Call for courage – A review on Romanian film
After Collective, by Alexander Nanau, had the world premiere in the selection of the Venice Film Festival in September 2019, and at the beginning of 2020, Acasă, My Home, by Radu Ciorniciuc, was present at the Sundance Film Festival, the rise of the documentary has become one of the most trending topics among journalists, critics and cinephiles from Romania. The debate was justified by the many subsequent successes and the emergence of other titles in the midst of the pandemic.
I don’t intend to analyze this ongoing transformation here – we have done it on other occasions and there will be more to follow. What interests me now is the following question: This increase in number and the attention documentary films seem to get of late, could it be, among other things, a symptom, an indirect effect of the Romanian fiction film being hit by a writer’s block kind of thing? A numbness that should not be camouflaged by the constant press releases announcing the selection in one festival or another.
For several years, Romanian cinema has been going through adjustments and changes, but the outcome and its attributes aren’t quite clear yet. There is an obvious diversification, no doubt, and this process is complex: some filmmakers identified with the New Cinema reinvent themselves to remain relevant, others fall into the mannerism pit or no longer find their early days glow, while young talents seek their own path under the weight of the prior Waves’ laurels.
Then there are the more recent or more experienced directors who try their luck in the genre film or the commercial film, hoping to reach the general public, a rather unclear concept in a country with such a precarious cinema infrastructure as Ours. It’s a potential sign of a return to normalcy, which would mean a wider selection of titles, but it’s not the most interesting and fertile area, so I won’t insist on it.
The current moment, with the cinemas reopening and the festivals and production resuming at full speed, after almost a year and a half of upheaval, is a good opportunity for a short review, a snapshot, before immersing ourselves again into the vortex of the all-too-familiar cycle and lose sight of the whole.
The language specific to documentary film is not found just in titles that fall into this genre. It also made its way into the recent fiction film, in the most interesting forms, as a way to align with one of the important trends of international auteur cinema, also leading to a break into the stylistic barriers. Of course, the New Cinema borrowed such elements from documentary film from the get-go. But the new influence of non-fiction is clearly more visible.
And this is one of the most innovative and encouraging directions in Romanian cinema, especially since it came with an openness to new, bolder subjects. Suffice to mention here Touch Me Not, by Adina Pintilie, or Soldiers. Story from Ferentari and Ivana the Terrible, by Ivana Mladenović, two filmmakers who made their debut with a documentary – Don’t Get Me Wrong, respectively Turn Off the Lights.
And we can’t overlook director Teodora Ana Mihai (based in Belgium, but originally from Romania), who is our contender in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes with her first feature, La Civil. She, too, made her debut in documentary film, with Waiting for August. And as some short films and screenplays show, this trend will continue and will offer more pleasant surprises.
An interest towards documentary can also be spotted in Corneliu Porumboiu and Radu Jude’s cinema, the New Wave directors who seem to have experimented the most with their films – true, in completely different directions – and who were among the first to understand that the realism of yesteryear has exhausted much of its resources and lost its appeal, and that helped them remain on the international critics’ and major festivals’ radar. Hence their proclivity for conceptual fiction films – I don’t think it’s a coincidence that each of them probed the idea of popular film in their latest feature, the former with La Gomera, and the latter with Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn.
A special case is Cristi Puiu, the “father” of the New Romanian Cinema. The filmmaker manages to surprise with each film, coming with a different formal inquiry every time. After the already classic The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu, the emblematic title of the NRC and the source of inspiration for a true informal film school, followed Aurora, a difficult and ambitious film, then the crowd-pleaser (compared to the rest) Sieranevada, and now Malmkrog, a hard shell “period” film, extremely challenging and difficult to fit into a specific category. It’s true, the reception of each new title is disturbed by various controversial and criticizable statements made by Puiu in interviews or public appearances, but that should not eclipse this one fact: his experiments remain among the most stimulating things offered by Romanian cinema.
Another category, just as respectable and with a long-standing tradition in the history of cinema, includes filmmakers who make more or less the same film. In such cases, we’re not interested to see what the author brings new to his work, but rather, we want to find the same familiar perspective, the same style that we liked at first. Obviously, this comes with the risk of repetition and automaticity. Many people are eager to see what’s next from Cristian Mungiu – his last feature, Graduation, came out in 2016 and showed signs of slight mannerism. Radu Muntean is a bit more prolific, and each new title he releases is a variation of an investigation into the psychology of the middle class. With his latest film, Întregalde, recently selected in the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs section at Cannes, he seems to make a comeback, after the failure of Alice T., which also suffered from mannerism and a certain rigidity. Mungiu and Muntean are two authors who remained true to the principles of realistic cinema established by the New Wave – they are two of its important representatives – and every new film they come out with can’t be overlooked.
After a not very spectacular start (Maria, Medal of Honor), Călin Peter-Netzer had his big break with Child’s Pose, when he found his own style (with the famous shaky handheld camera and fast cutting), which he applied with less success in Ana, mon amour (the director is in pre-production with a new feature film). Constantin Popescu also had a fluctuating course, but his best works so far, Portrait of the Fighter as a Young Man and Pororoca, are without a doubt two of the most important films in the last decade.
But there are also filmmakers who released their first films at the peak of the New Wave, and then couldn’t rise to their early potential – their latest titles have not reached the major festivals that put them on the map and were no longer received with the same enthusiasm by critics and the public. Directors such as Cătălin Mitulescu (Heidi), Marian Crişan (Berliner) or Florin Şerban (Love 2. America) come to mind. They could be joined by filmmakers like Adrian Sitaru and Gabriel Achim, who have shown more guts from one film to another – an intention worth supporting, even when the result is not a revelation.
