A few months back I viewed a tough portrayal of contemporary Romania - Child’s Pose which received the top award at this year’s Berlin Film Festival but which we found a bit too close for comfort.
One cold evening in March, Barbu is tearing down the streets 50 kilometres per hour over the speed limit when he knocks down a child. The boy dies shortly after the accident. A prison sentence of between three and fifteen years awaits. High time for his mother, Cornelia, to intervene. A trained architect and member of Romania’s upper class, who graces her bookshelves with unread Herta Müller novels and is fond of flashing her purse full of credit cards, she commences her campaign to save her lethargic, languishing son. Bribes, she hopes, will persuade the witnesses to give false statements. Even the parents of the dead child might be appeased by some cash.
Călin Peter Netzer, the fil’s director, portrays a mother consumed by self-love in her struggle to save her lost son and her own, long since riven family. In quasi-documentary style, the film meticulously reconstructs the events of one night and the days that follow, providing insights into the moral malaise of Romania’s bourgeoisie and throwing into sharp relief the state of societal institutions such as the police and the judiciary.
A detailed review of the film can be read here. The film represents the new wave of Romanian films which have been coming out in the past 5-6 years and have attracted a lot of attention eg this recent New York Times' piece
The emptiness of authority is an unmistakable theme in the work of nearly all the younger Romanian filmmakers. Doctors, grandiose television hosts, swaggering bureaucrats - all display a self-importance that is both absurd and malignant. Their hold on power is mitigated sometimes by their own clumsiness but more often by unheralded, stubborn acts of ordinary decency. An ambulance technician decides to help out a suffering old man who is neither kin nor especially kind; a student stands stoically by her irresponsible friend; a militia officer, in the middle of a revolution, goes out of his way to find and protect an errant, idealistic young man under his command.There is almost no didacticism or point-making in these films, none of whose characters are easily sorted into good guys and bad guys. Instead, there is an almost palpable impulse to tell the truth, to present choices, conflicts and accidents without exaggeration or omission.
This is a form of realism, of course, but its motivation seems to be as much ethical as aesthetic, less a matter of verisimilitude than of honesty.
There is an unmistakable political dimension to this kind of storytelling, even when the stories themselves seem to have no overt political content. During the Ceausescu era, which ended abruptly, violently and somewhat ambiguously in December 1989 — in the last and least velvety of the revolutions of that year — Romanian public life was dominated by fantasies, delusions and lies.
And the filmmakers who were able to work in such conditions resorted, like artists in other communist countries, to various forms of allegory and indirection. Both Cristi Puiu and Cristian Mungiu describe this earlier mode of Romanian cinema as “metaphorical,” and both utter the word with a heavy inflection of disgust.................. I can say, though, that every conversation I had in Bucharest, even the most casual, circled back to the old days, so that I sometimes felt that they ended much more recently than 18 years ago.
And the physical aspect of Bucharest confirms this impression. The busy shopping streets have the usual storefronts — Sephora, Hugo Boss, various cellphone carriers and European grocery chains — and the main north-south road out of town is jammed with Land Rovers and lined with big-box discount stores. Turn a corner, though, or glance behind one of the billboards mounted on the walls of old buildings, and you are thrown backward, from the shiny new age of the European Union into the rustiest days of the Iron Curtain.
The architecture is a jumble of late-19th-century Hapsburg-style villas and gray socialist apartment blocks, some showing signs of renovation, others looking as if they had fallen under the protection of some mad Warsaw Pact preservation society. .....
“There is no Romanian film industry.” This is not another one of Cristi Puiu’s counterintuitive provocations but rather a statement I was to hear again and again in Bucharest as I visited the offices of film schools and production companies, a studio back lot and the headquarters of the National Center for Cinematography (C.N.C.). There was no shortage of industriousness, but Romania lacks the basic infrastructure that makes the cycle of production, distribution and exhibition viable in other countries. What is missing, above all, is movie theatres: there are around 80 cinemas serving a country of 22 million people, and 7 of the 42 largest municipalities have no movie screens at all. (In the United States there are almost 40,000 screens and millions of movie fans who still complain that there is nothing to see).
What Romania does have, in addition to a backlog of stories crying out to be told on screen, are traditions and institutions that give filmmakers at least some of the tools required to tell them. The “dinosaurs” at U.N.A.T.C. take their pupils through a rigorous program of instruction that includes courses in aesthetics and art history and requires them to make two 35-millimeter short films before graduating, one of them in black and white. This kind of old-school technical training, which extends to acting as well, surely accounts for some of the sophistication and self-assurance that Mungiu, Porumboiu and their colleagues display. Not that anything comes easily. The shortage of screens means that the potential for domestic commercial returns is small, and therefore it is hard to attract substantial private investment, either from within Romania or from outside the country.
And the scarcity of theaters makes exhibition quotas — which other countries use to protect their film industries from being overwhelmed by Hollywood — untenable. But if there is no film industry, there is at least a Law of Cinematography (modeled on a French statute) that establishes a mechanism by which the state helps finance movie production. Taxes collected on television advertising revenue, DVD sales and other media-related transactions go into a fund, money from which is distributed in a twice-yearly competition. Winning projects are ranked, with the top selections receiving as much as 50 percent of their production costs from the fund. Film costs tend to be modest — the budget of “4 Months” was around 700,000 euros — and the filmmakers have 10 years to pay back the state’s investment, at which point they own the film outright.Many of the filmmakers I spoke to complained about the system. Corneliu Porumboiu, impatient with its slow pace and bureaucratic obstacles, financed “12:08” himself. Shortly before Cannes last year, Cristian Mungiu was involved in a public spat with the C.N.C. that made headlines in the local press. After a dispute with the centre, Puiu circulated a letter pledging never to participate in the system again.
A useful little book on the Romanian cinema is A Short History of Romanian Cinema by Marian TutuiAnd this article gives some background (in Romanian) on the relevant films.