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The old and the new in Romanian cinema
© Greg DeCuir Jr.
First Publication: altcine 24/02/2014
 
 
   
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I am growing less impressed with what I venture we can now call the late period of the Romanian New Wave – late in the sense that the wave first swelled a decade ago when Cristi Puiu won the top prize of Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival with The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005). In fact, perhaps we should no longer call it ‘new’ or even a ‘wave’, unless we want to speak of it in historical terms. These Romanian directors have won the world over and in some ways are no longer the avant-garde in their national cinema – maybe not even the avant-garde in international art cinema. A rebirth does not exist indefinitely and waves must dissipate. This is not a value judgment but rather a given. So let us talk about Old Romanian Film, or at least what is old in the new, because the high tide has already receded.

The Death of Mr Lazarescu by Cristi Puiu

Most all new waves are compared to the French New Wave by default, a tradition that will be obliged here. Ten years after his debut feature film Jean-Luc Godard was already in the middle of his Dziga Vertov period in search of the new in political cinema. At that same time François Truffaut was set to embark on his Antoine Doinel series, in effect returning to the beginning of his career perhaps in an effort to recapture the aura of novelty in the Nouvelle Vague. Both directors were older by that point and had even admitted that the French New Wave very likely did not last beyond a few years, which is a rational proposition. In any event, new waves as christened by film critics and historians are often no more than narrative fictions that would simplify phenomena. As Želimir Žilnik stated in reference to New Yugoslav Film, and also at around the decade mark in that national cycle, there is no such thing as New Yugoslav Film and those that are called young are in fact middle-aged or better. He pierced the bubble of this media fiction with an inconvenient truth, though my aim is not necessarily the same with this brief polemic.

Let us return to Romania and where the wave first rose, with Cristi Puiu. He has now completed two feature films since his debutante success at Cannes. The earlier is Aurora (2010), which he also starred in and which to these eyes was an overwrought cinema of duration that almost played like a parody of the slow cinema aesthetic he helped popularize on festival circuits worldwide. We start out in this film knowing little about our unstable hero and we learn not much more about him by the conclusion other than the fact that he snaps and goes on a kill-crazy rampage for apparently no reason at all. Something significant is missing from Aurora, which is a well-made but soulless film. It is not that we need to learn something from the film but something should certainly be revealed, whether emotional or aesthetic. Perhaps that revelation is meant to be a rare occurrence like the geomagnetic display the film is named for. Minimalism has been a distinguishing characteristic of the Romanian New Wave since the beginning. Here it has developed into equinoctial stalemate.

Aurora by Cristi Puiu

Turning to Puiu’s most recent effort Three Interpretation Exercises (2013) it can be noted that minimalism is still the key register, though performed in andante moderato rather than larghissimo. Three groups of French actors play a variation on the same mundane scene, discussing life, religion, and death. Forward momentum is stunted, even when it becomes apparent that these three groups will join together at the conclusion for a spiritual meeting. This séance is meant to connect souls and evoke a deeper meaning to life, but Puiu cuts it right after it begins. Again, his cinema is about deferral. Three Interpretation Exercises is a non-narrative experiment rendered with documentary realism but without a meaningful connection to either life or art. It is an unsatisfying experience and comes dangerously close to the work of a filmmaker who has nothing left to say, which should not be the case for a director making what is just his third feature. 

