Reality and Emancipation in Romanian Cinema

Our interest in revolutions in oppressed countries runs to a conventional narrative. When the revolution is over, the curtain falls and we disengage, assuming that a happy ending will follow. However, this is really the moment when a different struggle begins and another kind of devil stalks the land to that one previously known and hated. Memories of the past, the current reality and the hopes of the future clamber over each other for attention on the rubble and bodies, and a cultural upheaval results.

Romania under Ceausescu was considered a black hole on the Black Sea. It suffered under a grotesque, absurd and cruel dictatorship – one of the worst in the Eastern Bloc. As the borders of Romania’s lands became inflexible and insurmountable, so the borders of her reality dissolved into maddening ambiguity and confusion.

The Gogolian state of Nicolae Ceausescu – the Cobbler’s Apprentice, Fountain of Light and Giant of the Carpathians – distorted reality through strict rules on what could and couldn’t be filmed and shown for public consumption. The true state of the ailing nation was often obscured by absurd pretences for Ceausescu’s benefit. For example, for his official visits to towns and villages, the struggling population put food made from wood and polystyrene on display to hide the reality of poor harvests. In the theatrical stadium pageants, in which Ceausescu’s subjects were made to perform, the roles of audience and performer switched during the ceremony, underscoring the confused nature of their reality. Performers often had to fake their joy and happiness for fear of reprisal. Towards the end of his reign, however, the people participated ever more disdainfully and cheers and praise had to be pre-recorded by party apparatchiks and played back at the fading dictator through stadium loudspeakers.

Artistic freedom sank in a morass of state sanctioned historical epics or social-realist propaganda films. Compromise was necessary to be able to produce cinema in communist Romania. But, as in other Eastern European countries, the glare of the overbearing censor was often enough of a creative provocation to the filmmaker to subvert the dull-minded obstinacy of party censors through aesthetics and metaphorical images, using the lexicon of beauty to criticise the ugliness of oppression.

The Romanian new wave is often wrongly credited as a cinematic revolution after the political revolution. In the year 2000 – ‘Year Zero’ – no films were produced in the country at all. That the following year, Cristi Puiu’s Stuff and Dough – often cited as the first new wave film – seemed to kick start the wave has, in part, helped foster this popular misconception further. In fact, the current and remarkable generation of films and filmmakers coming out of Romania is part evolution – Puiu and his colleagues acknowledge there would be no ‘new wave’ without the earlier films of Lucian Pintilie – and part revolution: a rejection and response to the type of films made under Ceausescu. What the relatively young history of Romanian cinema has as a common thread is the inventive use of aesthetics to explore and confront reality in a search for truth or the nature of truth. Lucian Pintilie achieved this in his first feature, Sunday at Six (Duminica la ora sase, 1965), by subverting the ideologically-friendly content of a historic love story between two Romanian anti-fascist fighters through the adoption of Nouvelle Vague aesthetic forms – the most modern cinematic approach that there was at that time.

Sunday at Six split audiences and evaded the censors. However, Pintilie’s next film Re-enactment (Reconstituirea, 1967) saw him issue an excoriating challenge to the regime and its reality and resulted in him being banned from filmmaking for 10 years. Re-enactment, mentioned by new wave directors as a key influence on their work, was based on a real life inquiry that exposed to Pintilie the barbaric and futile nature of the interrogations exacted by the communist authorities. He said of the nature of such a procedure, that it ‘is the most effective way of veiling reality’. The film’s use of mise-en-abyme and self-reflexive cinematic techniques bring into perceptive awareness the subjective nature of the reality that the audience is experiencing – challenging this cinematic reality and, in turn, the truth and reality fed to them by the state apparatus.

It is a theme returned to by successive Romanian directors such as Mircea Daneliuc – also using self-reflexive devices in Microphone Test (1980) – and Dan Pita in Sand Cliffs (1983), where the pursuit of a dogmatic belief mangles and destroys the hope of ever discovering the truth.

After 1989 the need to smuggle messages wrapped in metaphor or obscure aesthetic forms to criticise the communist regime had gone. Pintilie himself took advantage of the confusion of the new environment to make The Oak (1992) without difficulty – a ruthless examination of Romania under Ceausescu and the complicity of its population within the regime. Of the new generation, both Puiu and Christian Mungiu, director of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), have consciously and reactively moved away from the earlier ‘metaphorical’ style of film making. Both Mungiu and the sadly, prematurely-departed Cristian Nemescu highlighted the importance of returning to the story, rather than making criticisms of a system.

