The Omnipresence of Gender Violence in the New Romanian Cinema
In 2016, while I was still a master’s student, I was very much preoccupied with the idea of female representation in cinema, a topic that, at the time, was gaining traction at a global level. Back then, I did a small questionnaire about how spectators perceive characters in films belonging to the New Romanian Cinema, according to gender. 101 people responded (57% identified as female, 43% as male), the majority of whom were between 18 and 35, who often watched films and also followed Romanian cinema. Looking back at the results of this study, I still believe that they’re very relevant: “Families are perceived as dysfunctional and unequal: the women are those who take care of domestic tasks, while men are the leaders of their households (…) Male characters are mostly associated with adjectives that define physical characteristics such as power and aggressiveness, while female ones are associated with maternal attributes and helplessness (…) The fact that most respondents believe that these representations are realistic indicates upon more than just a general perception of how the nuclear family cell functions in Romania, but also on certain prevalent social attitudes towards women.”
Meanwhile, a lot of things have considerably changed in Romanian cinema, which, in 2016, had its last NRC peak with the double selection of Puiu and Mungiu in the Official Competition at Cannes, and maybe the above perceptions have also changed a bit. Starting with 2017, a female-led wave of debuts washed across Romanian cinema, whose standard-bearers were Ivana Mladenovic and Adina Pintilie, followed by directors like Ruxandra Ghițescu, Alina Grigore, Monica Stan, and Cristina Groșan. Simultaneously, across these years, Romanian society has assimilated multiple rounds of ample public debates on misogyny and violence, often starting from alarming statements made by local celebrities – from the 2020 case of the professional video gamer Alexandru „Colo” Bălan (who instigated people to rape and assault underage girls on the basis of how they dressed) to the more recent outbursts of tech vlogger George Buhnici. (Of course, the two phenomena are not necessarily directly related, with the exception of the Viorica Vodă moment at the Gopo Awards – which we also discuss in the pages of this issue.)
To claim that the New Romanian Cinema was a movement almost exclusively led by male directors (save for Ana Lungu and Melissa de Raaf) is not to automatically condemn it – it’s pure observation. And yet another observation is the fact that very few of these films have female characters at their center. So few, that in some years, the list of nominations for the Gopo Award for Best Female Lead Actress is outright depressing – in 2007 and 2009, there were only three nominated actresses, two in 2008, and zero nominations in 2013, due to Cristian Mungiu’s infamous refusal to submit Beyond the Hills in the race. Sure, the nominations for Best Male Lead Actor are not much better, save for 2013, given the low overall number of eligible productions, but it’s still a telling fact. However, this begs the question – what do most of these female characters have in common? Or, in the words of my colleague Călin Boto, „What must a female character do in order to become a protagonist?” It’s quite simple: they have to endure acts of violence, often extreme, often sexual in nature.
Otilia from 4, 3, 2 (2007, dir. Cristian Mungiu) is raped. Matilda from Periferic (2010, dir. Bogdan George Apetri) is forced to have sex with her pimp, who also beats her. Francesca from the eponymous film (2009, dir. Bobby Păunescu) is constantly under threat of rape or kidnapping by loan sharks. Alina from Beyond the Hills (2013, dir. Cristina Mungiu) is killed due to abuse and neglect. Cornelia from Child’s Pose (2013, dir. Călin Peter Netzer) is subjected to verbal and physical violence by her son. Larisa from The World is Mine (dir. Nicolae Constantin Tănase, 2015) is a victim of pedophilia, domestic violence, and date rape. The titular character in Mo (2019, dir. Radu Dragomir) is the victim of a date rape perpetrated by her university professor. Cristina from Miracle (2021, dir. Bogdan George Apetri) is raped and murdered. Ecaterina from Balaur (2022, dir. Octav Chelaru) is forced to psychologically and sexually submit to her controlling husband, then survives an attempted rape by a psychopathic teenager. Secondary characters who suffer forms of sexual violence can also be found in Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation (2016) and Adrian Sitaru’s Fixeur (2016). Sexual violence is not only perpetrated on protagonists in films directed by men – but we also find it in films directed by women, where the protagonists are young women trying to take control of their lives: Ryna (2006, dir. Ruxandra Zenide), Blue Moon (2021, dir. Alina Grigore) and Immaculate (2021, dir. Monica Stan).
