Cinema is one of those art mediums that can succinctly introduce us to the zeitgeist of a particular country. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Romania has experienced a filmmaking revival that captures a culture in transition with deep attachments to the past and mixed emotions about capitalism. Young Romanian filmmakers are not subtle about their statements. This new crop of films tend to be raw, shot in a naturalistic style and seldom adorned with fancy soundtracks or special effects. In fact, recent films have a hyper-realistic or cinéma vérité character. Some might argue it could be the transparency of the films’ low budgets. However, the minimalist aesthetic is a choice that is part of the narrative, portraying a lived-in austerity that also heightens human drama.
The shift from the USSR to a type of capitalist system has in fact created a state of confusion where embedded practices such as favors, clientelism and nepotism meet the rules and regulations of the free market, where previously banned themes such as religion and traditional costumes harken back to the days of monarchy are now revived along with the contrasting influences from Western culture. For instance, in Beyond the Hills (read our review here), the contrast between these two parallel streams of influences are portrayed on film with a powerful physical performance by the amazing actress Christina Flutur, who shared the Actress prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival with her co-star Cosmina Stratan (it was also our favorite film of last year). The tension between different influences from traditional religious thought, to Western life views, capitalism and the remnant Soviet bureaucratic structures are some of the recurring themes of these films.
A wealth of studies have described and analyzed post-Soviet politics and economics. However, the extent to which culture and the daily reality of how people live remains an open subject. Film rather effectively captures the daily aspect of life in the confusing post-Soviet context, at times with shocking imagery, such as in Beyond the Hills, and at times with rather dark humor, as in Police Adjective. With these films we learn that transition is a complex and painful process where a country rediscovers its ancient past through religious beliefs and looks to the future by embracing foreign influences from the West, still a new territory for this developing democracy. These films tend to be sarcastic and embrace a sort of black humor that understands the irony of change tinged with a lack of expectations on a bright future.
The film revival in Romania has not only brought us insight into the country, however. It has also given us some all-around terrific films. The list below is a short taste of some of the more salient and powerful of these films.
One of the most famous exports of the Romanian New Wave, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days takes place in the late 1980s, during Ceausescu’s communist regime. It explores the relationship between two girlfriends, one of whom is pregnant and in search of an abortion, which was illegal under Ceausescu. The film offers a focused analysis of interpersonal relationships during Soviet rule and a peeping hole through which we can learn a few facts about how life was like behind the iron curtain. For instance, the prevalence of a black market in many facets of daily life, not just back alley abortions. Director Cristian Mungiu became the first director of the Romanian New Wave to earn a Palme D’Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. His minimalist style and realist treatment of unresolved or problematic issues in Romania are now a signature of the movement, but his deft cinematic pacing remains unmatched.
Police, Adjective is a black comedy that wittily exposes the fissures of modern life in Romania. The existence of draconian laws alongside a reality that cannot fit with those laws results in many dark comedic moments. Officer Cristi is tasked with arresting a young marijuana dealer but cannot bring himself to do it. He finds that the definitions of procedural justice lack an inherent morality. Police, Adjective has some great moments straddling the creaky line between the factual to the absurd aspects of the judicial system. As opposed to 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the film’s pacing will feel languorous to some, but it’s all the better to highlight the film’s deadpan observations.
Another triumph by Mungui, Beyond the Hills showcases the relationship between two women who grew up together as orphans and re-encounter each other after years of separation. Alina emigrated to Germany to work, and she believes her dear friend Voichita will join her there. Instead, Voichita decided to join a convent in the small town where the friends grew up in together. A dearth of opportunities for young people in their home country makes it so the choice of migrating or joining a convent appear as archetypal of a lack of social mobility and opportunity since the fall of Soviet rule. When these two women meet again, there is an immediate tension. Alina is ready to pick up where they left off, as there is a suggestion of deep intimacy between these women. However, Voichita cannot see past her religious garb and the strict patriarchal environment she has been part of since leaving the orphanage. Orthodox Christianity (pre-dating the Enlightenment) and Western influences collide through Alina and Voichita. Alina is no match, as Voichita’s character is embedded in the Orthodox Christian convent, with its hierarchical arrangement and a priest at the helm leading the charge against female disobedience. This is a must-see from the movement and a personal favorite.
Bureaucracy, corruption, status and plain greed come together to paint a stark reality of what it’s like to live in contemporary Romania. It is not only a difficult proposition for those who are born out of privilege. For those who occupy the seat of privilege, life does not seem that much better. This intelligent and challenging drama presents the life of well-to-do, overbearing Cornelia (Luminița Gheorghiu) who would do anything for her child. When her son finds himself in serious trouble she jumps at the opportunity to save him and take charge of his life. What happens next is surprising, as despite the existent system of corruption, what prevails is a redemption of those who seek forgiveness.
One of the earlier films of the wave, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is Director Cristi Piui’s version of Dante’s Inferno (he followed it up with another strong entry, Aurora; read our review here). It all begins when Mr. Lazarescu calls an ambulance after he falls terribly ill. Paramedics respond, and the EMT, at first rude and cold, takes him to the hospital. And so begins his slow, gradual process of deterioration. The critique on the healthcare system is impressive. Hospitals move at a glacial pace and with the heaviness of Soviet bureaucracy. This is no surprise; it was in 2012 when the international media took notice that Romania’s healthcare system works through bribes and some of the most in-need are left without care if there are no bribes to give. The film was ahead of the international media coverage, released in 2005. While Lazarescu waits to be treated, even though he is clearly dying, life carries on around him in the most trivial of ways as when a doctor complains that there is nobody around to lend him a Nokia charger. The stark reality is also met with humanity as the EMT grows invested in helping Mr. Lazarescu. However, his death is still imminent. The cruelty of reality without embellishment, one of the main features of this film movement, is aptly captured by this film.
*The Bill Cosford Cinema in Miami will host a special one-day-only 35mm screening of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days on Sunday, May 18, at 11:30 a.m.