Contemporary Romanian Cinema. The History of an Unexpected Miracle, Dominique Nasta


  • Entry on Romania in the Handbook of Soviet and East European Films and Filmmakers (1992): “Like Romania itself, Romanian cinema has remained obscure. The sparse international distribution of its films has made it remote and unfamiliar. Until recently, it has been aesthetically insignificant, adhering rigidly to the somehow formulaic necessities imposed by film’s illustrative and ideological function in a totalitarian regime. For the reasons, Romanian cinema has not gained the world stature of other Eastern European cinema. (Roof 1992:309).
  • with Romanian contemporary cinema present for more than a decade at important film festivals over the world , winning prizes and being an identifiable part of  European co-production, distribution and training circuits, the appropriate moment has come to look at Romania’s film history, in an attempt to explain and analyse those aspects that have shaped and made it relatively unique today.
  • directors who have been influential upon development and positioning of Romanian film at home and abroad: Dan Pita, Lucian Pintilie, Mircea Daneliouc, Nae Caranfil, Cristian Mungiu
  • emphasis on both: socio-historical background that has conditioned the emergence of specific trends (e.g. film minimalism) and cinematically significant characteristics of individual works.
  • Balkan and Latin features particular to Romanian films
  • soundtracks often prove as important for decoding a film as visuals

Difficult Beginnings

  • a Latin island set in a sea of Slavic neighbours -> consistently felt close to identities and sources somehow out of reach -> issue of national identity – at the center of socio-political debates
  • the main Romanian symbolic paradigm is to be found in the archetypal tale of Miorita. 
  • Lucian Blaga, The Mioritic Space (1936): the ballad – geography of the Romanian poetic imagination; a philosophical attempt to explain the Romanian spirit through landscape – a stylistic matrix of Romanian culture
  • Mircea Eliade – Miorita = a collective answer to the terrors inflicted by history; the hero finds meaning in his tragic fate because he does not consider it a personal event, but rather a mythical happening
  • the shepherd provides an answer to an absurdist situation, countering death and misfortune through a nuptial fairy tale – the cosmic marriage from Miorita is a mythical one, and example of cosmic Christianity – part pagan, part Christian – clearly dominated by nostalgia for nature
  • as many case studies of significant past and present films will try to show, fatality is indeed at the core of the Romanian psyche, precisely counterbalanced by a lot of black humor, spontaneity and ironic wit.
  • mid-way between a fatalistic resignation and the tragicomic absurdist dimension present in a number of filmic productions, the Romanian cultural realm has always manifested an obvious penchant for reinterpreting major historical events.
  • Paul Ricouer: time of fiction and historical time – the deliberated mixture of the both – crucial aspect for decoding themes and styles conveyed by Romanian culture in genera and by fiction and non-fiction films in particular.
  • Romanian contemporary fiction films are extremely close to Ricoueur’s redefinition of Aristotle’s three-fold mimesis as developed in his seminal survey Time and Narrative: time of fiction, historical time and audience reception time all mix into one coherent signifying entity.
  • “We find a basic indication of the way in which the fictive experience of time relates in its own way to lived temporality and time perceived as a dimension of the world in the fact that the epic, the drama and the novel characters, events and places… Nevertheless, we would be sorely mistaken if we were to conclude that is just the opposite. From the mere fact that the narrator and the leading characters are fictional, all references to real historical events are divested of their function of standing for the historical past and are set on a par with the unreal status of the other events.” (1990, III: 129)
  • three-fold mimesis: mimesis 1 (prefiguration) – tries to understand human action in its semantics and temporality; mimesis 2 (configuration) – opens the kingdom of ‘what if?’ and creates narrative configurations which are precisely meant to antonyms of historically validated, true stories – narrated tine for Ricouer constitutes an alternative to the classical representation of time as flowing from the past to the future; mimesis 3 (refiguration) – the reading/interpretative process – the movement by which the work of art unfolds, as it were, a world ahead of itself.
  • the different types of socio-political and economic upheavals which have prevented Romanian filmmakers paradoxically engendered, as in other neighbouring countries in the Soviet sphere, codified modes of expression. Different spatiotemporal lines co-exist inside such films: their common ground often lies in a joke, a song or a poem

