Unde la soare e frig) by Bogdan Dumitrescu (b. 1962); The Sky Tear (Lacrima cerului) by Adrian Istratescu-Lener (b.1951); Pasaj by George Busecan (b.1952); and The South Pole (Polul Sud) by Radu Nicoara (b.1954 ) .

These debutants, however, rarely made follow-up films. The exceptions would include, for example, Damian, who returned to filmmaking reasonably quickly with The Way of the Dogs (Drumul câinilor, 1993); Dumitrescu followed his debut with Thalassa,Thalassa (1994), which lacked the grace of his first film; and Busecan returned to filmmaking only once, with the commercial co-production The Silent Temple (Templul taceri, 1994). Gostin remained within the confines of the small screen with a Dostoevskian adaptation, The Confession (Spovedania, 1995). Thus, the debuts immediately following the changes of 1989 remained ephemeral and quickly sank into oblivion?that is, with one significant exception, which would play an important role in the formation of the current “new wave” of Romanian cinema: Nae Caranfil (b. 1960) with his first film, Don't Lean Out of the Window (E pericoloso sporgersi, 1993), as well as his subsequent, Asphalt Tango (Asfalt tango, 1996), and especially with Philanthropy (Filantropica, 2002). All three films were very well received by audiences and won awards at numerous international film festivals. They have inspired a host of young filmmakers to engage bravely and personally in social, political, and moral issues that plague contemporary Romania. Caranfil has become a role model for the youngest generation of Romanian filmmakers, especially for those who made their first films after 2000.

The first sign of a “new wave” was Cristi Puiu's 2001 film Stuff and Dough (Marfa si banii) , a very successful and detailed portrait of the young in present-day Romania. Along with Caranfil, Puiu (b.1967) became a tangible source of renewed hope for the future of Romanian cinema. The evolution of Puiu confirmed the impression left by Stuff and Dough, a film that could be defined as an exercise in sincerity against the backdrop of numerous attempts by young filmmakers to capture the portrait of Romanian society in transition. With his short Coffee and Cigarettes (Un cartus de Kent si un pachet de cafea, 2004), and even more so with his exemplary feature The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Moartea domnului Lazarescu, 2005)—both showered with international prizes—Puiu continues to reflect sincerely the world around him by extending his artistic curiosity to a contemplation of the general human condition.

The year 2002 represents another important moment in the evolution of young Romanian cinema. It saw the release of two first films, Cristian Mungiu's Occident and Radu Muntean's Fury (Furia). In the former, a few characters are fascinated by the mirage of the fabulous West, but the filmmaker's strength lies in his ability to speak honestly, lucidly, and pertinently about the present, with its joys and setbacks, by cutting through a narrative that is structured along three plot trajectories. The parallel sub-plots actually represent three different takes on the same events in a continuous dialogue with each other, fluctuating from complementary to contradictory, whose points of confrontation intensify the aesthetic originality of the film.

It is not accidental that Radu Muntean (b.1971) has called his film Fury: it is easy to discern its deliberate rapport with the “angry young men” that revolutionized the British cinema in the 1960s. Told in a documentary style, the story is only a pretext to delve deeper into milieus and mentalities that influence our lives in a terrible way, sometimes without even being consciously acknowledged.

Another two debut films released in 2003 further consolidated the “new wave”—specifically, Taxi a.k.a Limousine by Titus Muntean (b. 1965) and Maria by Calin Peter Netzer (b. 1975). Taxi is a remarkable psychological drama that tells its story about a driver wrongfully accused of a crime he did not commit, who tries to correct a judicial error made during totalitarianism without, however, being able to redeem the spiritual damage inflicted. Maria is an emotional portrait of a contemporary woman, still young but prematurely aged by all kinds of aggression the merciless society in transition has in store for her. Maria is yet another internationally recognized film, and a recipient of important awards at Locarno and Rotterdam, to name just a couple of the international festivals where it received prizes.

Among the films made in 2004, another two debut films stand out. Italian Girls (Italiencele) by Napoleon Helmis, where the protagonists, seduced by the mirage of the West go through a sad experience, is a sincere look at the present. The second, Weekend Millionaires (Milionari de weekend) by Catalin Saizescu is a delicious parody, modern and well-paced. It was very well received by audiences.

The debuts in 2005 (the lucky year of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) account for a number of unusual Romanian films, like the independent Fix Alert , a very low budget production, shot on digital by the young actor Florin Piersic Jr. (b. 1968), following his original short Advertising , a story about the way an old woman plans her expenses the day she gets her pension so that she can barely survive the month. He has made one other film, also on digital, called Eminescu vs. Eminem (2005). With Fix Alert, whose script was written by his wife, the stunning actress Dorina Chiriac, Florin Piersic Jr. offers an unusual action film, trying to unearth aspects of reality that remain hidden from our view. This debut film flaunts a remarkable stylistic freedom and an aspiration for renewal, which the author wishes to explore in his future films.

Also marked by stylistic freedom is another first film, Tudor Giurgiu Love Sick (Legaturi bolnavicioase, 2006). Apart from the well-spun lesbian love story of two female students, treated lucidly and with discretion, the film entails a less credible incestuous relationship, which damages considerably the earnestness of the narrative.

The year 2006 once again called attention to the growing international visibility of Romanian cinema. At the Cannes festival, Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest (A fost sau n-a fost) won the Camera d'Or prize, while Catalin Mitulescu's How I Spent the End of the World (Cum mi-am petrecut sfârsitul lumii) further inspired discourse about the “Romanian new wave,” as has probably become evident from the other texts included in the current special issue. The fiction shorts also keep receiving a warm welcome on the international film festival circuit. In addition to Puiu's Coffee and Cigarettes, one could add Catalin Mitulescu's Traffic (2004), winner of the Cannes Palme d'Or in the short fiction category. The Apartment by Constantin Popescu and Marilena from P7 by the unfortunate Cristian Nemescu, who tragically disappeared in August 2006, have also attracted attention to the promising young filmmakers from Romania and facilitated their feature length debuts.

Young Romanian cinema from the new millennium is a work in progress. Some of the successful debutants have already made new films, confirming their talent and our hopes. Such is the case, for instance, with Radu Muntean's The Paper Will Be Blue (Hârtia va fi albastra), which portrays tragic moments of the chaos and the ensuing “collateral damage” during the 1989 Revolution from a personal point of view.

Released after a delay in November 2006, Ryna (2005) is an amazingly authentic insight into the rural world. It reveals the forceful talent of Ruxandra Zenide, another name to remember when discussing “the new wave of Romanian cinema.” It is delightful to know that Porumboiu, Puiu, Mitulescu, Muntean, and Giurgiu are now working on their subsequent films. It is even more satisfying to read in newspapers that Cristian Mungiu's new film, Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days (Patru luni, trei saptamâni si doua zile), has been selected for the Cannes IFF 2007 along with Nae Caranfil's The Rest is Silence (Restul e tacere).

It is not easy to predict whether, in the long run, the New Romanian Cinema will justify the theoretical requirements that go with the daring “new wave” definition. What remains certain is the cyclical apparition of the creative spirit, periodically bringing energy and brilliance to Romanian cinema. This time around the invocation of the spirit is much more forceful than ever before. But if these young directors are to meet all of our expectations and expand their body of work beyond its promising beginning, they need the creative support of everyone involved in destiny-shaping decisions: people and institutions, managers, producers, distributors, and last, but not least, film critics.

Translated from French by Christina Stojanova


Calin Caliman, Critic, Contemporanul and Caiete critice

Updated: 29 May 07