When Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2007, it crystallised a sense that something remarkable was happening in Romania. This was a nation that cinephiles had already turned eyes to after festival awards for Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu in 2005 and Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest in 2006.
Who gets to declare a ‘new wave’? And who decides when it starts or ends? Romanian New Wave directors have been ambivalent at being bundled together (largely by the press) into a supposed movement. But no-one could ignore the explosion of talent from the former communist state, or the shared characteristics of this cycle of films, which typically offer droll satires of life in the Ceausescu dictatorship years and its continued legacy in today’s free-market Romania.
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There have been clear Romanian New Wave tendencies, including a deadpan, unsparing black humour and minimalist, dialogue-driven naturalism. These are applied to both socio-political dysfunction and human failings in more intimate relationships.
More recently, some of Romania’s most thrilling and audacious directors have veered into more radical experimentation. They share a politically urgent, inclusive sensibility that resists the prejudices of a resurgent far-right. Chief among this group are Adina Pintilie and Radu Jude, with their Berlinale Golden Bear winners Touch Me Not (2018) and Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (2021). Others have retreated into an ever-more esoteric and philosophical realm – see Puiu’s cerebral, extreme and bracingly strange period epic Malmkrog (2020).
With Romanian cinema’s quality and energy to surprise still high, it seems accurate to say that the New Wave is not yet over. Rather, it’s boldly evolving.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007)
Director: Cristian Mungiu
New Wave directors have been intent on telling real, human stories of the indignities of daily life under Ceaușescu, as opposed to the illusions propaganda had sought to propagate. Cristian Mungiu based his stark, unflinching Palme d’Or-winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days on an anecdote he’d heard from the era about an illegal abortion. Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) helps her university dorm roommate (Laura Vasiliu) through a termination in a hotel room at the hands of a black-market abortionist. It’s a traumatic experience that pits personal bonds of emotional loyalty against a system that gave the state great power over female bodies – and left women vulnerable to exploitation, if they handled their matters outside the law.
Shot in cold greys and blues, a 1987 communist Romania of food queues and bartering for scarce commodities is recreated in impressive period detail. The desperation of the time is channelled into gut-churning suspense.
California Dreamin’ (Endless) (2007)
Director: Cristian Nemescu
An American captain and his troops find themselves stuck for days in a Romanian village after the corrupt, embittered station chief stops their NATO train – which is transporting military equipment to Kosovo in 1999 – demanding paperwork. To other locals, including the stationmaster’s infatuation-struck daughter, the appearance of these worldly foreigners seems the most exciting thing that’s ever happened in the town (less traumatic, at any rate, than the arrival of the Russians at the end of the war).
A buoyant satire of geopolitical farce, cynical opportunism and youthful lust, California Dreamin’ riffs on a Romania holding the perennial short straw of historical fate. After 27-year-old director Cristian Nesmecu was tragically killed in a car crash in Bucharest, editing was finished posthumously. The film was left long and sprawling, with the term ‘Endless’ added to the title in honour of a bright talent gone but living on in every frame.
Police, Adjective (2009)
Director: Corneliu Porumboiu
The oppressive years of Ceausescu’s regime may be over, but that has not meant an instant transformation of the rot at its core, or of the habits of a corrupt bureaucracy that metes out everyday humiliations and injustices. Corneliu Porumboiu, whose wry comedy 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) lampooned the selective memory that has warped some recollections of the Romanian Revolution, delivered a whip-smart twist on the cop movie with Police, Adjective, which targets the hypocritical failings of law enforcement.
Pangs of conscience bother undercover detective Cristi (Dragos Bucur) as he tails a hash-smoking high school student, whose friend has reported him out of selfish motives. A concern with language itself is central, as it is with numerous New Wave films. This is part of the legacy of authoritarianism, when a gap between reality and what the regime cynically declared truth was the space where much trauma took root.
If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle (2010)
Director: Florin Șerban
Imprisonment is not only literal in If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle. Florin Serban’s film is a rough-edged vision of an economically pressured existence of familial rifts and curtailed choices. It shows that, for the have-nots, there is no assured happy ending in the new Romania.
Eighteen-year-old Silviu (George Pistereanu) is nearing release from the young offender institution he’s been locked up in for four years. Any joy over his pending freedom is marred by desperate anxiety over his limited prospects. His mother is a migrant worker in wealthier European nations, and her emotional unavailability has left an aching void that her brief reappearance (to collect Silviu’s younger brother to take to Italy with her) only compounds. A trainee social worker sparks something inside Silviu, even as her unreachability heightens his angst all the more. The film employs non-professionals, handheld camera and a real-life reformatory setting for its gritty, bare bones naturalism.
Tuesday, after Christmas (2010)
Director: Radu Muntean
Men questioning who they are as their families teeter in crisis frequently populate New Wave films. Radu Jude explored familial dysfunction brilliantly in Everybody in Our Family (2012). And Radu Muntean’s acutely observed Tuesday, after Christmas turns on marital (and mid-life) crisis.