The last five to six years have brought many debuts – in part, that is due to the funding system through the Romanian Film Center (CNC). When it didn’t meet any issues, the state institute could offer once or twice a year the chance for more young filmmakers to make their first films (and we can’t leave out the emerging filmmakers who had to produce their first films independently). We have already mentioned two of the important names that have appeared in recent years – Adina Pintilie and Ivana Mladenović (we should also mention Ana Lungu since she, too, is one of the new-coming female voices that is worth following).
Attempts to break away from the New Romanian Cinema and approach the American-inspired genre film (so to speak, in the absence of a better term) were made by directors like Andrei Creţulescu, Bogdan Mirică or Daniel Sandu, the latter two also working on TV series. And even though their debuts (Charleston, Dogs, and One Step Behind the Seraphim) were very welcome for bringing a fresh vibe into the room, none of the three films are a cause for out-of-control excitement and unanimous reception. Daniel Sandu is already at his second feature (Father Moves Mountains, to be released this year), and Andrei Creţulescu and Bogdan Mirică are in pre-production with their new films – it will be interesting to follow their evolution and see if they will regain the generosity they initially enjoyed from the public and commentators.
Still, there is a significant number of recent films, many of them debuts, that follow in the footsteps of the New Romanian Cinema, with its long takes, moral dilemmas, and real-life dialogues. It would not be fair to consider them failures – they are not failed films, but that’s also because the directors chose a safe path. The problem is that they come too late, they are more or less epigonic extensions of a glorious era that has reached its end, and as expected, they didn’t create any stir and went almost unnoticed. There’s a number of things that led to their making. On the one hand, there may be a real proclivity for this type of cinematic language, it is not to be excluded. But I think it comes with an inevitable desire to try repeating something that proved successful for their predecessors, hence the temptation to follow a “certified” recipe. But there is one more thing, something that is talked less about: often, the committees set up by the CNC for the evaluation of the scripts (I was also a member three times, in 2016, 2018, and 2020) have prioritized precisely this type of projects, which led to a vicious cycle. Seeing how things really work, some screenwriters and directors tried to adapt to the expectations of the committee members, who in turn were too dismissive of other forms of storytelling.
Some of the films that fall into this category could be seen as average, but they do have some good moments: Mariţa, by Cristi Iftime, Meda or The Not So Bright Side of Things, by Emanuel Pârvu (who recently finished his second film), Thou Shalt Not Kill, by Cătălin Rotaru and Gabi Virginia Șarga, Cărturan, by Liviu Săndulescu, or Zavera, the third feature by Andrei Gruzsniczki (meanwhile, his fourth film, No Rest For The Old Lady, had its world premiere at the Moscow Film Festival). But there are also films that stand out from this pack, made by directors who have proven strength and a good grasp of technique: Arrest, by Andrei Cohn (who had debuted with the rather average Back Home, but whose third film, based on the short story by Romanian writer Ion Luca Caragiale, O făclie de Paşte/An Easter Torch, could be one of the great films of the coming years), and Lemonade, Ioana Uricaru’s debut.
This direction will probably continue for a while and give a few more such films, but there are signs that it’s less and less attractive. Radu Dragomir and Dorian Boguţă tried to break away from this paradigm with their debuts, but both Mo and Legacy turned out to be average films.
Much more promising and stimulating are these three first features: Monsters, by Marius Olteanu, Otto the Barbarian, by Ruxandra Ghiţescu, and Poppy Field, by Eugen Jebeleanu, and from the independent sector, ie without support from CNC – Mia Misses Her Revenge, the second film by Bogdan Theodor Olteanu. It remains to be seen what will happen next (a few years ago, two other young directors drew attention with their first features: Nicolae Constantin Tănase, with The World Is Mine, and Tudor Cristian Jurgiu, with The Japanese Dog, but their second features – Heads and Tails, respectively They May Still Be Alive Today – proved to be a disappointment).
In 2021, we should expect at least three more debuts – films directed by Octav Chelaru (Balaur), Ştefan Constantinescu (Man and Dog), and Alina Grigore (Blue Moon). And several other promising young filmmakers are currently in various stages of development with their first fiction feature – Mihai Mincan, Andrei Tănase, Sarra Tsorakidis, Sebastian Mihăilescu, Ana-Maria Comănescu, Vladimir Dembinski, Andreea Borţun, and Bogdan Mureşanu.
I’m not among those who say that Romanian cinema needs to be more commercial, nor do I join the choir of voices who accuse the gap between the festival film and the public. Instead, I’m interested in understanding the new potential of the auteur film and the transformations it undergoes, 20 years after the release of Cristi Puiu’s debut (Stuff and Dough) and at a time when the documentary seems to have taken the spotlight.
So we’ve reached the following point: Which of the filmmakers listed above, either at their first, second, or third film, who thus have made their entrance after the New Wave ran its course and are about to coagulate into a new generation, will really manage to overturn the status quo and initiate a real and lasting paradigm shift? Difficult to say – in terms of the awards won (the Best First Feature Award and the Golden Bear at the Berlinale) and its formal and thematic novelty, it seems that only Touch Me Not, by Adina Pintilie, can aspire to such a status for the time being. Otherwise, Puiu, Jude, Mungiu, Porumboiu, and Muntean remain the ones who get the most attention.
Clearly, it’s difficult to grow in the shadow of a group that has written history in Romanian and international cinema in the last 15-20 years, and with whom you have to compete for the same resources. The legacy of the New Cinema is probably burdensome and intimidating. But the new voices must be bold, polemical, and even irreverent, they shouldn’t be afraid of taking risks, and they should take greater liberties. It’s the only way they will be able to make themselves heard and bring the Romanian fiction film back to life.