New Romanian Cinema Life Is Elsewhere

in 51st IndieLisboa - International Independent Film Festival

by Julia Teichmann

A young Romanian woman works at the shopping centre opposite the main cinema. She has been in Lisbon for ten years and is homesick for her village near the Hungarian border. Portugal is not what it was only a couple of years ago. Now you get paid less and less, she says. She does not know Indie Lisboa, neither does she know anything about the retrospective of new, young, wild Romanian cinema at the Independent Festival (now in its fifth edition). She rarely goes to the movies and has not seen a Romanian film for a long time — and if so, it was on television. She does know that the mobile phone giant Nokia has moved from Germany to Romania because of lower wages. She thinks it is good for her country. “Maybe Romania is finally becoming something,” she says.

Romanian escapism, the longing to leave home and look for happiness and wealth elsewhere has been carried forward from communist times straight into European capitalism. It is a subject that Thomas Ciulei deals with in his documentary The Flower Bridge (Podul de flori), the Romanian contribution to the international competition of feature films. However, Ciulei does not stay in Romania for his story but chooses the neighboring Republic of Moldova, independent since 1991. Other than in Romania, it is hardly possible to leave the country legally in order to work abroad. This makes it difficult for the mother in The Flower Bridge to return to her family — the necessary documents are missing. She was planning to stay in Italy for two years, mainly to pay for the children’s school fees. Meanwhile four years have passed. Ciulei shows the family at home, the father playing a somewhat bossy cowboy. He is raising his two teenage daughters and a little son on his own, while cultivating a small, rundown farm.

The performers play their own lives, which makes the film a documentary using fictional means, a method characteristic of Romanian cinema. Scenes of daily life alternate with still-life shots arranged like paintings. Ciulei’s documentary That’s It (Asta e) from 2001, shown as part of the retrospective, is about a small, forgotten village in the Danube delta, ten years after the fall of Ceaucescu’s regime. At the beginning a protagonist rhapsodizes about old times when he was in Haifa and Beirut: “What a life this was!” Some short films in the retrospective deal with the prevailing subject of dream and reality, of life elsewhere: such as Home (Acasa)by Paul Negoescu about the encounter of a taxi driver with a passenger, who has just come back from working in Spain. As the driver watches his passenger’s emotionless reunion with his family, he thinks twice about his plans to leave Romania.

Miguel Valverde, curator of the Romanian program and one of the three directors of the festival, describes the obsession of Romanian cinema with “taxis, traffic, irony and hopes connected to abroad”. Cristian Mungiu’s West (Occident) from 2002 and Cristi Puiu’s satirical-realistic analysis of a new attitude towards life, Stuff and Dough (Marfa si banii, 2001) recall both these obsessions. In the festival catalogue Romanian film critic Alex Leo Serban lists these two films as representative of the two facets of current Romanian cinema. The so called “New Wave” of Romanian cinema reached its peak in Cannes last year: Cristian Mungiu won the Palme d’Or for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile), Cristian Nemescu’s California Dreamin’ (Nesfarsit) won the main award in the “Un Certain Regard” section.

Nemescu died in 2006 aged 27 during the post-production of his first and last feature film, apart from leaving behind five short films, most of which were shot during his studies at the Academy of Theatre and Film in Bucharest. They are part of the most exciting discoveries of the retrospective. In Apartment Buildings People Are Crazy About Music (La bloc oamenii mor dupa muzica), his first experimental short from 2000, in black and white, is reminiscent of Luis Buñuel’s Age of Gold (L’Âge d’or). Out of a dreamy, musical choreography the spectator travels from a cello player in the backyard to a sniper aiming at the audience on the balconies. Also in black and white but not as experimental, in his following short Mihai and Cristina (Mihai si Cristina), Nemescu drifts into teenage dreams of eruptive sexual lust and shy first love.

Apart from looking abroad and to those left behind, and from dreamy visions and dry humored analyses of circumstances at home, there are the foreign worlds right next door. Newcomer Adina Pintilie shows in her 50-minute documentary Don’t Get me Wrong (Nu te supara, dar…) the life of a handful of patients in a psychiatric hospital. The relations between her protagonists is depicted in a minimalist and poetic way. Moral objections emerge when it becomes clear that most of the protagonists are not quite conscious of being filmed. In his first short, Life is Elsewhere, Radu Muntean, celebrated for his first feature Rage (Furia), the fourth feature in the retrospective, looks at a nun’s convent,

In Lisbon, many Romanian filmmakers were present. They do not like to be labeled “New Wave”, but Cristi Puiu rather speaks of “a few desperate film directors” fighting against limited budgets. Nevertheless, they have already started thinking about the possible end of this wave, as Catalin Mitulescu claimed: “I don’t know when this wave will end. I just know, that it will end. Maybe we can reach a new level of cinema.” Let’s hope that Romanian cinema keeps changing and advancing — before films follow a blatant formula for winning awards at festivals.