Banker Paul (Mimi Branescu) must choose between continued cohabitation with his wife Adriana (Mirela Oprisor, Branescu’s real-life spouse) and their nine-year-old, or going public with an affair with his daughter’s 20-something dental technician, Raluca (Maria Popistasu). It’s a tour-de-force of naturalism that resists moralising. Nor does it glamourise infidelity, pulling no punches in depicting the full gravity of the emotional fallout Paul has somewhat witlessly created.
Romania’s transition to a free-market capitalism that promised more than it delivered had left citizens questioning the meaning of freedom and the optimal route to personal fulfilment. Domestic dramas of tested values were a means to channel this wider anxiety.
Director: Cristi Puiu
Many credit Cristi Puiu with starting his country’s New Wave through his wry road movie about shady private enterprise, Stuff and Dough (2001), and his black comedy about a cranky citizen shunted from hospital to hospital, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005). Things tend to go wrong for Puiu’s characters, in a mix of systemic incompetence and the merciless fortunes of an absurdist fate.
His masterpiece Aurora shows a tendency that would continue in his career, which has seen him turning toward more existential mullings of alienation, violence and death, in the vein of Russian thinkers Solovyov and Dostoevsky. Why do people kill? There is both banal logic and deep mystery to the actions of Viorel (played by Puiu himself), a Bucharest engineer struggling to accept his recent divorce who breaks down and commits murder. It’s a portrait of masculinity in meltdown, and of a social code far flimsier than we’re indoctrinated to believe.
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu (2010)
Director: Andrei Ujică
Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu ruled Romania for almost quarter of a century before he was overthrown and executed along with his wife Elena in 1989. It’s an era many citizens wish they could forget, characterised as it was by brutal political oppression and tough privation.
New Wave filmmakers have been adamant that its horrors should not be forgotten, nor the official version taken at face value. While other directors told stories of the everyday realities that state propaganda glossed over, found-footage documentarian Andrei Ujica turned to archives, selecting from more than a thousand hours of existing material to create The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu, a by no means flattering portrait of the powerful couple. His magnificent work of resistance directs us where and how to look, showing that the devil is in the detail – and the truth irrepressible for those who care to see it.
Child’s Pose (2013)
Director: Călin Peter Netzer
Călin Peter Netzer won the Berlinale’s top Golden Bear award for Child’s Pose, showing that global appetite for the New Wave’s sharp satires on social failings had not abated into the 2010s. It’s set in a contemporary Bucharest in which – for the elite and well-connected – everything is negotiable and negligence is a mere hiccup to be side-stepped or covered up.
Formidably overbearing mother and doctor’s wife Cornelia (Luminita Gheorghiu) is adamant that nothing should stand in the way of a charmed life for her pampered and perpetually infantilised son Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache), even his hitting and killing a child with his Audi after some drinks. The wheels of a corrupt, intertwined power system characterised by bribery, and little concerned with ethics, spin into motion. Cornelia gets lawyers and doctors on the case of hiding or glossing over the evidence in a horror show of new money and old methods.
Touch Me Not (2018)
Director: Adina Pintilie
Adina Pintilie’s debut feature Touch Me Not caused near-scandal when it won the Golden Bear in Berlin. Some didn’t know how to assimilate a film so outside their comfort zone; others welcomed its emotional risk and radical spirit. What everyone agreed on was that it was a stark change from the very male-driven cinema of family strife that had dominated Romanian cinema of recent years.
Blending documentary and fiction, it’s less a drama than a space to experiment – a therapy laboratory. Laura Benson plays a woman trying to find a way out of her discomfort at being touched by consulting others more at home in bodies considered different, from a Munich transsexual to a married man with spinal muscular atrophy. The film, which sparked a media outcry from conservative quarters in Romania, shows the New Wave’s frankness in embracing marginalised stories has far from exhausted its inclusive possibilities.
Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (2021)
Director: Radu Jude
Radu Jude, one of the New Wave’s most wide-ranging directors, has developed into its most fearless voice of political dissent and witnessing of history. He too has addressed Ceausescu-era abuses, but has more often confronted Romania’s complicity in the Holocaust and the legacy of ethnic hatred feeding today’s far-right resurgence. I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians (2018), for instance, used public re-enactment to reveal attitudes to past atrocities.
Wild and rambunctious, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn gave Romania its third Berlinale Golden Bear in less than a decade. It sees school teacher Emi (Katia Pascariu) publicly vilified after an internet porn scandal in Covid-era Bucharest. It delights in blowing the veneer of social propriety apart, showing up the sanctimonious hypocrisies of a citizenry happy to make sport of a woman’s sex life, while keeping silent about decades of blood on Church and state hands.
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