Crash Course: The Romanian New Wave

In an attempt to better diversify the content on this blog I’m introducing a new series of pieces I plan to write called “Crash Course.”  This is a rather casual series that will feature sporadically and will cover a wide range of topics.  With each Crash Course article I’ll look at something that’s been a blind spot in my movie watching and examine a handful of movies related to said blindspot.  Some of these articles will look at the works of a certain filmmaker, some will look at movies from a common franchise, and some will simply be looking at some films that all have a common theme. 

Sometimes I look at the movies I will have watched recently and just think “man, I feel like a fraud.”  I like to think of myself as a really hip and knowledgeable filmgoer who’s in the know about all the latest trends in world cinema but all too often I feel like I’ve taken the easy way out.  Case in point, Romania is going through a really exciting film renaissance right now and I’ve missed most of it out of sheer laziness.  I was sort of there for the Romanian New Wave when it started.  I watched Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu on DVD when it was still relatively new upwards of ten years ago and I also saw the great 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days in theaters back in early 2008 but that was more or less the last Romanian movie I’ve seen and it certainly isn’t for lack of interest.  In my defense, a lot of the problem has been availability.  These movies obviously don’t get the greatest theatrical releases stateside and all too often by the time these films finally end up on home video it feels like it’s already a little after the fact.  Still, there’s no real excuse for why I haven’t caught up with any of these movies so I’ve resolved to do a little survey of all the major Romanian films I’ve missed.

Police, Adjective (2009)

RNWPoliceAdjetive

Police, Adjective was directed by Corneliu Porumboiu, who previously directed 12:08 East of Bucharest and is arguably the second most famous director of the Romanian New Wave.  Of the directors in the movement he seems to be the most… I don’t know that playful is the right word but his movies do seem more willing to tackle their intellectual themes head on rather than obliquely even if he still does so while staying well within the realms of social realism.  This film uses a very personal story in order to address some very weighty themes about society, particularly the uncaring nature of institutions and the fight between duty and morality.  The film is about a police officer tasked with staking out a teenager who has been seen smoking pot and occasionally handing out dimebags to his friends.  While doing this the young officer has come to be rather conflicted about his investigation and about the morality of arresting someone for such petty crime.  In this sense the film is something of a low stakes version of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others but rather than being set in a repressive past (like the Ceaușescu regime) this is very much about modern institutions.

The film ends with a bravura sequence in which the officer’s boss uses linguistics to deconstruct the officer’s conflict, painting him into a semantic corner from which he can’t escape.  And so, as in a David Simon program, the rigid and self-protecting institution prevails over individual morality.  The film isn’t completely didactic, the officer does have a couple of good points over the course of the speech, but the film ultimately very much a societal critique.  I do however wish the movie had gotten to this point a little quicker.  In typical Romanian fashion the film has a lot of lingering shots but they aren’t laced with tension so much as they are intended to show the officer’s gradual questioning of his assignment.  And by gradual I do mean gradual, his inner turmoil is almost frustratingly subtle at times.  Ultimately I found this to be a very interesting and rewarding film, especially once I’ve gotten time to think about it, but it isn’t one I particularly enjoyed watching for long stretches of time.

*** out of Four

Aurora (2010)

RNWAurora

Out of all the movies in this Romanian cinema crash course, this is the one that had me worried.  The film was directed by Cristi Puiu, who made The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu, which was the first of the Romanian New Wave films that I saw gaining major international attention.  That was a movie that I certainly respected from afar but which was really not an easy movie to get through.  Given that this movie was a full three hours and showed every sign of using a similarly minimalist realistic style I knew that this movie would be… challenging.  Puiu’s stated intent is to make a series called “Six Stories from the Outskirts of Bucharest” which would be thematically linked by variations on the theme of love.  Lăzărescu was the first of the films and focused on love for one’s fellow man (or lack thereof) and Aurora is meant to be about love between a man and a woman but as you can guess he approaches that in a rather cynical and twisted way.  The film is about a man named Viorel who has recently divorced his wife and is bitter about this and wants revenge.  We watch him live his life as he slowly assembles his weapons and then coldly murders the lawyer who represented his wife in the divorce before proceeding to the next stage in his plan.