Similar responses were evident in the origins of the Italian Neorealism and Nouvelle Vague cinema – two influences most associated with the new wave. Italian neo-realism was also not a formalised ‘movement’ with a coherent aesthetic or approach. It emerged as a reaction to the cultural norms and expectations of a recently deposed cruel regime, which, as Italo Calvino suggested, had ignored the humanistic and everyday elements of people’s lives. Nouvelle Vague filmmakers also rejected the cinematic style of their country at the time. Creative control was also suppressed in France, albeit by producers and screenwriters rather than the party censor.

Similarly, despite no manifesto-driven overarching aesthetic, the forms most closely associated with Romanian New Wave are the bleak urban settings, long static or handheld camera, deep focus, minimal editing, direct storytelling and a focus on the quotidian and mundane.

Radu Muntean’s The Paper Will Be Blue (Hartia va fi albastra, 2006), is a conscious attempt to make ‘direct, honest, straightforward films’ as a reaction to ‘the old kind of Romanian movies’. It revisits the genre of the historic film with a neo-realist aesthetic. He focuses solely on the humanistic and the commonplace during remarkable circumstances to tell the tale of historical events unfolding on a personal scale. As Corneliu Porumboiu suggests, ‘that great histories are told in small histories.’

In cinematic realism, we observe existence with no inherent right or wrong and no correct solutions. For Bazin, writing on cinematic realism, certain stylistic techniques help to recreate an ambiguity of vision, allowing the spectator to focus on what is important – as would occur in the real world.

The rejection of traditional narrative styles to form an ontological cinematic realism – through avoiding moralistic codes, clear emotional derivatives and motives and neat denouements – further challenges the viewer, in that it asks more questions than it answers. It is a deeply political form of cinema because it attempts to free the spectator from a directive and subjective truth. If a film ends without a resolution, it is because life does too. If a character’s intentions are unclear, it is because we, in reality, are unable to see inside someone’s head.

So, unlike their predecessor’s work, reality is not confronted through perception-jarring devices in the new wave films. Rather, it is explored through observation and the attempt to render the camera as objective as possible. Radu Muntean says of his latest film Tuesday After Christmas (2010), ‘the camera is not a character. It’s not following the characters; it’s not acting like it has a personality.’

Working with realism’s problem of aesthetic form and its relation to the spectator is central to many of the new Romanian films, but it is approached differently by each of its main directors. Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police Adjective (2009) is an anti-genre surveillance of surveillance. The personality of its main character is explored through the mundane tasks he performs and his everyday habits. Porumboiu believes that observing such small behaviours reveals more about a character than 50 pages of dialogue ever could. Its realism is also infused with characteristic Romanian humour and absurdity – especially regarding bureaucracy and authority.

Cristi Puiu’s realism seeks to avoid what he calls the ‘demonstrative’ in film, something which is anathema to him. His film The Death of Mr Lazerescu (2005) challenges the nature of the observer’s gaze through the clinical examination – by medical staff in the film and by the audience – of a dying man as his being slowly ebbs away. However, his new film Aurora’s (2010) approach to realism is elliptic, informed by the technical decisions Puiu made with the film: lenses are used which don’t distort the image (the word for lens in many languages is ‘objective’), intending rather to capture something as close to reality as possible. Cameramen were asked to observe the characters as ‘a father looking at his child when it begins to walk’ and the camera’s fixed position cuts out the action on several occasions. Puiu finds this good, saying, ‘There are visual obstacles in real life.’

In one of the best known of the new wave films, the Palme d’Or winning 4 Months, 3 Days, 2 Weeks, the spectator is folded into the intimate experience of a set of disturbing events and thus rendered unable to judge the characters and their actions. In one scene the viewer is subtly invited to observe a family meal – taking a place at the table – as a silent participant heightening emotional involvement, before later, at the end of the film, being pushed out and separated from the characters behind a pane of glass. The main character then breaks the fourth wall, staring at the audience and reminding them of the different reality they inhabit – that of spectator.

In a recent interview, Pintilie commented in his typical poetic style that, ‘When the ghosts are freed, no gates can keep them at bay.’ This could well refer to the convergent elements of truth and reality, past and present that are evident in Romania’s relatively young cinematic history. Many audiences, especially in Romania itself, have criticised the realism of the new wave as being ‘difficult’ and ‘boring’, complaining that they would rather escape reality through entertainment in cinema. In Pintilie’s The Oak, people are confronted with uncomfortable truths about reality, truths which threaten to hammer down the gates of a constructed view of the world and they react negatively, unwilling to heed them. Perhaps it is a natural and understandable response. Maybe, as a result, the experienced ennui is, as Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran wrote, ‘the echo in us of time tearing itself apart.’