I can’t help but ask – what exactly makes the suffering of female characters, and forms of gender violence so attractive to scriptwriters? Where does one draw the line between political representations of these phenomena (which question the role of women in society, gender roles, and so on) and one that becomes voyeuristic, replicating the very same violent mechanisms onto the spectator? Sometimes, it seems to me that gender violence – be it physical, sexual, emotional, or psychological, often in combination (just like in real life) – is regarded by scriptwriters/filmmakers as the only way in which they could manage to create/underline a conflict in the case of a central female character.
Where does all of this violence come from? Iulia Popovici answers this question in her excellent analysis in “Romanian Cinema Inside Out”, published in 2019 by the Romanian Cultural Institute, titled “I’ve wanted to fuck you for a long time now.” Female Sexuality and Male Power in the Cinema of the Transition Period”, translated by Teodora Lascu:
„In effect, rape – along with a wide range of violations of the female body* – is seldom ever interpreted as a transgression in the Romanian cinema of the 1990s. (…) Rape is a metaphor, on the one hand for helplessness (in the face of history, of ‘the system’, of one’s own destiny) and on the other for how all regular social norms become suspended in times of great turmoil, a metaphor in which the abused body doesn’t belong to the woman – it is rather society itself, the social body, the body of the nation, violated in the attempt to re-establish a (natural) social order and man’s (male) power to take charge of his own destiny. (…) The dramatic irrelevance of rape and of the various forms of sexual abuse and aggression has the effect of trivializing and normalizing them and somewhat results in the commodification of the female body, depicted as no more than an illustrative element (…) and the deprivation of women’s agency.”
In the closing paragraph of her essay, Popovici writes that “Explicit rape as a privileged trope (…) used as a metaphor begins to fade from mainstream Romanian film, as suddenly as it appeared, towards the end of the 1990s, with the collapse of local film production (…) and the debut of a new generation.” Sure, the representation of rape (along with other forms of gender violence) is no longer commodified and speculated as a metaphor, nor is it ignored as if it were a random transgression, maybe only in the films of the oldest active filmmakers (as indicated by Popovici herself, in Mircea Daneliuc’s 2009 Floating Things). That is, the aims of these representations are different, something that the author herself foresees at the end of her article “For rape doesn’t disappear, rape transforms.” So what does it transform into, given the fact that New Wave-adjacent filmmakers profoundly rejected the cinema of the transition era? And given that the only film without a representation of violence committed upon its female protagonist between 2005 and 2012 is First of All, Felicia (r. Răzvan Rădulescu & Melissa de Raaf)?
Going down the path opened up by Popovci – i.e. the female body as an avatar of the national body (politic), in the vein of the 1848 European revolutions -, we see that the phenomenon of rape, as seen in the films of the NRC and in more recent films, pertains to the realities of a country that is profoundly abusive, dysfunctional, patriarchal and socially stratified, where sexuality is often transactional, imposed by men and accepted by women as a desperate means to secure/fulfill a certain urgent need (an abortion, a loan, access to their child, to fulfill their “duty” as a wife – thus calming down their angry husbands, etc.; in his 2008 review of Francesca, A. Gorzo calls it “[a] dictatorship of desperation, that is capable of anything”). The symbolic order is not reestablished through rape, but rather, is the one in which rape and violence are exerted upon feminized bodies – and even if, in contrast to transition-era representations, these are not necessarily lacking in narrative importance or consistency, they are still the dominant element when it comes to the representation of female characters.
