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Dark new wave

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

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, 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.

Puiu’s STUFF AND DOUGH (2001) is typical, simultaneously lean and distracted, jumping into the back seat when a twentysomething punk accepts a dubious errand (deliver a package to a house in Bucharest without knowing or caring what’s in it) from his neighborhood’s amoral mini-oligarch (Vasilescu, a little grayer but no less sharp). He enlists a mouthy friend’s company, and they embark into a larger criminal story, of which we, and they, glimpse only the dangerous fringe details. It’s soon clear they’re being followed, but for the most part they talk to kill the time (we never abandon the anxiety as they seem to) before half-screwing up the agenda and returning home to a fraction of the fortune they’d anticipated. It’s all rhythm and time and experience, a road movie so stripped down that there’s almost nothing left except the looming off-road narrative we never fully grasp.

Puiu’s THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU (2005) is another kind of road movie, an odyssey of modern bureaucratic agony that’s Kafka-esque in its shape but painfully particular in its details. Already lauded last year — when it was sold as an outright comedy, an assertion that must’ve stupefied casual viewers — Puiu’s long film is less a plotted entertainment than an ordeal by realism. As our expiring Romanian nowhere man is escorted from one Bucharest hospital and disinterested doctor to another by his Virgil (a middle-aged EMT played with acidic sympathy by Luminata Gheorghiu), Puiu dallies in the exhausted night spaces, as if chiding us for thinking we have something better to do than watch this luckless old bastard’s body shut down in an uncaring modern economy. He’s right, of course, but the length (154 minutes) and the deliberate meandering encourage us to grow impatient, and then harbor guilt, and then refocus, and so on. It’s a movie about empathy, and the modern lack thereof, in the viewer as well as the characters.

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