The Ups and Downs of a Faltering Film Industry

  • early screenings of Lumiere films – Bucharest, May 1896
  • presence of foreign cameramen shooting on location their Romanian shorts ‘vues roumaines’ – local topics
  • in 1908 – 1909, many theatres equipped to show newsreels and fiction films alternating with vaudeville numbers began to be built, first in Bucharest and later on in other important economic and cultural cities (Iasi, Cluj, Sibiu)
  • 1912, Independenta Romaniei (The Independence War), Grigore Brezeanu/Aristide Demetriade – first film that has been preserved – Restul e tacere (The Rest Is Silence), 2007, Nae Caranfil
  • Amor Fatal (Fatal Love) and Insir-te Margarite (Spin a Yarn), 1911 (Brezeanu and Demetriade) first fiction features produced in Romania – produced by Pathe-Bucharest – haven’t been preseved
  • Leon Popescu – film business via his company Filmul de Arta Leon Popescu
  • wartime studios – Cluj
  • during the first 2 decades of Romanian cinema’s existence, production scenes used well-known literary figures as screenwriters (Liviu Rebreanu, Mihail Sadoveanu, Victor Eftimiu, I.L. Caragiale)
  • most frequently adapted author – I.L. Caragiale – his tragicomic, sarcastic depiction of Romanian society has left its mark on classical film directors such as Jean Georgescu through to contemporary auteurs of the twenty-first century, such as Corneliu Porumboiu
  • french and German productions – filmed in Romania
  • financed by the Third Reich -> nationalist productions
  • O noapte furtunoasa (A Stormy Night), 1942, Jean Georgescu – first internationally acclaimed Romanian box-office hit produced by the ONC

Ground Zero

  • 23 August 1944 – Romania joined the anti-Nazi alliance -> the Soviet Union imposed Communism, leaving the country with no other possible political alternative
  • Cinema of the Other Europe, Dina Iordanova -post World War II film periodisation that includes 5 distinct periods; 1. 2949-1956 – totalitarianism and isolation; 1956 – the official end of Stalinism and the failed anti-Communism Hungarian uprising; – film distribution was placed under Communist political supervision, directors were sent to the Soviet State Film Institutes and given large doses of ideological indoctrination, along with training in Socialist film techniques
  • Rasuna Valea (The Valley Resaunds), 1949, Paul Calinescu – heralded as the first film of ‘a new world’
  •   Afacerea Protar (The Protar File), 1955, Haralambie Boros, adapted from the playwright by Mihail Sebastian – first Romanian film to be selected for the Cannes Film Festival
  • late 1950s – spirit of criticism – the birth of the intellectual reaction against state-directed orthodoxy in both politics and the arts.
  • after 1953 (Stalin’s death) – Victor Iliu – most important film school founder – teacher and director, inspired by Eisenstein’s pioneering theories -> Liviu Ciulei, Lucian Pintilie, Radu Gabrea
  • mass films genres timidly emerged in the late 1950s – animated films, thrillers, comedies
  • Ion Popescu-Gopo – leading figure in Romanian animated film – anti-Disney minimalist cartoon creations – Scurta Istorie (A Short History), 1956, Homo Sapiens, 1960, Allo, Hallo, 1963 – 2 thematic constants: the advent of humanity represented by Little Man and an overtly  poetic dimension.
  • 1957 Short Film Palme d’Or – A Short History

Bright Intervals

Romania’s Short-lived Thaw

  • Dina Iordanova
  • late 1950’s Gheorghe Gheorghiu Dej, Prime Minister, rejected the Thaw theses adopted by neighboring countries
  • Nicolae Ceausecu
  • Romanian Film Archive – founded in 1957
  • Duminica la ora sase (Sunday at Six, Lucian Pintilie, 1965), Cartierul Veseliei (The Gaiety District, Manole Marcus, 1967) – lacked an optimistic spirit and did not depict dramatic victories for the early Communist movement: they collectively offered an impression of isolated Marxism constantly losing members to betrayal in a near-hopeless attempt to raise class-consciousness.
  • censorship had continued to be very active and no great liberty in subject matter or dialogue was granted to filmmakers
  • a handful of atypical filmmakers did not make concessions to the commercial strain of imposed genre films. Two of them made highly original films that were shown in European festival circuit and became internationally acclaimed classics: Liviu Ciulei, Lucian Pintilie
  • Liviu Ciulei, Padurea Spanzuratilor (The Forest of the Hanged) – the novel adaptation is very innovative: all the “I” disappears and is changed into subjective audio-visual flashes; images of the front and discussions in headquarters are depicted with an extraordinary gift for expressive details.
  • Meandre(1967) Mircea Saucan

Romanian Cinema in the 1970’s

Versatility on the Menu

  • the end of the Romanian Thaw – which lasted less than a decade – was characterized by 2 events: 10th Party Congress Report in August 1969 that the new society would be superior to capitalist societies from all perspectives, overtly criticising former established contacts with the Western world; 2. Ceausescus’ trip to China and North Korea in May 1971 – highly tempted him to introduce methods of indoctrination used by Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The politicised media thus initiated the publication of the famous July 1971 Theses. Liberalisation movements were contained and a personality cult was installed, so as to consolidate Ceausescu’s position as a unique Communist leader among those active in the East European bloc.
  • Film, more than any other cultural field, had to align itself to this new line. Thematic and structural changes were most perceptible in the historical sub-genre and in productions inspired by ideologically related past and present topics. Two main concepts dominated the Romanian cultural context. The first stressed Romania’s territorial continuity since time immemorial. The slogan “We have been here for two thousand years” lasted for more than a decade and infested all cultural domains from literature to film, including  poetry, song, dance and painting. The second insisted on the fact the Romanian artist was mean to create works with strong political/ideological connotations.
  • 1970 – 2 trends: 1. the official trend in accordance with the Party line included genre films, historical epics and adaptations, innocent comedies, the anti-fascist thrillers and films formatted for children and/or adolescents; 2. a more peripheral trend focused both on heritage films and on films with more daring contemporary topics. Alongside established filmmakers, this trend showcased a new generation of fresh graduates from the National Film and Theatre Insittute which would prove pivotal in the next years: Dan Pita, Mircea Veroiu, Stere Gulea, Dinu Tanase

