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Keep on rolling: why the Romanian New Wave of cinema shows no sign of breaking

Keep on rolling: why the Romanian New Wave of cinema shows no sign of breaking

Over a decade since Romanian directors Cristi Puiu and Cristian Mungiu burst on to the scene, their films are once again gracing screens at Cannes and the BFI London Film Festival. Anya Harrison explains the enduring appeal of the Romanian New Wave

29 September 2016

Earlier this summer, I was attending the BFI’s inaugural talk for its Revolution in Realism season, a celebration of Romanian cinema since the mid-2000s. Amid the discussions, film critic Nick Roddick’s statement stood out for its semi-subversive tone: “There is one thing that a wave has inherent to it — and it is that it breaks. What we have come to see as the Romanian New Wave is over now…” A few weeks later, I repeated Roddick’s words to veteran Romanian actor Adrian Titieni (who most recently appears in Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or contender Bacalaureat). While not fully negating the claim, Titieni countered that “It is true that every ‘wave’ has its end, but…Romanian cinematography is on a rising wave and will continue to be for a long time.”

Indeed, from BFI’s season to the inclusion of two Romanian works by New Wave directors in the Official Competition of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and the upcoming London Film Festival which itself features a strong Romanian line-up, the Romanian New Wave as we know it shows no signs of faltering. While it’s true that Romanian cinema has been expanding since the New Wave first entered global consciousness, the question still remains: what is it about its very specific and geopolitical context that continues to resonate with international audiences and what are the factors that safeguard its enduring appeal?

Although the Romanian New Wave, when it appeared in the mid-2000s, did not come out of nowhere, it sparked international interest in the country’s cinema. Its appearance can be traced back to a “trilogy” of films, all of which won international awards, that set down the definitive parameters for the “Wave”: Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005), Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) and Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007). This trio of filmmakers are considered the symbolic fathers of the New Wave.

Today, this term is associated with a set of factors: the determined unpicking of recent Romanian history and the Communist ideology whose legacy still continues to frame discourse; an unabashed irony and black humour; and the lo-fi visual aesthetic that was most often the direct result of a total lack of state funding. Moreover, there is a distinct lack of moral judgement despite the hard-hitting subject matter of the films (particularly evident in Mungiu’s work), whether illegal abortion during the Ceausescu era or the total bureaucratic collapse of the country’s medical system. And while there is no manifesto or conscious grouping around the term, Romanian New Wave stands for “a great proof of creativity and determination… their [the directors’] desire to rebel and change things,” according to Titieni. What then are the reasons for this recent renewed interest in Romanian cinema? “The surprising and paradoxical always draw attention. Romania is a paradoxical country with surprising people.”

‘Romania is a paradoxical country with surprising people’

If in his Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, set in the dying days of the Ceausescu regime, university students Otilia and Gabita have little choice but to succumb to the demands of back-street abortionist – the sardonically named Bebe – in order to terminate Gabita’s unwanted pregnancy, the director’s most recent work Bacalaureat (2016) points out that when it comes to matters of personal choice, action and responsibility, the ancien régime has left its indelible mark. Adrian Titieni plays Dr Romeo Aldea, a surgeon at the height of his career, although professional success still hasn’t got him out of a rundown estate in the city of Cluj.

His is the generation that came of age with the fall of Ceausescu, fed on the hopes of a better life in a post-Communist Romania, one that never materialised. Now, he has a chance to send his daughter Eliza to study in the UK on a scholarship. A star student, all she has to do is achieve top marks in her final exams. So when Eliza is assaulted the day before her exams, Romeo’s only choice is to fall back on the old system of favours and cronyism to make sure his daughter’s grades don’t suffer. As any cheat has to involve Eliza herself, Romeo finds himself in a double bind: does he initiate his daughter into the very world of compromise and shame from which he wants to “save” her and offer her a more promising future abroad?

Trailer for Bacalaureat, dir. Cristian Mungiu (2016)

Bacalaureat’s ending is a telling proof of that age-old axiom that history repeats itself first as tragedy then as farce. This very same principle first appeared in Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest in which Virgil Jderescu (the Biblical and Classical references in characters’ names are not without conscious self-irony), the owner and presenter of a local television station, decides to commemorate the Romanian revolution’s anniversary on his phone-in talk show by highlighting heroic activities that took place in the provincial town of Cluj.

Focusing on the crucial moment – 12:08pm – when the Romanian revolution of 1989 started, the serious and sombre nature of the content quickly attains nervous comic overtones as it becomes apparent that everyone has their own, personal version of the revolution. The phone-in descends into argument as 12:08 is established as the temporal marker between being proactive and reactive when it comes to revolutionary acts.

Romanian New Wave films cover the gamut of human life: birth, death, family, relationships

With Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada (2016) recently selected as Romania’s nomination for Best Foreign-Language Film at next year’s Oscars – which would bring Romania its first nomination for the Academy Awards in this category – the country’s cinema is continuing to pick up pace. A film about family relationships, communication, and the frail foundations of faith (as much personal as moral, political and religious), Sieranevada centres on Lary, a neurologist attending a memorial service for his father. Using extensive dialogue, Puiu points out the inadequacy of language to build channels of communication; instead of building connections, language here becomes a Pandora’s box of secrets and accusations. As the conversations and arguments become ever more tangled – from 9/11 conspiracy theories to the settling of old scores – Sieranevada’s overriding subject becomes the stories we tell ourselves and others in order to keep certain histories in place.

The term “human comedy” – in the Balzacian sense – has previously been applied to Puiu’s work, notably The Death of Mr Lazarescu. Luminita Gherghiu’s paramedic makes the rounds of Bucharest’s hospitals with her charge, whose state becomes progressively critical but who refuses to succumb to death quite so easily. Perhaps this is an apt metaphor for the Romanian New Wave and its lasting appeal. Notable for the compelling unity of time and space in which the majority of the films’ narratives unfold, they position us – the audience – as witnesses to events and discussions that cover the gamut of human life: birth, death, family, relationships. And if, despite the black humour, they are marked by a certain bleakness of tone, it is not without hope: “If you are not desperate enough, a major change cannot occur,” says Titieni. “Even the darkest story contains in it the hope that somebody will hear it or see it, the hope that returning to yourself can generate solutions.”

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