Navigating new paths in Romanian cinema

in Transilvania International Film Festival

by Nil Kural

Starting from the early 2000s, Romanian cinema created a wave—aesthetically defined by realism—that took the world’s festival scene by storm. The originators of the wave, including directors Cristian Mungiu, Cristi Puiu, Radu Muntean and Corneliu Porumboiu, continued their careers drawing on a neorealism, a derivative of Italian neorealism, to portray their society though anti-heroes and dark humor. After two decades of international attention, spectators now have a clear view of a country struggling with corruption and its effect on individuals of society.

The Romanian Days competition of 23rd edition of Transylvania International Film Festival proves that the new generation of filmmakers from the country does not follow the founders of the Romanian New Wave, and goes on to enrich the national filmmaking scene by taking different paths and trying out film languages to express themselves. This search for a new identity is not only apparent in their filmmaking choices, but also comes up as a theme in the films they made.

The documentary which won the FIPRESCI prize, Alice On & Off, directed by Isabela Tent, is a work about patience, and follows the story of Alice for ten years, portraying a fragile young woman struggling with her own family and traumas, still haunted by her parents. Through interviews and careful dynamic camera work, but mostly thanks to the director’s dedication in putting years into story development, the film proves that young filmmakers of Romanian cinema are now creating noteworthy films in the documentary format, in a country with a recent history of powerful fiction films.

Another documentary worthy of note is A Cautionary Tale by Ilinca Calugareanu. The film is about a man who, after having worked abroad for many years, on his return to Romania, discovers that he has been declared dead by the state. The film looks like another tale critical of the dysfunctional state, which is a typical theme of new Romanian cinema. However, as the story unfolds, the spectator discovers that the filmmakers took their time to go deeper into the errors of human nature and family. Both Alice On & Off and A Cautionary Tale have taken the accustomed path of the Romanian Wave’s focus on fiction and political criticism, yet have found new territories thanks to the documentary format and have shifted towards the family unit, rather than the state.

Dismissed (Clasat), directed by Horia Cucuta and George ve Ganæaard, is a fiction film, but uses the tools of documentary filmmaking to tell its story. The film is about a fire at a workplace that has resulted in the death of an employee, and consists of interviews that make the viewer question capitalism and workers’ rights. The film blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction, and disarms the audience with its filmmaking choices.   

New Romanian cinema has the tendency to focus on the present or the near-present, with the famous exceptions of Radu Jude’s Aferim! and Scarred Hearts (Inimi cicatrizate). Holy Week (Saptamana Mare), directed by Andrei Cohn, a historical drama looking at the early 1900s which premiered in the 2024 Berlinale’s Forum section, is also an exception. An adaptation of the novel “An Easter Torch” by Romanian author Ion Luca Caragiale, the film is about a Jewish family which runs an inn in their village and the anti-Semitism they face. The distantiating style of the film with its long takes and steady camera work makes it a slow-burner. Cohn’s directorial choices culminate in a traditional art film about the undercurrents of discrimination that runs in Roman society.

The search for identity is another prominent theme in the Romanian Days selection. In Alice On & Off, Alice’s struggle to build a new life with a new family is a search for identity. A Cautionary Tale is about a man who has lost his identity, while The Holy Week is searching for Romanian identity in the past. The selection illustrates that looking for new identities in both filmmaking and as a theme is a strong current in the new generation of Romanian filmmakers.

By Nil Kural
Edited by Savina Petkova