Warsaw Talents 2019 – On the New Romanian Wave

Ticking Clocks of New Romanian Wave:
Liviu Săndulescu’s Debut

In his feature debut Liviu Săndulescu delivers a candid conversational drama centered around a Romanian citizen confronted with grey-headed and corrupt institutions, Mr. Cărturan (Teodor Corban), who tries to fix some aspects of his life in the last moment after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Cărturan’s long and breathable takes are well-proportioned – they never hide the characters’ unsaid words but emphasize their gravity. While trying to sort out where his 13-year-old nephew, Cristi (Vlad Popescu) will live after his death, Cărturan visits numerous adoption centres that refuse his request. Cărturan’s last wish is to have his own almsgiving – a local rite that requires sharing food and clothes in remembrance of the dead. The almsgiving of the dying but not yet dead – a great sin in Orthodox belief – is still a practised ritual in the south of Romania. 

Compulsion to bribe as a last resort when dealing with institutions – a well-established New Romanian Cinema (NRC) trope – is a significant theme of Săndulescu’s Cărturan. The cast performances are stellar and characters indeed well-rounded, but somehow each one of them, including Cărturan, feels like an archetype – as if they are some stripped down cosplay portrayals of another NRC film in the times of the movement’s glory. The film’s confessional and austere tone is flat and unnecessarily stretched-out until it feels like Săndulescu is simply manipulating the viewer into empathizing with his characters.

The film’s storyline, while not necessarily overly explored in other past Romanian productions, – a man desperately going through the ill-famed Orthodox process of having an almsgiving against all odds – remains close to the social drama palette of the NRC (in this case, the theme of the dying man). Not that that’s wrong in any way but if some other classic examples of NRC like Sieranevada or Stuff and Dough have to do with the equivocation or ambiguity of societal living, Cărturan feels over-explained – as if its stiff narrative doesn’t let the characters find their own voice, their own personality. 

In this regard, Săndulescu’s reality seems staged. What stands out is Săndulescu’s stylistic choices that, although employing the tried and trusted use of long takes, are way more formally constructed than those usually seen in NRC. Romania’s wonderchild of the New Wave, Oleg Mutu, will make use of mostly static shots with ornated geometries – something unlike titans of NRC like Cristi Puiu, who would rather spend time on a scene’s choreography.

Săndulescu’s interest in ritualistic traditions of death stands tall in the film’s architecture for its firmness and authenticity. For Cărturan, the almsgiving and his compulsion to do it in spite of the priest’s (Adrian Titieni) disagreement, has to do a particular way of easing his conscience before death, of “coming to terms with God”, as he puts it.

Bogdan Balla
Warsaw Critics Project 2019