Corneliu Porumboiu began exercising at the same time as his colleague Puiu. In 2013 he made When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism, his third feature, which augurs an indeterminate navel-gazing streak in Romanian cinema – literally in this instance, due to the endoscopic scans that the director-protagonist undergoes and which we explore on-screen. Metabolism is a self-reflexive film following that great tradition of European cinematic modernism in which directors expose the entrails of their craft (cf Truffaut, Godard, also Fellini). However, Porumboiu did not add anything new to this tradition – it is an experiment with proven postulates. Maybe the film is meant to satirize the new wave that he helped break. After all, it would seem that the film is meant to be composed of static 11-minute takes that correspond directly to the length of one complete roll of unexposed 35mm celluloid, as explained by the director to his lead actress in the film within the film. It quickly becomes apparent that this is a false promise as shots vary in duration throughout. Porumboiu gave himself a second chance this year with The Second Game, which is advertised as a true one-take film that records the length of a football match and the voice-over discussion that dissects it. The self-reflexive exercise has ground to a halt with nothing to show except for that which has already been shown – not only that but it has traded the cinematic for the televisual. Romanian cinema seems to be denying itself, starving itself, begging for another body scan. However, as the doctor states in Metabolism there is nothing out of the ordinary here, nothing to alarm.  

When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism by Corneliu Porumboiu

The most recent success of this so-called Romanian New Wave is Child’s Pose (2013) by Calin Peter Netzer, which won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale. This is the director’s third feature and one can see that it is made confidently and competently, notwithstanding the awkward English-language translation of the title. What I like about Netzer’s work is that it does not aspire to the hackneyed and ostentatious artistic tropes that can often be found in homogenized festival films. However, Netzer also does not seem to aim very high. Child’s Pose is essentially a domestic melodrama about a controlling mother and a subservient son. The narrative point of departure is classical as is the aesthetic of the film. While watching we wonder if the child will ever stand up to the dominating matriarch, but we do not wonder much more. It may be that, as many believe, there are no new stories to be told, which is fine. Tell them well and in an interesting way. Or perhaps Child’s Pose is an attempt to position Romania as no different from your standard Western European country of choice. With this film I would say that the exoticism of post-socialist imagery is gone. Maybe that was the only thing new in this cinema anyway, for those from exterior lands who want to believe in the dark controlling myths of communist dictatorship and the noble struggles of artists attempting to break free from the official shackles muting personal expression. They would then read this film’s dark controlling mother as a mythical symbol, which she may be. I did love one particular scene in Child’s Pose, when the absurd break-up between mother and son occurs in a fancy restaurant. In the background we see a woman beating a rug and hear the heavy thuds punctuating the entire conversation. It is the type of crude, humorous, even sadomasochistic moment that the film should have been full of.

Hooked by Adrian Sitaru

The work of the Romanian New Wave that I have appreciated the most is Hooked (Adrian Sitaru, 2008), a film that passed under all radars attuned to the new in Romanian cinema. Hooked is an extremely modest film rendered in a first-person visual mode about a young couple on vacation who encounter an unstable but alluring woman – or perhaps it is the couple who are unstable, after they accidentally hit the woman with their car and immediately attempt to cover the offense when they assume her to be dead. Sitaru’s debut appeared just as the wave was cresting with Cristian Mungiu winning a Palme d’Or for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007). It represents an interesting path that the Romanian New Wave could have taken: a personal, intimate cinema; a cinema signed by the camera-stylo. However, Sitaru’s third feature film, Domestic (2013), is a rather lifeless comedy about the residents of an apartment building and the animals they care for. With this film he has traded the micro for the macro. Maybe what was new in Romanian cinema has lost some of its specificity as a result. 
 
 
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Category
 
 
 
 
  4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
  Hooked
  The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
  Aurora
  Child`s Pose
  When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism
  Domestic
  Three Exercises Of Interpretation
  The Second Game
 
  Cristian Mungiu
  Cristi Puiu
  Adrian Sitaru
  Corneliu Porumboiu
  Zelimir Zilnik
  Calin Peter Netzer
  Greg DeCuir Jr.
 
  Festival de Cannes
  Berlin International Film Festival - The Berlinale
 
  Circles (Without the Squares)
  Belle Epoque, or the Last Waltz in Sarajevo Review
  Beldocs 2013
  Balkanima 2013
  Old and new - Part II: The Second Game
 
 
 
 
 
  Berlinale Official Website
  Cannes Film Festival Official Website
 
 
 
 
 
 
       
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