10 essential Romanian directors

Your guide to some of the very best filmmakers to come from Romania.

Aferim! (2015)

Revolution in Realism: The New Romanian Cinema ran at BFI Southbank throughout June 2016.

Romanian cinema has exploded so spectacularly onto the international scene since the turn of the millennium that it’s easy to forget that it had a 20th-century tradition as well. True, its cinematic output never matched that of nearby Poland, Hungary or the Czech Republic (the extreme cultural repression of Nicolae Ceaușescu, Romania’s dictator from 1965-89, didn’t help), but the Romanian new wave didn’t come from nowhere: the groundwork was laid by the likes of Lucian Pintilie (probably the filmmaker whose sensibility was closest to that of his successors) and assorted colleagues.

However, Romania’s strongest cinematic era began in the early 2000s, and unlike previous new waves there seems no sign of this letting up: the 2016 Cannes Film Festival featured the latest films by Cristi Puiu and Cristian Mungiu in the main competition, with former Palme d’Or winner Mungiu ultimately sharing the best director prize. This is all the more impressive coming from a country that has traditionally shown little support for its film culture, either in funding or finding local audiences.

Usually set in the last 30 years (from the final years of communism to the present day), the new wave films add up to a vivid record of the country’s history at a time of frequent crisis, while also revealing universal human concerns. The first big international breakthrough, Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lăzărescu (2005), could be restaged almost word for word in a British NHS context and it would be just as effective.

It’s a testament to the talent of the current generation that this list could easily have been twice as long: names that didn’t quite make the cut (often with regret) include Nae Caranfil, Marian Crișan, Tudor Giurgiu, Cătălin Mitulescu, Dan Piţa, Florin Șerban, Adrian Sitaru, Adrian Țofei, Andrei Ujică and Călin Peter Netzer – the latter’s Berlin Golden Bear winner Child’s Pose (2013) is particularly recommended for the toe-curling extremes to which its pushy-parent protagonist (Luminița Gheorghiu) is prepared to go in defence of her offspring.

Ion Popescu-Gopo

The White Moor (1965)

Essential films

Short History (1956), A Bomb Was Stolen (1961), The White Moor (1965)

What’s special about him?

The first distinctive filmmaker to emerge from Romania, Ion Popescu-Gopo (1923-89) spent a decade as a graphic artist and cartoonist before turning to animated films in 1951, winning the 1957 Cannes Palme d’Or for the sardonic evolutionary parable Short History (1956). His naked ‘everyman’ character, nicknamed ‘Gopo’s Little Man’, appears in this and many other shorts.  Thereafter he made features filtering live action through an animator’s surreal sensibility, such as the wordless Cold War spy drama A Bomb Was Stolen (1961) – which owes much to the tradition of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati – and the visually flamboyant fantasy The White Moor (1965). 

Liviu Ciulei

The Forest of the Hanged (1965)

Essential film

The Forest of the Hanged (1964)

What’s special about him?

Primarily a distinguished stage director, Liviu Ciulei (1923-2011) made an indelible impression on Romanian cinema when he won the best director prize at Cannes for his third feature, the sombre The Forest of the Hanged (1964), about a court-martial official’s growing conscience about the death sentences he’s involved with passing. It was the first Romanian feature to achieve an international profile outside festivals, although it was also Ciulei’s last; aside from a 1977 TV movie and some acting appearances, all his subsequent directing credits were for the stage in Bucharest and Minneapolis (the latter in exile after he fell out with the Ceaușescu regime).

Sergiu Nicolaescu

A Police Inspector Calls (1974)

Essential films

Dacii (1966), Michael the Brave (1970), A Police Inspector Calls (1973)

What’s special about him?

The king of lavishly appointed Romanian historical epics, actor-director Sergiu Nicolaescu (1930-2013) is best known internationally for the 1970 film Michael the Brave (aka The Last Crusade), a biopic of Mihai Viteazu, the man who united the territories comprising present-day Romania. Conceived as an international co-production, it ended up all-Romanian, reputedly at the personal insistence of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. Nicolaescu also made thrillers set in the pre-communist first half of the 20th century, such as A Police Inspector Calls (1973).  He was one of the public figureheads of the 1989 Romanian revolution, but later regretted his political activism as it distracted him from his creative work.

Lucian Pintilie

Niki and Flo (2003)

Essential films

Reconstruction (1968), Afternoon of a Torturer (2001), Niki and Flo (2003)

What’s special about him?

The highest-profile Romanian director of the late 20th century, his fondness for absurdist humour making him the strongest link between his theatrical compatriot Eugene Ionesco and the present Romanian new wave generation, Lucian Pintilie (1933-) initially made a splash with two films that indirectly criticised totalitarianism, Sunday at 6 o’Clock (1965) and Reconstruction (1968). The alleged ‘western influence’ of both forced him into exile, first in Yugoslavia and then in France. He returned home after the revolution, to produce seven more films (from 1992’s The Oak to 2006’s medium-length Tertium non datur), most casting a quizzically sardonic eye on the darker aspects of Romanian history that he himself had lived through.

