Romanian New Wave graphic by Ana Morgenstern

Cinema is one of those art mediums that can succinctly introduce us to the zeitgeist of a particular country. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Romania has experienced a filmmaking revival that captures a culture in transition with deep attachments to the past and mixed emotions about capitalism. Young Romanian filmmakers are not subtle about their statements. This new crop of films tend to be raw, shot in a naturalistic style and seldom adorned with fancy soundtracks or special effects. In fact, recent films have a hyper-realistic or cinéma vérité character. Some might argue it could be the transparency of the films’ low budgets. However, the minimalist aesthetic is a choice that is part of the narrative, portraying a lived-in austerity that also heightens human drama.

Still from Police Adjective

Still from Police Adjective

The shift from the USSR to a type of capitalist system has in fact created a state of confusion where embedded practices such as favors, clientelism and nepotism meet the rules and regulations of the free market, where previously banned themes such as religion and traditional costumes harken back to the days of monarchy are now revived along with the contrasting influences from Western culture. For instance, in Beyond the Hills (read our review here), the contrast between these two parallel streams of influences are portrayed on film with a powerful physical performance by the amazing actress Christina Flutur, who shared the Actress prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival with her co-star Cosmina Stratan (it was also our favorite film of last year). The tension between different influences from traditional religious thought, to Western life views, capitalism and the remnant Soviet bureaucratic structures are some of the recurring themes of these films.

Still from the Death of Mr. Lazarescu

Still from the Death of Mr. Lazarescu

A wealth of studies have described and analyzed post-Soviet politics and economics. However, the extent to which culture and the daily reality of how people live remains an open subject. Film rather effectively captures the daily aspect of life in the confusing post-Soviet context, at times with shocking imagery, such as in Beyond the Hills, and at times with rather dark humor, as in Police Adjective. With these films we learn that transition is a complex and painful process where a country rediscovers its ancient past through religious beliefs and looks to the future by embracing foreign influences from the West, still a new territory for this developing democracy. These films tend to be sarcastic and embrace a sort of black humor that understands the irony of change tinged with a lack of expectations on a bright future.

The film revival in Romania has not only brought us insight into the country, however. It has also given us some all-around terrific films. The list below is a short taste of some of the more salient and powerful of these films.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days*

One of the most famous exports of the Romanian New Wave, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days takes place in the late 1980s, during Ceausescu’s communist regime. It explores the relationship between two girlfriends, one of whom is pregnant and in search of an abortion, which was illegal under Ceausescu. The film offers a focused analysis of interpersonal relationships during Soviet rule and a peeping hole through which we can learn a few facts about how life was like behind the iron curtain. For instance, the prevalence of a black market in many facets of daily life, not just back alley abortions. Director Cristian Mungiu became the first director of the Romanian New Wave to earn a Palme D’Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. His minimalist style and realist treatment of unresolved or problematic issues in Romania are now a signature of the movement, but his deft cinematic pacing remains unmatched.

Police, Adjective

Police, Adjective is a black comedy that wittily exposes the fissures of modern life in Romania. The existence of draconian laws alongside a reality that cannot fit with those laws results in many dark comedic moments. Officer Cristi is tasked with arresting a young marijuana dealer but cannot bring himself to do it. He finds that the definitions of procedural justice lack an inherent morality. Police, Adjective has some great moments straddling the creaky line between the factual to the absurd aspects of the judicial system. As opposed to 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the film’s pacing will feel languorous to some, but it’s all the better to highlight the film’s deadpan observations.

Beyond the Hills

Another triumph by Mungui, Beyond the Hills showcases the relationship between two women who grew up together as orphans and re-encounter each other after years of separation. Alina emigrated to Germany to work, and she believes her dear friend Voichita will join her there. Instead, Voichita decided to join a convent in the small town where the friends grew up in together. A dearth of opportunities for young people in their home country makes it so the choice of migrating or joining a convent appear as archetypal of a lack of social mobility and opportunity since the fall of Soviet rule. When these two women meet again, there is an immediate tension. Alina is ready to pick up where they left off, as there is a suggestion of deep intimacy between these women. However, Voichita cannot see past her religious garb and the strict patriarchal environment she has been part of since leaving the orphanage. Orthodox Christianity (pre-dating the Enlightenment) and Western influences collide through Alina and Voichita. Alina is no match, as Voichita’s character is embedded in the Orthodox Christian convent, with its hierarchical arrangement and a priest at the helm leading the charge against female disobedience. This is a must-see from the movement and a personal favorite.