Experiments in Docu-Fiction and Heritage Film Adaptation

  • the peripheral trend’s ringleaders from the 1970s were Mircea Veroiu and Dan Pita
  • Apa ca un bivol negru (Water Like a Black Buffalo, 1970) – semi-documentary manifesto
  • Nunta de piatra (Stone Wedding, 1971), Dan Pita – Fefeleaga, La o nunta (Ion Agarbiceanu – Miorita
  • the wedding – one of the key tropes of Balkan cinema
  • Duhul Aurului (Lust for Gold, 1974) – very elaborate set design, close to photographic tableaux (Radu Boruzescu and Sturmer)
  • Lada (The Chest), Dan Pita – naturalist elements echoing Emile Zola or Frank Norris – rhetorical trope called ‘chiasmus’
  • Felix si Otilia (Felix and Otilia), Iulian Mihu, 1971 – set and costume designs by Miruna and Radu Boruzescu, cinematographers Gheorghe Fischer, Alexandru Intorsureanu – almost Melies-like chromatic impacts
  • Dincolo de pod (Beyond the Bridge), Mircea Veroiu, 1976 – adaptation of Mara. cinematography by Calin Ghibu – Vermeer-like visual compositions
  • Inainte de tacere (Before There Was Silence), Alexa Visarion, 1978 – inspired reworking of a famous Ion Luca Caragiale naturalistic novella In vreme de razboi (In Times of War) – the film’s general tone often echoes theatrical staging, despite frequent naturalistic outdoor scenes: chiaroscuro tableau-like shots with candle lighting, synaesthesia states enhanced by challenging sound designs. There is no additional music, only some authentic folklore purposefully sung in a false key.
  • Morometii (The Moromete Family), Stere Gulea, 1987

Strange Forebondings: Deviant Everyday Topics on Film

  • Ceausescu’s  obsession with industrialization and the politics of austerity enhanced by his 1980 decision to pay the entire foreign dept, as well as his profound hostility to market oriented reforms, led to the dramatic decline of living conditions and to the growth of collective discontent. Unorthodox initiatives in the field of external politics were meant to cover up from the West the growing domestic repression of the late 1970s. The economic situation worsened after 1975 and accelerated the country’s economic and social decline. From 1972 onwards members of the Ministry of Culture regularly visited all cultural events: they provided indications and suggested changes. Theatre and film studios, concert and opera houses and recording and publishing companies were also rigorously controlled. Screenplays were discussed and negotiated for months, sometimes years, such that the final results were disappointing because too many changes and compromises had been made. Many films were shelved of delayed waiting for changes to be made. The ubiquity of censorship had serious consequences for artistic creations in general: on the one hand there was the constant temptation of self-censorship that drove gifted artists to give up sincerity. On the other hand, the same artists aimed at complicity with an audience whom they could satisfy by means of parabolic, encoded hints about the ongoing absurd situation.
  • Suta de lei (One Hundred Lei), Mircea Seucan, 1973 – highly controversial film; elaborate avant-garde and experimental audio-visual as in Meanders.
  • Saucan left Romania for Israel after serious mental breakdown due to the failure of such a controversial project. – a copy of the uncut version was shown in 1990 in Buchared and in European festivals over the world during retrospectives.
  • Ilustrate cu flori de camp (Postcards with Flowers), Andrei Blaier, 1974  – probably the first Romanian film about an abortion and its tragic consequences (4,3,2 – Mungiu)
  • films by women directors appear as exceptions in the Romanian film industry
  • Stop cadru la masa (Snapshot Around the Family Table), 1979, Ada Pistinier – first long feature film after a career in documentary filmmaking
  • Mere Rosi i(Red Apples), Alexandru Tatos, 1976 – lighter more comic variation on the cinema of ‘moral concern’ from the Romanian 1970s.
  • Secvente (Sequences) 1982, Alexandru Tatos – rated as fifth best in 2008 Top Ten Romanian Films of all time and considered a milestone for contemporary directors such as Cristi Puiu. – the film is yet another variation of the same paradigm, that of ‘revealing while filming’
  • in his Diary, Tatos explains how the sketch Four Slaps was filmed in eight days and was subsequently structured as a portmanteau project. Diary entries: ‘Thank God they accepted this new version’, ‘They finally agreed to leave it as I planned it’ – 3 episodes: The Pone Call, The Restaurant and The Rehearsal, full of very interesting details of Romanian everyday life under Communism

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