Monday, February 28, 2011

International: New Romanian Cinema

Romanian cinema has become a prominent national cinema on the international film festival circuit thanks in part due to the success of several films at recent Cannes Film Festivals.  A.O. Scott of the New York Times points out in his survey of recent Romanian Cinema that in three years, "four major prizes at the world’s pre-eminent film festival went to movies from a country whose place in the history of 20th-century cinema might charitably be called marginal."  Starting with the 2005 Un Certain Regard prize for Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, prizes also went to Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest (Camera d'Or, 2006); Cristian Nemescu's California Dreamin' (Un Certain Regard, 2006), and Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, (Palm d'Or, 2006).  Setting aside for a moment whether this flowering of the Romanian film industry constitutes a "new wave" (the filmmakers themselves seem to want to avoid such a label, as Scott covers well), all of these prize winners are currently available on Netflix Watch Instantly, and are worth investigating if you have not had a chance to do so.

Some broad characteristics linking most of these films include: an unflinching commitment to realism with a particular interest in the quotidian details of modern life, and various stylistic techniques that enhance or highlight the details most often ignored in mainstream film language.  These techniques include loose, handheld cinematography, and scenes staged as extended long takes that emphasize the duration of the mundane routines in the lives of the characters.  For an introduction to some of these traits, you can see a New York Times interactive feature on recent Romanian cinema, here.

At a recent informal screening of Porumboiu's Police, Adjective, a young woman wandered into the screening a few minutes into the film, stayed a while, and left saying to her friends outside, "Absolutely nothing was happening."  This is a common complaint against the films that are committed to minimalism.  If you do decide to explore some of these films, you will need to adjust your expectations and understand that within a minimal aesthetic, when everything seems to be removed, everything that remains carries a great deal of weight.  Shifting your attention to the features that you used to ignore but are now the salient properties of the work will hopefully reward you with a different kind of aesthetic experience.

California Dreamin' (Cristian Nemescu, Romania, 2007, 154 minutes)
Netflix: When a NATO train on a mission is stalled by a village functionary (Razvan Vasilescu), the Marines escorting the train (Armand Assante and Jamie Elman) are besieged by the mayor, love-struck local women and striking factory workers, all trying to use the delay to their own advantage. Based on an actual incident, this is the final film by acclaimed Romanian director Cristian Nemescu, who died a few weeks after its completion. Netflix link.

With the presence of Armand Assante and the storyline integrating American, English speaking characters, at times this seems like a variation on the trends within Romanian cinema packaged for international audiences.  It is far less rigorous stylistically speaking; despite its length, it is closer to standard editing in most scenes despite looser camerawork and occasional long takes.  Some critics have speculated that if Nemescu had survived he would have trimmed the overall running time down from its current 154 minutes.  To me, the running time in itself is not an issue (see other running times in this list), but it does seem long in relation to the overall style and pace of the film.  So while this might not be the best introduction to the trends mentioned above, this still remains a fascinating and engaging film that does integrate some more familiar stylistic traits for the uninitiated.

Like the other films to be discussed, California Dreamin' works best in the small observational moments as it documents life in a small Romanian town.  Monica (Maria Dinulescu), a 17-year old girl, feels socially and economically trapped. While her father, Doriaru the station master (Razvan Vasilescu), seems to control the town, giving her a degree of status, she realizes that she is just a big fish in a small pond.  She feels smothered by her father and sees the arrival of the NATO train as a means of escape.  At times the film flirts with a kind of magical realism, with mixed results, as Monica seems to have some kind of electric current running through her body.  But as she begins a relationship with David, a Marine sergeant, we begin to see the ambivalence that all of the villagers have about the Americans.  On the one had, the Americans mean opportunity; on the other hand, engaging with Americans to a degree means a loss of self.

The story also evolves into an allegory about American intervention into global politics.  The allegory plays best when sticking to the nuanced details about how the American presence has affected the lives of the villagers.  While some of the allegorical points get a bit heavy handed, they are still valuable in reminding us that not all Europeans have the same views on American interventions from World War II to Kosovo (the time frame for this story) to Iraq (the context during which the film was made).  The film sets up the relationships within the town at a leisurely pace, and some of the conflicts between the Americans and the villagers are taken from too-familiar tropes (undersexed Yanks, the rhetoric of freedom, etc.).  But when the consequences of this seemingly insignificant conflict (over whether to allow a NATO train to pass through a station without official papers) begin to play themselves out, the results are explosive and tragic.

Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, Romania, 2006, 147 minutes)
Netflix: The plot of Romanian director Cristi Puiu's real-time drama is simple, following the travails of an ailing old man (veteran actor Ion Fiscuteanu) who waits for his illness to overtake him as a weary paramedic (Luminta Gheorghiu) shuttles him between hospitals. Inspired by filmmaker Eric Rohmer's Six Moral Tales, Puiu's slyly metaphorical satire is the first installment of the planned series Six Stories from the Bucharest Suburbs. Netflix link.