Child’s Pose

Bureaucracy, corruption, status and plain greed come together to paint a stark reality of what it’s like to live in contemporary Romania. It is not only a difficult proposition for those who are born out of privilege. For those who occupy the seat of privilege, life does not seem that much better. This intelligent and challenging drama presents the life of well-to-do, overbearing Cornelia (Luminița Gheorghiu) who would do anything for her child. When her son finds himself in serious trouble she jumps at the opportunity to save him and take charge of his life. What happens next is surprising, as despite the existent system of corruption, what prevails is a redemption of those who seek forgiveness.

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

One of the earlier films of the wave, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is Director Cristi Piui’s version of Dante’s Inferno (he followed it up with another strong entry, Aurora; read our review here). It all begins when Mr. Lazarescu calls an ambulance after he falls terribly ill. Paramedics respond, and the EMT, at first rude and cold, takes him to the hospital. And so begins his slow, gradual process of deterioration. The critique on the healthcare system is impressive. Hospitals move at a glacial pace and with the heaviness of Soviet bureaucracy. This is no surprise; it was in 2012 when the international media took notice that Romania’s healthcare system works through bribes and some of the most in-need are left without care if there are no bribes to give. The film was ahead of the international media coverage, released in 2005. While Lazarescu waits to be treated, even though he is clearly dying, life carries on around him in the most trivial of ways as when a doctor complains that there is nobody around to lend him a Nokia charger. The stark reality is also met with humanity as the EMT grows invested in helping Mr. Lazarescu. However, his death is still imminent. The cruelty of reality without embellishment, one of the main features of this film movement,  is aptly captured by this film.

Ana Morgenstern

*The Bill Cosford Cinema in Miami will host a special one-day-only 35mm screening of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days on Sunday, May 18, at 11:30 a.m.

(Copyright 2014 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

beyond-the-hills-movie-poster-2Director/writer Cristian Mungiu returns with Beyond the Hills, another focused, intense drama oozing stark irony. If the Romanian New Wave of filmmakers has a star, Mungiu remains at the top of this group. His 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) remains the most viscerally stirring dramas of the scene. Its intimate drama following two young women trying to find one of them a “doctor” to perform an illegal abortion in communist-era Romania walked a powerful line of both social statement and chilling human-interest tale.

After five years, Mungiu returns with a more tonally subdued feature film but no less potent in drama designed to illuminate a larger social picture. He remains an efficient writer who never wastes a word of dialogue, as he builds toward a heart-breaking revelation that illuminates the stubborn divides that rises from righteous ideology. For Beyond the Hills Mungiu examines the relationship of two women who met as children in an orphanage, became lovers and went separate ways as adults. Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) joined a Christian convent in the town of the orphanage. Alina (Cristina Flutur) went to Germany to work as a waitress.

The film picks up with Alina’s return. After running toward Voichita at a train station, barely escaping being struck by a train, Alina embraces Voichita and breaks down into intense sobs. Voichita, dressed head to toe in black, hugs her and tells her to calm down. It makes for a vivid set up to the baggage between these two young women, and the film only builds from there. BeyondTheHills_5The two leads bring much humanity to their roles. When Alina lays out on a small bed for a back rub in Voichita’s tiny room and turns over to expose her breasts, she tells her, “It’s been real hard without you, Voichita.” The tension between the two is loaded with both history and a new gulf between them. The yearning for one another carries a heart-breaking weight throughout much of the movie thanks to the dynamic between these two actresses. From simple glances to scenes of dialogue, the pair maintain a tragic magnetism whenever they share screen time. It is no wonder the two of them shared the Award for Best Actress at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

The drama of the film comes from not only the intensity of this tension, but the circumstances in which it both gestates and festers in: the half-built New Hill Monastery. 1_e_Cristian-Mungiu-_Beyond-the-HillsThe microcosm of the symbolically incomplete monastery, with its bearded leader who the women refer to as “Papa” (Valeriu Andriuta) and its elder mother superior (Dana Tapalaga), offer a void Voichita both needed as an orphan and can never fully replace. Alina’s meek attempts to fit in only heighten the false sense of family Voichita has found at the monastery. Alina’s drive to win back her former lover, and her attempts to act pious would be humorous were it not weighed down by an ominous fear of sin perpetuated by the New Hill’s dark-robed inhabitants.

