The “Romanian New Wave” has proven to be a rather slippery thing to keep track of, largely because a lot of the best movies from that movement don’t get very widely released even in the arthouse world in this hemisphere and they don’t always make the absolute biggest of splashes when they premiere at festivals. Every time I think I’ve reasonably caught up with I find out about a couple other acclaimed Romanian films that my radar didn’t pick up on until it was too late. Recently it’s come to my attention that there was an entire major filmmaker from that southeastern European nation who I’ve been sleeping on: Radu Jude. This guy, whose name is pronounced like “Rah-Doo Gzu-Day” has made a number of daring movies in the last ten years or so and with his last couple of projects appears to have begun making some highly topical films that I feel like I should be paying closer attention to. So, seems like no better time than the present to step in and check these movies out.
The Happiest Girl in the World (2009)
Radu Jude’s debut feature is the 2009 film The Happiest Girl in the World, whose title is most certainly ironic but this is nonetheless lighter (or at least it sounds lighter) than a lot of the other films that are in Jude’s future. The film follows a girl in her late teens who lives in a rural area of Romania who’s won a new car from a contest on a juice bottle and is being driven into Bucharest by her parents to star in an advertisement by this juice company before she can claim her prize. The thing is her parents want to sell this car and put the money towards a real estate investment instead of letting her keep it, which causes some conflict between them and her mood isn’t helped when she arrives at the advertisement set and has to deal with a rather blunt and profane film crew… which is a problem because the central line of the advertisement (which she says over and over again over several takes) is “I’m the happiest girl in the world!” So, it’s a film that is set over a single day as this 30 second TV commercial is being shot and we get an idea of how much work goes into even the most banal of television content and we see the tensions rise between her and her parents (who are in fact dipshits) over the course of this day. None of this necessarily leads to any major catharsis and I do suspect certain audiences would lose some patience with this over the course of it as the high concept plays out, but the movie doesn’t feel like some kind of unwatchable pretentious experiment, there’s humor along the way and the film’s dialogue and storytelling is not opaque. Not a movie that’s going to conquer the world but it’s a fun little piece of work and a good start to a career I have high expectations for.
***1/2 out of Five
After making The Happiest Girl in the World Radu Jude made a feature in 2012 called Everybody in Our Family, which is even harder to find than Jude’s other films (which are themselves, not the easiest to get a hold of) and also made some short films and documentary type things (this guy has a lot of side projects). So for the next movie I’ll be looking at I’ll be jumping to his 2015 film Aferim!, which from a production values perspective is probably his most ambitious work. The Romanian New Wave is generally not associated with period pieces, or at least not period pieces set earlier than the Nicolae Ceaușescu but this film is set in 1835 Wallachia. This region is not terribly developed and everyone is riding around outdoors on horseback so in a way this is kind of cinematically invoking the western… but not the fun kind of western with lots of shooting, more like the revisionist westerns where you need to ruminate on how violent and backwards the old west used to be. In the place of Native Americans, the oppressed group here are the Roma people who are rarely even referred to as “gypsies” here, rather they are described as “crows” and are apparently regularly enslaved by the area nobility. The film follows a lawman who, assisted by his son, has been tasked with tracking down a runaway Roma slave who is rumored to have had an affair with his owner’s wife.
The film’s depiction of early 19th Century Wallachia is rather bleak. Almost everyone in the film is casually hateful both of the Roma people but also of Jews, Turks, and pretty much every other ethnic and national group in the region and the enslavement of the Roma people is done with casual brutality not unlike the chattel slavery of the American South around this time. The film is shot in slightly sepia tinged black and white, which goes a long way toward establishing this time period and while this isn’t a massively budgeted costume drama there does appear to have been some effort and resources put into the film’s look. The film’s ending is ultimately fairly nihilistic with the lawman carrying out his mission, the consequences playing out as one would expect, and the lawman riding away telling his son they can’t change what the world is. One could view that as sneakily hopeful, nearly two hundred years later Romania is not still enslaving Roma people, or less hopeful given that mistreatment and divisions exist both there and in most other societies to some extent to this day and likely long into the future. It’s not a rosy movie but it isn’t one that revels in misery even if it’s always there surrounding the characters, it even has a definite wry sense of humor even in its darkest moments.
**** out of Five
Scarred Hearts (2016)
The third Radu Jude film I’m going to look at, Scarred Hearts, in some ways feels a bit closer to what I normally expect out of the Romanian New Wave than what came before, namely in that it’s kind of following someone through a miserable experience and using a lot of long shots and stark techniques to do it. The film is based on the writings of a man named Max Blecher, who was an early 20th Century Romanian author who, in the 1930s was diagnosed with spinal tuberculosis and spent the last ten years of his life confined to his bed before dying in 1938 at the age of 28. While in an out of various sanatoriums he did, however, manage to write a pair of novels including the autobiographical “Scarred Hearts” of which this is an adaptation. The film follows a character who’s basically Blecher as he finds himself checked in to a sanitarium and, well, life in a 1930s Romanian sanitarium is about as fun as it sounds. The film is shot in the Academy Ratio and runs a pretty lengthy 140 minutes in which we watch this character’s day to day life as he goes through the various indignities of disability. We also get some acknowledgement of the day to day horrors of this man, who is Jewish, reading about the rise of Hitler while he’s confined and surrounded by a number of anti-Semites who find the rise of fascism appealing. The film is not 100% miserablist however as there are places where the character’s youth and humanity shine through, mainly in a subplot where he begins an affair with a fellow patient. So, I see what Jude was going for this one and respect it to some extent but the whole thing is a bit Cristi Puiu-esque in how slow and dark it is and I did not care at all for a device where the film rather frequently brings up title cards with passages from Blecher’s writing on screen, which got old fast. Not a movie for everyone, and at the moment I’m not sure it’s a movie for me.
