in Profiles | 01 NOV 07
Featured in
Issue 111

Real to Reel

When a low-budget Romanian film about abortion won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival it heralded a new era of filmmaking in a country still struggling with post-communism

in Profiles | 01 NOV 07

Set in the dimly lit city streets and hotel corridors of late-1980s Bucharest, 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days (2007) recounts the pitiful story of Gabita, a feeble-voiced girl, pregnant well into her fifth month, who in desperation entrusts herself to a sinister backstreet abortionist. The latest in Cristian Mungiu’s series ‘Tales from the Golden Age’, the film centres on Gabita’s best friend, Otilia, as she travels around the city making all the necessary arrangements – reserving a hotel room, furtively fetching the abortionist, haggling over his fee and granting him a fast fuck in order to make up the deficit – before hastening over to a birthday party at her boyfriend’s parents’ house. When she finally sets out one last time in the complete darkness of Bucharest to try and find some sort of burial site for the foetus, Mungiu leaves us in no doubt that Nicolae Ceausescu’s self-proclaimed ‘Golden Age’ of communism in Romania has entered into a downward spiral of poverty, black-market dealings and petit-bourgeois Biedermeier.

Yet despite being set only two years before Ceau¸sescu’s deposition during the revolution of 1989, 4 Months … carries no presentiment of those events. In fact, many of the more notable films to have emerged from Romania in recent years seem to suggest that the revolution was, if anything, not the regime change that it was supposed to be. Except, of course, for the fact that 4 Months … or other films of its kind – such as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) by Cristi Puiu, 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) by Corneliu Porumboiu or California Dreamin’ (Endless) (2007) by Cristian Nemescu – could never have been produced, let alone internationally released, under Ceausescu’s regime. These four films in particular have earned considerable attention on the film festival circuit – 4 Months … won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year – and they have put Romania firmly back on the map of world cinema. There is already talk of a New Wave in Bucharest (a city that traditionally had strong ties with Paris) and of a Golden Age of filmmaking in a country still struggling with the post-communist condition.

The praise these films have received is well-deserved, because their achievements constitute a striking example of a Modernist form of ‘national cinema’: their approach to examining Romania’s recent history encompasses the entire experience of European auteur cinema since Roberto Rossellini started filming in Rome in the early ’40s. Narrative cinema (like any other art, but more so because of its potential to ‘write history’ in its own way) has a threefold task in ‘liberated’ or ‘revolutionary’ societies: to remember and reconstruct the time before the change, because the overthrown regimes have usually been audio-visually restrictive; to remember and re-evaluate the ‘revolutionary’ events themselves; and to chronicle the aftermath (the new era) and measure it against what preceded it. Now, 18 years after the revolution, Romanian filmmakers assume these tasks with a confidence and a variety of formal strategies that is all the more astounding for the fact that, with the exception of the work of director Lucian Pintilie (The Afternoon of a Torturer, 2001, for instance), there is really no tradition of this kind of filmmaking in Romania.

Perhaps the most obviously ambitious of these new films is California Dreamin’ (Endless) by Cristian Nemescu, who was tragically killed in a car accident in Bucharest in 2006, aged only 27. In this, his final film, a NATO transport is making its way across Romania to the Kosovo border in 1999, during the years of the Balkan Conflict, carrying a radar system that will help US aircraft target their weapons more effectively. A small unit of US soldiers lead by Captain Jones (Armand Assante is superbly cast in this weary, tough-guy role) and a small unit of Romanian soldiers are on the train, which is brought to a halt in the provincial town of Capalnita by the local station manager, Doiaru, who demands some official customs papers that the NATO forces don’t have. Bureaucrats in Bucharest had assumed that a phone call would suffice to resolve the matter, but Doiaru is not satisfied, so the soldiers are temporarily stuck in Capalnita, and the citizens of this small town seize the opportunity to make an occasion of it. The mayor blatantly ignores all statistical evidence to the contrary and declares the following day to be the town’s 100th birthday. A big party is thrown, with an Elvis impersonator and rock ‘n’ roll music to dance to. While the soldiers have fun with the girls, Captain Jones befriends Doiaru and gets dragged on increasingly bizarre excursions to points of interest in the surrounding area (in one hotel he has to watch a Dracula musical whose dancers reappear as courtesans after the performance). The mayor’s agenda is plain and simple: these Americans are the first wave of potential future ‘investors’ in Romania. They have to be courted in every sense.

