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Dark new wave

Contemporary Romanian cinema at the HFA
By MICHAEL ATKINSON  |  October 1, 2007

071005_lazarescu_main
THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU: Kafka-esque in its shape but painfully particular in its details.

“The New Romanian Cinema” | Harvard Film Archive: October 5-7

The Line-Up
The Paper Will Be Blue
| October 5: 7 PM
Traffic and The Way I Spent The End Of The World | October 5: 9 PM
C Block Story and Marinela From P7 | October 6: 7 PM
California Dreamin’ | October 6: 8 PM
The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu | October 7: 3 PM
Cigarettes And Coffee and Stuff And Dough | October 7: 7 PM
Liviu’s Dream and A Trip To The City and The Tube With A Hat | October 7: 9 PM

Every now and then, it happens: a new wave from where? In the case of Romania, a cataract of fresh cinema from this most ignored and betrodden of Eastern European nations seems more likely, in the overview, than cinema movements from Malaysia, Mexico, or Iran; one should never underestimate the historical gravitas that comes with generations of brutal Communist dictatorship, the reverb of its violent overthrow, or the deathless ancestral textures of Balkan-peninsula peasant culture. The Romanian films and their accolades have just begun to arrive: last year’s critical triumph of Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu — which won Best Film from the nation’s most expansive critics’ poll, on IndieWire.com, but pulled in, not so incomprehensibly, almost nothing at the box office — is followed this year by stateside releases of Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest and Christian Mungiu’s Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days, all three anointed by Cannes trophies. Suddenly, a poor ex-totalitarian nation that had little visible film culture for decades is now the hotbed of what the world’s film festivals are perceiving as new-millennium cool, fresh, expressive, and pertinent.

My first question: where’s Lucien Pintille? After the overthrow of Ceausescu in 1989, Pintille became the international auteur face of Romania, and his inaugural feature, The Oak (1992), remains a defining, damned-laughter vision of the landscape under dictatorship: risibly suicidal despair, explosive violence, Strangelovian military madness, post-industrial decay. (The film also introduced us to Razvan Vasilescu, Romania’s resident gruff Hackman/Duvall character-actor demiurge.) Already 56 when Ceausescu met the firing squad 18 years ago, Pintille may not be part of the new youth-marketing program: Puiu, Porumboiu, Mungiu, Christian Nemescu, and Catalin Mitulescu are all now 40 or under (Nemescu died last year in a car wreck, forever 27), and they were teenagers and film-school students when Romania became a “new democracy,” operating since, like so much of the Third World, on the outskirts of legality, poverty, and social order.

No surprise, then, that the films are similar in style and approach: state-of-the-art hypernaturalism, down to the longueurs, natural underlighting, and open-ended narratives, with two-and-a-half-hour lengths for brutally simple arcs. Most of the films seem shot by the same damp-shadow cinematographer. (They weren’t.) What’s more, they reveal that Pintille was something of an ur-Romanian cinéaste: Slavic-style death-rattle humor is everywhere, if not dominant, and the setting is more often than not a paradigmatic post–Communist Bloc village of newly capitalist predators, their lives structured around black-marketeering, bitter self-indulgence, and maddened dreams of somehow scoring big or else getting the hell out.

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