It all started in 2005, with the release of Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. After that, the new wave of Romanian cinema (aka the New Romanian Cinema) quickly caught the eye of the international film industry. Six years later, romantic comedy Buna! Ce faci? (Hello! How are you?) has finally reached local screens prompting critics to wonder: has Romanian new wave finally reached maturity and if so will it now embrace other genres?
Film journalist and critic Mihai Fulger, who in 2007 published the volume of interviews The New Wave of the Romanian Cinema (later to be awarded by Romania’s Film Critics Association), believes that the actual onset of the current cinematic wave occurred in 2001, with Cristi Puiu’s first film, Stuff and Dough. “Nobody then expected this to lead to international acclaim, not even then young directors Cristian Mungiu and Radu Muntean, making their debuts in 2002. The cinematic pattern established by Cristi Puiu gradually became a trend after the director received the Un Certain Regard award at the Cannes Film Festival (plus dozens of other international distinctions) for his second feature, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005).”
Until 2005, Fulger observes, the Romanian cinema was “a big blank on the map of international cinema.” However, theater critic and professor of Drama Theories at UNATC, Anca Ionita, says this is not entirely true, if you look back further: “Film and theater director Liviu Ciulei, who was awarded the best director prize for Padurea spanzuratilor (Forest of the Hanged) in 1965 at Cannes, became a well known personality abroad, both in Europe and in the US. Between 1980 and 1985 he was the artistic director of Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis,
making a huge impact on American theatre.”
So what characterizes the genre? Fulger lists the typical ingredients of recent Romanian films: “raw, uncomfortable realism, realistic situations (many films are based on real cases) and ‘live’ characters (neither exceptional, nor exponential), authentic dialogue (filled with actually significant ‘nothings’) and spoken very naturally (without the theatricality that characterized most of the interpretations of local productions), ‘in-hand’ or ‘on-shoulder’ filming, long, large and almost fixed frames, the deliberate rejection of foregrounds and non-narrative music (lacking an explicit or implicit on-screen source).”
And efforts that have deviated from this formula have not always enjoyed their fair share of attention. Ionita cites one Romanian film that did not receive its due publicity, The Medal of Honor (Medalia de onoare). “The creative work of director Calin Netzer and scriptwriter Tudor Voican deserved more attention from local film critics and the general media, since it goes beyond the established recipe of a realistic view of life in post-1989 Romania, adding a ‘human’ perspective to the main character, highlighting his psychological process, rather then ‘weaving’ his actions into the factual background.” Fulger agrees that Medal of Honor was overlooked. Another neglected movie Ionita adds, “which was very well received by American critics but didn’t get the attention it deserved, I think, from European ones, is Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective (Politist, adjective), a masterpiece, in my opinion, of contemporary cinema.”
Florentina Ciuverca, film journalist and editor at filmreporter.ro, believes that it is the quality of these films rather than the New Wave “recipe” that earned them their plaudits. “An important detail is that all of the directors of the New Wave won awards with their first or second film, which means that they grew and evolved together, borrowing ideas from one another and taking them further. Each of them has his own distinctive voice and if someone is not yet sure of that, they will be after their fourth, fifth or sixth film. And abroad, these films gained attention because they are viable and interesting artistic proposals. In short, good films. Not because, as critics would say, they offered the Western World what it wanted to see (in fact, foreign critics and spectators showed every sign that they had discovered a world they did not know, be it communist or post-communist) or because they exaggerated the ‘dirt’, a cliché in which many spectators with identity issues became stuck.”
Others say that the success of local films may well be random. Writer Jean-Lorin Sterian, occasional actor, scriptwriter and filmmaker, believes it could be down to cultural trends: now it is the turn of Romania to gain attention: ”There were years when Iranian cinema was sought after, and Russian films, and Chinese (not necessarily in that order). Now it is Romania’s turn. It is said that Romanians make films for international festivals and not for their own public, which irritates our directors. The truth is perhaps somewhere in between. What is certain, however, is the fact that the exploitation of communism brought awards, fame and a respected position in European cinema.”
