(12/10/06) – Romania had three titles in the East of the West Competition: the hilarious Cannes winner Au fost sau n-a fost?(12:08, East of Bucharest), the love drama Legaturi bolnavicioase (Love Sick) and the coming-of-age tale Ryna. None are particularly inventive cinematic creations in terms of visual language, but, like their compatriot Moartea Domnului Lazarescu (The Death of Mr Lazarescu, which was a Cannes winner last year) their attention to the way the immediate surroundings interact with the story’s protagonists is telling of a current interest in stirring up debate about how contemporary Romania treats its citizens and how its citizens treat each other.

Au fost sau n-a fost? (literally "Was There or Wasn’t There?") tries to fathom what happened exactly when the communist dictator Ceausescu fled the country sixteen years ago. Was it a popular revolution that made communist dictator flee, or did the people crowd the streets only after he took off in his private helicopter, in which case there was not a revolution at all? This is the question of the day at a small local TV station run by a Romanian miniature version of Berlusconi — minus the overt political aspirations but with a similar flair for colourful gaffes. His two guests for the evening are the pensioner Pisosu and he history teacher and compulsive alcoholic Manescu, an apparent eyewitness to the events of 1989. After an overlong opening in which the characters are somewhat clumsily established, Porumbiou settles down in his TV format, showing on film what television viewers in Romania would see had they tuned in to the actual programme. The film runs in real time for the entire duration of the show (even showing us what happens during the commercial break), and director Corneliu Poromboiu handles his gentle version of character and situational comedy well. His choice to occupy most of the film’s running length with three talking heads who are in a badly produced TV show does not make the film very exciting cinematically. The comedy works however, mainly because of Poromboiu’s excellent direction of the actors — who all have a perfect comic timing — and a witty script, also from the director’s hand. A brief closing scene that reprises some of the ideas of the opening sequence offers a sense of closure and nicely rounds up some of the films’ underlying themes, including the question of how the normal man in the street is supposed to relate to major political events (something which the German East/West comedy Good Bye Lenin! similarly addressed with a lot of humour a couple of years ago).

Legaturi bolnavicioase (literally: "Sickly Liasons", a pun on the de Laclos novel) is a love story that elevates its soapy storyline (a girl is involved in both a lesbian love story and an incestuous relationship) by taking it seriously and pulling it off without bursting into nervous laughter even once, much like the austere Danish drama and recent Berlinale winner En soap (A Soap), which dealt with a love story between an apparently heterosexual woman and a man waiting for a sex change operation. Director Tudor Giurgiu’s take on the intricacies of love is far removed from the greyish Dogme-inspired palette of En soap, however, prefering colour and movement for his playful mise-en-scene that allows the heavy subject matter to breathe and not be weighed down by its overbearing themes. The worldly city dweller Kiki (Maria Popistasu) and the lovable country girl Alex (Ioana Barbu) fall in love at university, where they both study French. Kiki also loves her brother Sandu (Vache Vema singer Tudor Chirila) and Kiki’s exploration of her love for Alex will drive Sandu crazy with rage. If this sounds like something from a French novel from several centuries ago, than this hardly incorrect, though the story was inspired by true events in Romania that in turn inspired a contemporary novel. The film is breezy and serious at the right intervals, playing with quotations from French literature without being pretentious. The film could have lingered a bit more on how the girls became girlfriends (it opens with a voice-over narration that states their relationship as fact), though generally the relationships are well-drawn, also paying particular attention to the divides that exist between parents and children (both Alex’ parents and Kiki and Sandus’s are featured) and between town and country. Graphic scenes are surprisingly tame (Brokeback Mountain looks like gay porn by comparison) but fit the mood of the film perfectly: Legaturi bolnavicioase is not so much about eruptions of lust as it is about feelings of love.