Cristi Puiu

Aurora (2010)

Essential films

The Death of Mr Lăzărescu (2005), Aurora (2010), Sieranevada (2016)

What’s special about him?

Critics now regard road movie Stuff and Dough (2001), the debut feature by Cristi Puiu (1967-) as the debut of the Romanian new wave, although it was his second feature that really made a splash. A tar-black comedy that struck mordant chords with anyone with experience of an overstretched healthcare system, The Death of Mr Lăzărescu (2005) is the first of a promised sextet of ‘Tales from the Outskirts of Bucharest’. Its successors were Aurora (2010), about a divorce’s traumatic aftermath, and Sieranevada (2016), about family bickering after the death of its patriarch. All are characterised by near-three-hour running times and humour so deadpan that it sneaks up on the viewer quite unexpectedly.

Cristian Mungiu

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007)

Essential films

Occident (2002), 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), Graduation (2016)

What’s special about him?

If Mr Lăzărescu lit the fuse, the Palme d’Or-winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) was the explosion. A grimly gripping story of an illegal abortion in Ceaușescu’s Romania, it’s one of the most effective of all films at conveying the terror of accidentally ending up on the wrong side of a totalitarian regime. Cristian Mungiu (1968-) had already made the sombre Occident (2002), about Romanians heading westwards but regretting it. Thereafter he oversaw the riotous Ceaușescu-inspired comedy Tales from the Golden Age (2009) before solo-directing Beyond the Hills (2012), set largely in an Orthodox convent, and Graduation (2016), in which a doting father is faced with an dreadful ethical dilemma concerning his daughter’s exam results.

Radu Muntean

Tuesday, after Christmas (2010)

Essential films

Boogie (2008), Tuesday after Christmas (2010), One Floor Below (2015)

What’s special about him?

Although less famous than Puiu and Mungiu, Radu Muntean (1971-) has built up an equally impressive body of work, whether examining the Romanian revolution (The Paper Will Be Blue, 2006) or the lives of disaffected thirtysomethings (Boogie, 2008; Tuesday after Christmas, 2010).  All three star Dragoș Bucur, in the latter two films as a man attempting to balance the demands and securities of family life with other temptations, even at the point of risking his marriage. A different moral dilemma fuels the unsettling One Floor Below (2015), in which a man overhears a neighbour’s murder but is desperate not to get involved.

Corneliu Porumboiu

Police, Adjective (2009)

Essential films

12:08 East of Bucharest (2006), Police, Adjective (2009), The Treasure (2015)

What’s special about him?

The most quirkily left-field and philosophically provocative of the Romanian new wavers, Corneliu Porumboiu (1975-) made a considerable splash with his micro-budget debut 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006), a riotously funny comedy about the very serious subject of historical revisionism and personal self-glorification in the wake of revolutionary upheaval. The wry Police, Adjective (2009) made memorable use of seemingly pointless pedantry to ultimately construct a philosophical treatise about the business of maintaining order, while The Treasure (2015) casts a similarly quizzical look at the notion of “value” as two metal-detector fans go searching for a lost fortune. The pleasures of his films are often subtle but usually substantial.

Radu Jude

Aferim! (2015)

Essential films

The Happiest Girl in the World (2009), Everybody in Our Family (2012), Aferim! (2015)

What’s special about him?

After a stellar career as a maker of short films and commercials, Radu Jude (1977-) satirised the latter profession in the ironically-titled The Happiest Girl in the World (2009), in which the winner of a fruit-juice competition gets to enthuse about the product on camera, but her lack of acting chops combined with family feuding prove disastrous. The comedy Everybody in Our Family (2012) was couched in a similarly cynical vein, while Aferim! (2015) was a startling change of pace for both Jude and Romanian cinema in general, a period drama about a quest for a gypsy slave set in 19th-century Wallachia shot in glistening black-and-white widescreen, which creates the impression of an ancient newsreel.

Cristian Nemescu

California Dreamin’ (Endless) (2007)

Essential films

Marinela from P7 (2006), California Dreamin’ (Endless) (2007)

What’s special about him?

The youngest filmmaker cited here, Cristian Nemescu (1979-2006) was also, sadly, the shortest-lived. He initially attracted festival attention with the medium-length Marilena from P7 (2006), an offbeat tragicomedy about a 13-year-old boy’s obsession with a local prostitute. His first and last feature California Dreamin’ (Endless) (2007) starred Armand Assante as the captain of a troop of American soldiers who are temporarily detained in a small Romanian village on a bureaucratic technicality. Both films showed a keen awareness of daily life in the more run-down and remote parts of Romania, something that had already garnered Nemescu a considerable critical reputation before his untimely death in a car accident during post-production of his last film.

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