But whatever the reason behind the New Wave’s storm to prominence, it is not heaps of cash. Fulger and Ciuverca both estimate the average budget of a Romanian film at somewhere between EUR 600,000 and 700,000, “of which, the luckiest ones recover 10-20 percent at the Romanian box office”, says Ciuverca. Adds Ionita, “The real issue here is the small number of cinemas across the country, which is directly responsible for low box-office figures.” The only production to recover all of its investment was Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, the film journalists agreed. Mungiu’s feature, which took the highest prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the Palme D’Or, in 2007, grossed a total of USD 10 million, most of which came from outside Romania.
In place of the big bucks that come from the studio system in the US, much of the credit for the existence of Romanian films goes to the National Center of Cinematography (CNC – Centrul National al Cinematografiei), Ciuverca adds, “without which Romanian films would not exist. Sponsors are rare and seldom generous or powerful enough to support an industry.”
So where now for New Wave? In 2011, Fulger believes that film buffs should keep an eye out for Cristi Puiu’s Aurora, Bogdan George Apetri’s debut, Periferic (Outbound), Catalin Mitulescu’s Loverboy, Adrian Sitaru’s Din dragoste, cu cele mai bune intentii (Out of love, with the best intentions), as well as three other debut features, including theater director Silviu Purcarete’s Undeva la Palilula (Somewhere in Palilula). Ionita, in her capacity as a theater critic, is also keenly awaiting the launch of Purcarete’s film.
The debate on the merits of local film has also exercised the international media. One of the most recent comments was an article published in February in the Global Post, which described Romanian cinema as a global trendsetter, going beyond its local parameters: “The appeal of Romanian cinema goes beyond its minimalist style, whose influence can be seen in films like Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. The themes of Romanian films tend to be universal in their appeal.”
Goodbye Ceausescu: does Hello! How Are You? mark a cinematic turning point or is it just marketing buzz?
The newly released comedy is indeed “a breath of fresh air”, as a 2010 review in Variety magazine described it, in the dark world of the cinematic creations of Puiu, Mungiu, Serban, Muntean and Porumboiu. The bittersweet romcom tells the story of a couple whose twenty-year marriage has gone stale. Each seeks love elsewhere and, through an ironic twist of fate, ends up chatting to the other and falling in love with their interlocutors, without realizing who it is. While the two adults play out their mid-life crises, their 17-year-old adolescent son deals with his own troubles, caught between his overwhelming emerging sexuality and, eventually, true love. The film had a budget of EUR 800,000, the director told Business Review, and is based on a true story, which appeared in the local press over four years ago. Financial reasons delayed the film’s release.
During a press conference held after a preview of the film, critic Andrei Gor zo dismissed it as “insipid” and said that all the discussions built around it may be a clever marketing strategy. The film should not be regarded as a trendsetter, Gorzo added, since the comic genre has been mined in Romania several times recently (he gave the examples of Ho Ho Ho and Poker). But others at the event disagreed. Romanian film critic and artistic director of the Transylvania International Film Festival (TIFF), Mihai Chirilov, believes that the movie is a “leap from bad-taste films (such as Ho Ho Ho or Poker)” and is “a film that Americans could easily remake in five years”, since it successfully follows a blockbuster formula. Chirilov insisted that Hello! How Are You? represents “a passing from the New Wave to something else”.
As for the future of Romanian cinema, Chirilov, who reportedly anticipated the success of Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, believes that the next blockbuster will also come from the Cannes-winning director. Until then, however, he said, Romanian cinema desperately needs films that sit easily in a genre.
Romanian cinema in numbers*
RON 2,709,232 the average budget of a feature film
RON 360,512 the average budget of a short film
RON 5,707,680 the average budget of an animated film
RON 726,216 the average budget of a documentary
160,760 spectators attended Romanian films in 2010
RON 2,007,955 total gross of Romanian films in 2010
*according to data from CNC (The National Center of Cinematography
Picture: still from Hello! How Are You?