Ruxandra Zenide’s Ryna deals with some of the same subject matter, though it is much less bent on shocking a possibly conservative audience. Zenide’s story follows the titular heroine (Doroteea Petre, simply phenomenal) who tries to get by as part of a poor and difficult family that lives off their repair shop and gas station in the middle of nowhere. Ryna’s father would have preferred having had a boy, not because he does not like girls but because it would have been more practical in his garage. This "mistake" is easily corrected, however: Ryna is forced to act, dress, look and — most importantly — work like a boy. The film’s first approach to the main character is a piece of virtuoso filmmaking: slowly approaching her from behind with a steadicam in a field full of lush greens, we look at the androgynous back of the short-haired Ryna, who could indeed be of either sex. The story, set in the gorgeously filmed Danubian delta, does not maintain this wedding of thematic coherence and enigmatic visual style for very long, since its narrative soon reveals itself to be predictable and bland: Ryna wants to escape from her family and wear a dress, while several other males are highly interested in her female being, including the postman and the mayor. The film suffers from too many unnecessary complications, including a francophone doctor who seems to speak French for the sole purpose of pleasing the Swiss co-producers. Of course he is interested in Ryna too, especially when he is not busy uncovering the origins of Latin by measuring the limbs of the local population.

Francophiles seem to be a hot topic these days in Eastern European film. Besides the aforementioned Romanian films, the Franco-Georgian Depuis qu’Otar est parti (Since Otar Left) comes to mind, and there are more: the Bulgarian-German Maimuni prez zimata (Monkeys in Winter), which won this year’s East of the West Competition’s top prize, features a young French researcher of syphilis as a supporting character. Milena Andonova’s directorial debut consists of three interwoven portraits of women in different decades that form an emotionally balanced and involving picture of motherhood in Bulgaria. Living in 1961, 1981 and 2001, protagonists Dona, Lucrecia and Taina are three very different women who all struggle with what sets them apart from their husbands or lovers: the fact that they can bear children. A strong mise-en-scene and a preference for highlighting location and atmosphere rather than period detail delicately hint at more universal overtones in the three individual stories and will remind viewers of the female triptych The Hours — minus its overt literary streak. The film starts with a brief taste of each section: in 2001, a mother encourages her daughter Tana to "start working on children"; in 1981 Lucrecia has a nightmare involving a little girl in a swimming pool and in 1961 the beautiful Romany woman Dona has been abandoned by her husband, while a bailiff is loading pretty much all of her meagre belongings into his car. In the first of the film’s simply observed yet enchanting moments, the brute leaves, his tyres raking up mud, as Dona starts singing a passionate ballad to process her anger. Andonova surprises with many such visual details and character moments: In another noteworthy sequence, Dona and her newfound street-cleaning colleague and lover walk along a lake. The camera pans from the couple towards the reeds moving in the wind, the air filled with pollen. The gentle up-and-down movement of the reeds and the presence of the pollen (busy ensuring the survival of the species) subtly allude to what must be happening off screen. What seems like bliss initially can soon turn sour, however, and this is one of underlying ideas of Maimuni Prez Zimata. Being a lover and being a mother is not necessarily the same thing. The young Lucrecia was excited about the prospect of sex, but is in trouble when she discovers she carries a child. She does not love the father of her future baby and is probably not sure she really wants one or is even ready for it. Dona thought she had met her match in Nacho, but he leaves her because he loves her: "You are still young. There will be something better for you in the future than cleaning streets". The next day, he is gone. Tana, in 2001, is also left by her husband because he cannot stand to be with her; the problem in their getting a child turned out to be him, not her. When she finally does become pregnant, all hell breaks loose.

As with all films composed of several separate parts, Maimuni prez zimata is only as strong as its weakest segment, but here Andonova offers three distinct stories that are excellent across the board and more than loosely interconnected by thematic tissue, making for a very solid film that will hopefully be the first in a long filmography. The same could be said of many of the other emerging filmmakers from the East: Poromboiu, Giurgiu and Zide from Romania, Pálfi, Hajdu and Kocsis from Hungary and the Russians Antonov and German Jr: Watch their names!

The writer is the editor of european-films.net.