While Nemescu’s film is mostly an absurd comedy richly populated with colourful characters, it is nonetheless modelled on the classic neo-realist films of the 1940s: the soldiers come as liberators, but also as representatives of a superpower that, in wake of the 1989 break with the Soviet Union, Romania has to come to terms with. The historical constellations of 1945 and 1989 become interchangeable. Nemescu highlights this fact by adding a black and white prologue to the film in which we see Doiaru as a young man, surviving a US bombing raid during World War II: the bomb falls all the way through from the roof to the basement of the building he lives in with his parents, but it doesn’t detonate. A close-up shot of an inscription on the side of the bomb – Made in California – comprises the film’s symbolic opening moment, while ‘California Dreamin’’ (1965) by The Mamas and the Papas plays during the closing credits.

In some senses, the film is a Romanian take on Rossellini’s classic works, albeit one clothed in a mantle of farce. Doiaru’s stubborn determination to block the NATO transport until he receives the right documentation might initially seem reasonable, but in reality his insistence is rather ambiguous: the radar device is designed to help reduce collateral damage, so while his delaying its transportation might appear to be a form of ‘resistance’ to the American superpower, his actions may also result in more unnecessary deaths in a neighbouring country. This behaviour has further resonance when Nemescu reveals that Doiaru’s parents were collaborators during the fascist regime and that the factories they owned are about to be taken over by the station manager, whose authority in this small community is entirely disproportionate to his professional position. Power and influence always find ways of adapting to changing situations, and this key experience of Romanian life is clearly embodied in the character of Doiaru.

National mythology has it that Romania liberated itself from its communist dictator. Certainly, as Harun Farocki and Andrej Ujica brilliantly analyzed in their documentary Videogramme einer Revolution (Videograms of a Revolution, 1992), since the events of 1989 were televized to a large extent, the turning-point at which the revolution became a success is clearly inscribed on the memory of the nation: at 12:08 pm on 22 December 1989, Ceausescu got into a helicopter and ‘fled the cage’. That moment constitutes a watershed, because anybody who came out onto the streets after that point cannot truly be regarded as a revolutionary.

It is these implications concerning the who, where and when of the revolution that furnish the comic backdrop to Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest. The owner of a small-town, local television station, Virgil Jderescu, is planning to host a talk show to honour the sixteenth anniversary of the revolution. The first half of the film follows his efforts to secure the appearance of his two guests: Mr. Piscoci, a somewhat vain, white-haired old man, and Mr. Manescu, a history teacher at the local school, who drinks heavily and owes money to almost everybody he knows. The two have been invited onto the show as ‘eye-witnesses’ to help decide whether or not their local community really experienced the revolution. We observe the humdrum mornings of the three characters: the hangover-cure breakfast that Manescu is served by his mother; the phone calls Jderescu has to make to get hold of his scheduled guests; the grumbling of Piscoci who has been asked to appear as Santa Claus but is obliged to buy a new uniform because the old one has been eaten by moths. These scenes of everyday life – of people trying to meet deadlines, achieve small goals or just utter their petty discontents – are very typical of this Romanian New Wave. It is like neo-realism without the aura: while for Rossellini or Vittorio de Sica everything was ultimately a heroic struggle, here everything is stripped of its heroism, leaving only monotony or self-mockery or innumerable and insurmountable problems.

Eventually, all the requisite people arrive at the television station and take their seats in front of the camera. A boy approaches Jderescu and asks: ‘When are we going to see cartoons?’ This apparently random moment actually provides a good example of how Porumboiu, and his fellow New Wave directors, subtly introduce pertinent sociological observations. In this small community, we realize, television is not an alienating media power that reduces its viewers to a passive role on their couches: this boy is not daunted by television; for him it is a participatory medium. The cost of this, of course, is that the station is utterly provincial and ineffective. (It can also be comical: the young assistant tries using a handheld camera to film the seated talk show, declaring: ‘It’s the new thing.’) The host opens the show with pompous quotes from Plato and Heraclitus, after which the discussion goes nowhere, remaining inconclusive as to whether the town’s more intellectual drunkards had taken to the streets as revolutionaries or just as hobos. The most sobering moment comes in a phone call to the station from a man who admits to having been a member of the Securitate (‘but just as an accountant’), and who now owns three factories and employs more than 150 people. This man threatens everybody with the law but clearly also implies that he ‘is’ the law. While this character remains invisible, thus intensifying his menacing presence, he would appear to share traits with Doiaru from California Dreamin’ (Endless), who likewise seems to set the rules. The film closes with a shot of the town hall and square as it features in the backdrop to the talk show. Devoid of people, it is the scene of a revolution without any protagonists, a tabula rasa for a new version of history that has yet to be told.

