Despite a line-up of over 300 films from 54 countries, the only debate focused on a particular national cinema at the 2007 Times BFI London Film Festival was ‘Romanian Cinema: The Next New Wave?’. The festival programmers and Sight & Sound, who hosted the talk, thought that the debate is a valid one, even if the country was represented by only two feature films and a short film. It is not quantity, but quality, that counts. Sight & Sound chose Cristian Mungiu’s Palme D’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days as their gala at the festival, while Cristian Nemescu’s California Dreamin’ (Nesfârşit) [California Dreamin’ (Endless)] (2007) was to win the Satyajit Ray Humanitarian Award for debut feature. So why the question mark over Romania’s new wave?
Once the festival buzz faded away, the Romanian New Wave proved to be mainly an artificial construction, for now at least, involving a tiny group of directors who have very little in common. True, they are all Romanian, they are all under 40, all have no more than three feature films under their belt (although most are debutants), and most have recently won at the Cannes Film Festival. There are common styles and common themes amongst them, but there is almost nothing in their directorial output that could easily mark them as a unit. Interestingly, the question posed by the panel was not about the quality of film-making in Romania, but rather how did this ‘new wave’ had managed to become last year’s hot potato.
A good way to understand the emergence of the debate is to look at the successes Romania has had at Cannes Film Festival:
• 1957 Palme d’Or: Short Film - Scurtă istorie [A Short History] (1956) (Ion Popescu-Gopo)
• 1965 Best Director - Pădurea spânzuraţilor [Forest of the Hanged] (1964) (Liviu Ciulei)
• 1966 Best First Feature – Răscoala [The Uprising] (1965) (Mircea Mureşan)
• 2004 Palme d’Or: Short Film – Trafic [Traffic] (2004) (Cătălin Mitulescu)
• 2004 Cinéfondation: 2nd Prize - Călătorie la oraş [A Trip to the City] (2003) (Corneliu Porumboiu)
• 2005 Un Certain Regard Prize - Moartea domnului Lăzărescu [The Death of Mr. Lazarescu] (2005) (Cristi Puiu)
• 2006 Caméra d’Or - A fost sau n-a fost? [12:08 East of Bucharest] (2006) (Corneliu Porumboiu)
• 2006 Un Certain Regard Award for Best Actress - Doroteea Petre for Cum mi-am petrecut sfârşitul lumii [The Way I Spent the End of the World] (2006) (Cătălin Mitulescu)
• 2007 Palme d’Or - 4 luni, 3 săptămâni şi 2 zile [4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days] (2007) (Cristian Mungiu)
• 2007 Un Certain Regard Prize - California Dreamin’ (Nesfârşit) [California Dreamin’ (Endless)] (2007) (Cristian Nemescu)
In spite of the fact that Romania’s most accomplished auteur, Lucian Pintilie, has kept the critics’ attention since the 1960s, it takes prizes to get noticed. Puiu, Mungiu, Mitulescu, Porumboiu and Nemescu (who died before the completion of his first feature) have all contributed to a media buzz around Romanian cinema by winning prizes, and hence the discussion of a new wave.
So, what is the Romanian New Wave? The release of 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days in January can give us a few hints to hold on to. In the December 2007 issue, Sight & Sound named it as the best film of the year, a premier for Romanian cinema, coupled with a first nomination at the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs for Best Foreign Feature, (the Oscar buzz around the same category never materialised into the country’s first nomination). Yet what makes critics rave about a good work, which knows too well to hide its accomplishments, can still be a mystery for a first time viewer.
4, 3, 2 is a story about abortion, not in terms of morality, but in terms of desire. Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) is helping her friend Găbiţa (Laura Vasiliu) in her time of need. The price of that friendship is sometimes trivial (such as avoiding paying the bus fare), at times excruciating (being forced to sit through a dinner at her boyfriend’s parents while Găbiţa is getting rid of the fetus), and at times degrading and life changing (such as the price two girls have to pay the abortionist for a pregnancy that is 4 month, 3 weeks, and 2 days long). It is because the film lacks a moral stand-point that we arrive at the end of the film exhausted, even disgusted with the state of the world. Mungiu lets us drift into those feelings partly through his long unpanned shots, and partly through a script that is careful not to say too much.
Arguably, the new wave is one concerned with discovery through subjective perception. Whether one takes Pişcoci’s idea of heroism in 12:08 East of Bucharest or Lalalilu’s passage through the 1989 revolution – all the key characters in the films that define the new generation of filmmaking in Romania are trying to understand the world (and thus themselves) not through a rational dialectical reasoning, but simply through their own perception of how the world seems. Hence, we achieve either a hyper-realist style as in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4, 3, 2, or a the magic realism of California Dreamin’ (Endless) and The Way I Spent the End of the World. We as spectators are thus left to make our own judgements, our own interpretations that are derived solely from the way we understand the world subjectively.
The above is not say that these films are lacking in construction and intrinsic meaning. Rather, it is attention to detail that makes them devoid of morality. Arguably, the Romanian New Wave came as a natural reaction to a fast-changing country that is running ahead of its people as individuals. The only way to make sense of the change is to look closely at the details, and in doing that the directors gives us the chance to witness that perception uninhibited by knowledge of the region. This is what can define the success of these films outside the Romanian borders.
4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days is a prime example of this. What baffled critics is that Mungiu made a film about abortion that refuses to play the political-religious-sentimental game. When Wendy Ide (The Times) chose it as her favourite film of 2007, her argument was simply ‘because it is a near perfect piece of cinema’. The film shared so much of the old French New Wave’s appeal - showing things as they are, free of any moral vision – yet it proved that the likes of Goddard or Truffaut were probably to selfish to go further and give themselves a break. Mungiu is arguably achieving a cinema in which the director is literally ignored. His point of view is similar to ours, stuck in a corner of a room, or at the front of a dinner table, unable to move, unable to do a close-up or emphasise certain elements that might give us more clues about a character’s emotions, a character’s interpretation of morality. This way of film-making does indeed feel fresh, liberating.
But is technique enough to constitute quality? The question is not meant as a criticism of the film itself, but rather to of the way the critic is forced to react to novelty, and ultimately to the media buzz. Nearly every year, there is a film that is praised by respected critics as a breakthrough in cinematic technique. With all the jargon of the industry, and the continuous pressure to develop cinematic craftsmanship, it is easy to lose sight of film as just an art form, whose main aim is to enlighten. And this is where the Romanian New Wave can distil itself into a plethora of strong films, all inventive in their own way, yet none fully capable of passing over the border between strong innovative work and true masterpieces. There is one, maybe. Yet it is wise to wait and see if The Death of Mr. Lazarescu will stand the test of time. Only then can we attest the presence of a true new wave that pushed our understanding of cinema as an art form, and not simply a craft.