In some cases, this violence ultimately culminates in death – like, for example, in Beyond the Hills where, granted, the main character’s death mirrors the real story (of the Tanacu case) which was adapted for the screen by Mungiu. Its detailed representation is part of the film’s discursive political aims, but still, its sheer violence is undeniable. And although they’re secondary characters, I’d also stop to mention the violently murdered mother in Aurora (2010, dir. Cristi Puiu), Raluca Aprodu’s character in Dogs (2016, dir. Bogdan Mirică), whose sole function is to distract the male character in certain key moments, Kira Hagi’s character in Unidentified (2021, dir. Bogdan George Apertri), who is killed by her partner in her only scene in the film and, last but not least, the titular character of Heidi (2019, r. Cătălin Mitulescu). Only in Ruxandra Ghițescu’s Otto the Barbarian (2020) does the female protagonist’s death (performed by actress Ioana Bugarin) is, due to its unusual temporal placement, defined by a different narrative reasoning than that of a climax: it is a lead to explore heavy topics (teenage mental health issues, post-suicide grieving) and the role of home movies and of cinema itself as a medium that preserves the appearance and voices of people who have passed away.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that these are the sole kinds of representations that male-identified filmmakers have offered. Radu Jude, for instance, avoids the fact of merely branding his female protagonists in The Happiest Girl in The World (2009), I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians (2018), or Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (2021) as victims. If the first of the three is a minor seeking to emancipate herself from her suffocating parents, the other two are adult women who are in full control of their sexualities, facing rounds of (more than just male) characters who are attempting to intellectually, morally and individually undermine them. Bogdan Theodor Olteanu’s mumblecore-inspired features use their insistence on dialogue as a means to almost fully eliminate the dramaturgical need of subjecting female protagonists to extreme situations (with the exception of a brief scene in Mia Misses Her Revenge, 2020); Marius Olteanu’s focus on his characters’ psychologies in Monsters. (2019) also eliminates violence. (I’d also give a special mention to Andrei Crețulescu’s 2015 short film, Ramona — a pulpy mix of NRC and exploitation movie tropes, where we see a woman taking violent revenge on a handful of men throughout a single night.)
Even considering these exceptions, things do look a lot better in the representations crafted by female filmmakers, in films that do not avoid dramaturgical conflicts (even if they’re slower to burn). This precedent proves that the expectation that female-directed films avoid (or recontextualize) the representation of gender violence more than in films directed by their male counterparts is correct. Ana Lungu’s features – The Belly of the Whale, 2009, The Self-Portrait of a Dutiful Daughter, 2015 and One and A Half Prince, 2018 – are character studies that see their female protagonists facing various crises of maturity. The same can be said by Ivana The Terrible (2019, dir. Ivana Mladenovic), where the protagonist’s conflict arises from the fact that her (consented) relationship is shunned by her community. Last but not least, in Touch Me Not, due to Adina Pintilie’s therapeutic device, we witness a process whereby the (sexual) trauma of a woman, Laura, is healed (through sexuality).
As I mentioned earlier, the simple fact that a film is directed by a woman doesn’t automatically imply that it won’t replicate the same patriarchal mechanism; nor does the fact that a film is directed by a mean guarantee sexism, misogyny or other maladroits / malentendus. One thing is clear to me, however: Romanian cinema must somehow escape this dizzying spiral of representing gender violence (explicitly, with many details, and often gratuitously) and reflecting it upon spectators. This does not mean that we’re all just going to pretend that it doesn’t exist anymore, it just means looking for different means and reasons for representing it – otherwise, it runs the risk of becoming as banalized as it is in society, at large. In other words, this is a plea for a different way of representing women in Romanian cinema, one that, at the very least, doesn’t imply explicit on-screen violence. For an end to the epidemic of gender violence in Romanian cinema, which mirrors the one in Romanian society. I’m not alone in calling for all this: we, [female] spectators, are sick and tired of seeing rapes, of seeing women being beaten and psychologically abused in Romanian films. Are there really no other things that can happen to female characters?
This article was published first in the 2022 printed issue of the magazine, still available in our online shop.