Use this film as a litmus test to see if you are interested in the rest of the list.  People either love or hate the film, and the film is not well served by the DVD cover stating "The most acclaimed comedy of the year," which sets up some false expectations.  While there is quite a bit of dark humor in the film, it is an unflinching portrait of the bureaucracy of the health care system in Romania, and one man's last journey through it.  I greatly admire the dedicated rigor with which the film sticks to its aesthetic principles, despite the fact that doing so will turn many viewers away.  The film uses duration as a stylistic tool, and despite the fact that very little seems to be going on, the film has a very wide range of emotional tones.  And rather than being boring, I often find the staging and camerawork quite clever in how it manages to continue to introduce visual variation and interest within mundane events and routines. 

Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania, 2009, 114 minutes) 
Netflix: Undercover cop Cristi (Dragos Bucur) trails suspected pot dealer Victor (Radu Costin) through the decrepit streets of Vaslui, but when he learns that the suspect is just a teen who sometimes gets high with his pals, he refuses to make an arrest. Unfortunately, Cristi's boss (Ioan Stoica) isn't quite as forgiving. The Romanian New Wave rolls on strongly with this complex drama from writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu. Netflix link.

Again, it would be misleading to call the film a comedy, but its dry humor is indeed part of the pleasure of watching it.  I'm never sympathetic to arguments about boredom along the lines of "its supposed to be boring," or "his job is boring, so they're going for that experience." For me, boredom is a choice.  If you are bored by the film then you are choosing not to engage with the film as it is designed, and ignoring the salient elements that it presents to you.  Like Mr. Lazarescu, duration becomes a stylistic tool here; if you allow for that as a possibility in filmmaking (and art making in general), then you will be open to what effects long takes and extended durations can create. Once you are willing to play that game, then the rewards are many.

12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania, 2007, 85 minutes)
Netflix: Jderescu (Ion Sapdaru) is a Romanian public affairs television series host eager to produce a panel show about the 1989 overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu's Communist regime. Intentions of a historically accurate program turn to satirical comedy when Jderescu's only two guests are both less than informative. Worse, the show's call-in viewers have widely dissenting opinions of what actually took place 16 years ago in the streets of Bucharest. Netflix link.

As with Police, Adjective, the humor here is relentlessly dry.  But as relatively slow and minimal the first part of the film is, it has the audacity of using the trope of an even less eventful public-access style television show for the crucial second half of the film (I use public-access here only as a quick frame of reference for American audiences).  Rather than boredom, the film engenders a great sense of tension as you feel for the characters in front of the live television camera as they struggle through a debate about the nature of personal, social, and political memory.  They can neither escape the show, nor can they escape the truth of what happened in 1989 and its consequences in their lives.   

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, Romania, 2007, 113 minutes)
Netflix: In the last days of communism in Romania, college student Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) wants to end her unplanned pregnancy. With help from best friend and fellow student Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), Gabita seeks an abortion -- which is illegal under the oppressive Ceausescu regime. Director Cristian Mungiu's searing portrait of life under a dictatorship received a slew of film festival awards along with a Golden Globe nod for Best Foreign Language Film. Netflix link.

I'm looking forward to finally catching up with this film, inspired by looking at the others in preparation for this entry.  Of course, given the nature of the abortion debate within the United States, one wonders if a serious and nuanced examination of the topic is even possible in mainstream American fiction filmmaking (Hollywood or indie).  But another feature that this film seems to share with the others mentioned above is an acute interest in examining and understanding recent history, in a way that doesn't seem to interest American filmmakers. 

The Way I Spent the End of the World (Catalin Mitulescu, Romania, 2006, 101 minutes)
Netflix: In 1989 Romania, plucky 17-year-old Eva Matei (Doroteea Petre) comes of age as she schemes to escape the country's tyranny with help from her recalcitrant neighbor (Cristian Vararu). Meanwhile, as her parents endure the brutal dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, Eva's 7-year-old brother (Timotei Duma) plots to kill the despot. Writer-director Catalin Mitulescu's powerful, astute feature debut also stars Ionut Becheru and Mircea Diaconu. Netflix link.

Another film I look forward to exploring in the coming days.  One of my ambitions with this blog is to reveal films that people don't know about on Watch Instantly or other streaming services.  Another is to discover films myself, and I was unfamiliar with this title until I started preparing this entry.  If you have seen it I look forward to your thoughts about it in the comments section.

I hope to update this after I see the last two films on the list.  Meanwhile thank you for your interest and let me know what you think of the films if you decide to explore them.  --JLK

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