Aurora would seem to take the aesthetic of the Romanian New Wave to something of an extreme as it slowly allows the episode at hand to unravel with minimal exposition and zero attempt to explain what it all means.  I went into the film knowing that it was a story that would involve a murder but if I hadn’t I’m not exactly sure I would have quite seen the violent act at the midpoint coming, or at least that it would happen the way it happened.  The film is quite long but it doesn’t necessarily seem slow… or at least not as slow as you would expect it to be.  Still I do think the film errors a bit in the way its depiction of the main character at its center.  This is a guy who is something of a cipher and who needs to be really compelling while not really doing a whole lot and who needs to convey a whole lot through subtle facial mannerisms.  You need a really good actor in order to pull that off, and rather than cast a master thespian Puiu cast himself in the role.  He has an interesting look for the role in that he’s an aggressively average looking person, but I don’t think he really had the chops to pull it off and I’m not exactly sure why he thought it was a good idea to step in front of the camera like that and at the end of the day the main character is just too much of a blank slate.  The movie is like the anti-“Crime and Punishment.”  Where Dostoyevsky created a book where someone commits a senseless crime and talks in detail about why he did it and about everything that was going through his head leading up to his eventual downfall, this is about a guy who commits a senseless crime and goes out of his way not to explain himself.

*** out of Four

Beyond the Hills (2012)

RNWBeyondtheHills

Out of all the Romanian New Wave directors, Cristian Mungiu is clearly the one who’s garnered the most international success after having won the Palm d’Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival for his film 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days.  This brought the film, and the movement as a whole to an even greater worldwide attention and was the film that really made me realize the potential of the new Romanian cinema.  After that triumph Mungiu produced an omnibus film called Tales From the Golden Age but it wouldn’t be until 2012, five whole years since “4 Months,” that we got his true follow-up in the film Beyond the Hills.  That film is set in an Eastern Orthodox convent in modern Romania and tells the story of two women who grew up together in an orphanage but were separated at some point in their teen years with one being adopted by a German family and the other becoming a nun.  As the film begins, the girl who was adopted has returned to Romania to visit the one who became a nun and hopes that she can convince her to come back to Germany with her.  It is strongly implied that there was a Sapphic element of the two girls’ relationship back in the orphanage and this colors her inability to relate to the other woman’s new life as a nun and her refusal to run away with her.  This leads to something of a psychotic break in the mind of the girl who wants to run away, which the other people in the convent interpret as possession by a demon, and this leads to all sorts of trouble.

Impressively, Cristian Mungiu pretty much avoids the sophomore slump here because it’s clearly another really strong effort, perhaps not quite up to the level of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days but pretty damn close.  I hate to be superficial but Mungiu’s movies are a bit more formal and just look better than some of the other movies by his countrymen and he has a bigger budget to work with here, likely thanks to that Palm d’Or win.  This movie has a lot going on in it, there’s the theme of spiritual vs. personal fulfilment, the question of whether it’s the nuns duty to be charitable or to be spiritually diligent, and there’s the question of what leads the convent members to behave as they do towards the outsider at the end and how that should be viewed by society.  There’s also the personal story about these two people who drifted in two different directions and who don’t really know how to reconcile their new lives and some rather pointed criticism about how intolerant and stubborn the church can be.  The movie never fully takes one side in these debates though and I like the way it does at least leave open the possibility of a supernatural interpretation even though I don’t think that’s what’s actually going on in the film.  This is exactly the kind of ambitious and brilliantly executed movie I want to get out of world cinema and it’s a great indication that Mungiu is here to stay.

**** out of Four

Child’s Pose (2013)

RNWChildsPose

The final film in my crash course of Romanian cinema is Călin Peter Netzer’s 2013 film Child’s Pose, which is probably the most class conscious of the four films I’ve looked at.  The film focuses in on a middle aged upper class woman named Cornelia who comes to learn that her adult son has gotten into a car accident while driving somewhat irresponsibly and that this accident has left a child dead.  Immediately she does into defensive mode and tries to pull all the strings necessary to keep her son out of jail and to make the whole scandal go away.  Unfortunately for her this proves to generally be more difficult than she thinks.  This scenario sounds like the set-up for a sort of dark satire about entitled wealthy people and their amoral attempts to buy injustice, but Netzer has instead gone a different and perhaps less obvious route.  The film is actually a pretty serious character drama about how a situation like this would weigh on all the people involved.

A big part of how they manage to get away with this is because there is a certain degree of ambiguity about just how much this accident was the son’s fault.  He wasn’t drunk or anything when the accident happened and while speeding in order to pass someone is technically illegal and irresponsible it isn’t exactly beyond the pale and you can sort of relate to why a mother might pull some strings to make something like this go away.  At the same time the film never gets on this woman’s side and doesn’t condone the sense of entitlement that she shows while trying to pull these strings.  Luminița Gheorghiu is of course the center of the film and plays this wealthy woman straight rather as some sort of comic caricature of an out of control one percenter.  Bogdan Dumitrache also has a memorable role as the son and the film also features Vlad Ivanov (who played the underground abortionist in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days) in a small role.  Out of all the major Romanian directors I’ve looked at Călin Peter Netzer is probably the one who seems to have the least distinctive style and sensibility, but that doesn’t mean that this isn’t a fairly strong movie just the same.

*** out of Four

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