**1/2 out of Five
I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians (2018)
This movie and its eye catching title is in many ways the film that first started to build Radu Jude’s reputation with international audiences even if it still didn’t get very wide distribution in the United States. In large part that’s because the subject matter is extremely relevant to modern discourse even if it’s theoretically hyper-focused on Romania. The title is a quote from Ion Antonescu, Romania’s wartime dictator during World War II who aided vicious genocide by their Axis allies between 1941 and 1943 including the 1941 Odessa massacre. These are facts undisputed by most reputable historians and Antonescu was executed for war crimes, but in this film Jude paints a portrait of a modern Romania that is in heavy denial about its own Axis history and that there’s a degree of widespread denial amongst portions of the populous about their own holocaust. The film follows a woman who is in the process of making an art project, sort of a televised theater piece in the city square that will involve recreations of Romanian atrocities and ends up running into controversy and denialism at every turn.
In a number of ways this movie could be viewed as something of an excuse to put various arguments into the mouths of its characters with some of its highlights being these extended conversation between the star and gender flipped filmmaker self-insert played by Ioana Iacob and a government official involved in this project’s funding played by Alexandru Dabija who makes some really devilish devil’s advocate arguments for sanitizing her depiction of history out of a sort of cynical appeasement of the most “patriotic” audience members who will reject the director’s vision. The final performance of the play-within-a-film also doesn’t really work out the way the director intends with audience members cheering on the Romanian troops in the reenactment even as they set forth to engage in a slaughter and boo the Soviet troops even though they are ostensibly setting forth to fight Nazis, almost like Sasha Baron Cohen getting audience to cheer him on when he makes comically horrible arguments. The film’s modern setting and borderline satirical tone allows it to sidestep having to recreate the graphic realities of these massacres to make its point and allows it to make a more pointed point rooted in modern political concerns while asserting the truth of this history. And despite the film’s specificity in Romania’s historical legacy, this point is hardly irrelevant outside that country’s border. These debates about telling the truth about unpleasant aspects of history exists to some extent in every nation and is certainly relevant in the United States during the era of so-called “anti-CRT” legislation.
**** out of Five
Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (2021)
Radu Jude’s most recent film, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, premiered at the Berlin Film Festival on March 2 2021, which is worth noting because the film is very much a movie that is about a very specific moment in history and that moment is now. The film was presumably shot sometime late in the year 2020 because it is more or less the first major film to truly acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic. In broad strokes the movie is about a woman who finds her life turned upside down when a sex tape she shot with her husband found its way onto the internet, putting her job as a history teacher at a high end private school in jeopardy. We see that extremely sex tape at the beginning of the film, or at least we do if you watch the uncensored version that’s available on iTunes, the version on Hulu is visibly censored with comical title cards on top of the image. From there it’s a film in three distinct acts. The first act follows this teacher as she goes through a day; the purpose of this scene is partially to set up the story and how stressed the character is, but its larger purpose is just to paint a portrait of life during the pandemic. I’m not sure exactly when this was filmed or the exact social trajectory of the pandemic was in Romania but it seems to be set after the point where everyone was quarantining at home but before people stopped masking. Masks are omnipresent through much of the film, possibly the only film I’ve seen to date where that’s the case, and this first act is very much about how ornery and disruptive the whole situation has made people.
I’ll set aside the second act for a moment and move to the third, which is a sort of makeshift informal trial the protagonist goes through in front of a bunch of angry parents who want her fired for the sex tape having come out. Here the film gets more directly to the point of the film’s critique of the prudishness of society and the way people hypocritically invade people’s privacy while also judging them as many of the parents do here with their pearl clutching “think of the children” nonsense. The angry parents also betray all sorts of anti-Semitism and racism as they complain about the teacher’s “liberal” history curriculum with one parent accusing her, without a shred of irony of “indoctrinating kids about the holocaust… with lies about Romanians killing k***s and crows [a racial slur against the Roma people].” This is of course right in line with Jude’s critique of the sanitization of Romanian history seen in his film I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians and like in that film it hits plenty close to home with American audiences as well who are currently witnessing the hysteria around “Critical Race Theory in schools.” Ultimately the section ends by presenting the audience with three possible endings: one where she keeps her job, one where she’s fired, and one that gives the character an outrageous if satisfying deus ex machina to go out on.
That’s all really biting and good and it’s more than enough to recommend the film, however, I do think it falls short of true greatness and that’s largely because of the film’s middle act which sets aside the film’s story in place of a procession of mini twenty second video essays on various subjects. Some of them are solid bits of satire but a lot of them are either quick sexual shocks or are rather sophomoric observations on politics that are rather on the nose at best. It’s all very Godardian, not necessarily in a good way, and while these bits do kind of fit within the satirical tone the film is going for they just go on forever and aren’t nearly as interesting to me as the rest of the film and kind of feel like padding in the grand scheme of things. That aside I think this movie is kind of awesome, it takes on very modern debates with incredible wit and the fact that it was as made as quickly as it was is really amazing.
**** out of Five
I’m so glad I decided to catch up on this guy. He pretty much has the perfect voice for our times and his movies are exceptionally smart and fearless in their execution. He’s plainly one of the most important voices in contemporary European cinema and cinema in general for that matter and watching his movies in order told a clear story about the progression of his thoughts on certain issues. There’s still a lot to catch up with from him as he has several documentary projects and another feature I couldn’t get my hands on and of course I’m excited to see what comes from him next.