The original sin of communism was, perhaps, that the individual was deemed expendable in favour of the ‘greater good’ of progress (or, in reality, the privileges of the Nomenklatura). In 4 Months … these dialectics are turned against the regime: Otilia’s struggle to set in motion an abortion that is illegal under Ceau¸sescu’s policy never brings her to a point at which she doubts the validity of her friend’s decision to get rid of the baby. But Mungiu nevertheless shows the features of the aborted foetus spread on the bathroom floor in a painfully long shot that renders aporetic the question of whether the film hints at the many casualties of a regime that claimed to protect lives from even before birth, or whether it is simply an image that shouldn’t be spared in a film about abortion.

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu by Cristi Puiu explores a similar dilemma about a life’s worth from the other point of the spectrum: mortality. This is the film that started what critics now tend to regard as the revolution in Romanian filmmaking. While it is possibly the most modest of these films, its apparent simplicity makes room for a consideration of all the complexities that modern societies have to deal with. Dante Remus Lazarescu, a 63-year old man, wakes up one morning with a headache. (Another neo-realist feature of these films is that they tend to begin in the morning, emulating real life.) He starts by taking some pills, but eventually calls an ambulance, and embarks on an odyssey through the medical system of Bucharest that will end – as the title makes clear from the onset – in his death. His illness is difficult to diagnose, especially since his obvious alcoholism and self-neglect make him seem an irresponsible patient. But, to a degree, his illness (it is in fact two illnesses: one immediate, one terminal) has become his life. This is just how he has ended up: a man who was born under Fascism, who lived most of his life under the communist regime (as an engineer, or ‘intellectual’, as someone remarks – indicating that he was at least partly involved with the regime), and who has spent his final years in a tiny apartment, bereft of any of the ‘freedoms’ of the new order, except for the freedom to drink himself to death. A corpse in the making, Lazarescu is passed from one medical institution to the next, slowly losing consciousness while doctors try to find out what’s wrong with him. Part of a cycle entitled ‘Six Moral Stories from the Suburbs’, the film, like 4 Months …, is a passage into death; a spiritual journey that entails negativity interrupted only by the occasional moment of achievement on the part of the people who happen to be present on that voyage: paramedics, doctors, nurses – the staff of a differentiated society that has specialists for everything, but no overarching system of support.

The deconstruction of any of these narratives is what makes half of a national cinema these days; the reconstruction of neo-realist storytelling strategies might make for the other half. Under the communist regime the entire film industry was funded by the state. In this respect not much has changed, and many of the younger filmmakers accuse the system of being corrupt or simply dated. They have turned instead to the quickly expanding field of international co-productions. Puiu, for example, started out with documentaries in the 1990s. His first feature film Stuff and Dough (2001) appeared at the Cannes Film Festival, and secured him not only international attention but also means of production. It is this system – let’s call it ‘production exile’ – that has become common for a lot of national cinemas, especially in countries with either politically or economically difficult conditions such as China, Iran, Argentina or Romania. International acclaim has gained Puiu a status that has allowed him to become the most outspoken opponent of the Centrul National de Cinematografiei, the official film institute in Bucharest. Recently The Way I Spent the End of the World (2006) by Catalin Mitulescu, even attracted Martin Scorsese and Wim Wenders as Associate Producers. Another slightly farcical account of the 1989 revolution, this film was nominated as the Romanian entry for the Oscars for Best Foreign Picture in 2007 (although it didn’t make it to the finals). By finding ways of participating in the rapidly globalizing field of international arthouse cinema, a new generation of filmmakers in Romania has been able to overcome the many obstacles facing them. Their films are vivid allegories of daily struggle, made by cinéastes adroitly expressing their country’s condition.