Though there are some extreme fits of conflict mostly between the passionate Alina and the righteous priest, Mingiu knows the buildup of drama lies in some of the most mundane places, and he never wastes a moment. When the nuns play a word game while preparing a meal in the kitchen, their trivial distraction is broken by the arrival of Alina and Voichita,beyond_the_hills whose entrance decimates the happy chatter, as all the young women turn to stare at them for a brief loaded second, their varied pale faces and dark eyes all trained on the couple. The conflicts that arise among the film’s various characters build to an almost suffocating pitch until it culminates with such jaw-dropping heights, you may just feel your stomach sink by film’s end. If Mingiu were not such a master craftsman of drama, it would feel miraculous for a film that runs just over two-and-a-half hours to not only maintain such structure but also build on it toward a powerful ending.

Anyone who admired the director’s breakthrough film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days will not be disappointed. In fact, Beyond the Hills maybe the stronger of the two because he does so much more with what does not happen on screen, or is hidden from view, than what he showed in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.BTHNew1 If his new film’s run-time sounds much longer, it does not feel it. Though there are moments of visual cunning (the black-robed nuns bundled close together on the property of the snow-covered monastery as they move something on the grounds offers one particularly loaded scene that will take one’s breath away), Beyond the Hills is not a movie about dwelling in mood, but about pushing the limits of the drama to an end that winds up taking a rather morbid turn. Between the focused acting, the efficient script and the low-key cinematography that mostly keeps its distance from the players, avoiding sentiment (there is also no music score), Mingiu once again reveals himself as one of Romania’s strongest visual storytellers.

Hans Morgenstern

Beyond the Hills is in Romanian with English subtitles, runs 150 minutes and is not rated (the sexuality is in the tension and there’s also violence). It opened at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this past Friday, April 12, and plays there through Thursday, April 18. The theater loaned me a DVD screener for the purposes of this review. The film is also playing, in the South Florida area, at the Cosford Cinema, in the University of Miami Coral Gables campus, through Sunday April 14 and the Tower Theater in Miami through Thursday, April 18. It then opens further north in Boca Raton on April 19 at Living Room Theaters. Finally, it will appear in Fort Lauderdale at the Cinema Paradiso, on April 26, where it will play three days only through May 2. It may also be playing elsewhere nationwide; visit the movie’s homepage via IFC Films to search for screening dates via zip code.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Eastern Europe and its sensibilities for the grim and gloomy will make another one-night only appearance in South Florida, thanks to the Miami Beach Cinematheque. Prepare for Aurora, a film by Romanian director Cristi Puiu, the director of the Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). That film arrived on the scene in 2005, a full two years before 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon) really kicked off the buzz about the Romanian New Wave. In the mid, 2000s, the scene was bursting with directors who won critical if not commercial acclaim in the US art house scene (do not forget Corneliu Porumboiu, director of both Police Adjective and 12:08 East of Bucharest and the fact that 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days was first released on DVD in the US as a Borders exclusive, many months ahead of a wider release as a marketing gimmick for the store).

Despite their acclaim, these films were never known for their perkiness and happy endings. Hence, none had the true crossover, mainstream appeal of say a Zhang Yimou film. Aurora will do nothing to perk things up, as it follows a psychopath as he commits what seem random murders until he surrenders to police and confesses. It is no giveaway to say the main character, Viorel (played by the director), is the killer. The kicker arrives as Viorel offers his reasoning for the murders, revealing their connections and offering the final piece of the puzzle. The trailer does a nice job of setting up the film:

Knowing that this man is preparing for a spree of murder in fact livens up the first hour of this three-hour movie, as for the first hour, what you mostly see is a morose guy going about his day, doing mundane things. A distant, stationery, almost voyeuristic camera presents shots of Viorel doing nothing that seems out-of-the-ordinary, much less acting psychotic. Do not expect to see Buffalo Bill, from Silence of the Lambs, smearing lipstick on his face, dancing naked to “Goodbye Horses,” as he waits for his victim’s skin to soften up with lotion so he can skin her. Instead, you will see Viorel showering in all his flabby paleness making sure he has scrubbed well down there. Peeking around corners, the camera finds him simply waiting. The distance of the camera does not allow for any sort of sentimentality, as there are no closeups to allow for subtlety, much less a glimpse at the soul or thoughts of the character. This is not a man deep in thought or emotional turmoil. This is a man waiting. He waits to get somewhere in a car, he waits for someone to pick up the line on the other end of a phone, he waits for the elevator to arrive. The industrial equipment that offers much of the backdrop or the ruin of his apartment, which he tells relatives and neighbors is under renovation, only enhances the gloom.

Adding to the humdrum proceedings is the director’s choice not to use any extra-diagetic music or sounds. If there is any noise or music, it comes from the props in the scene. Even without close-ups, the characters do nothing to draw you in. They all seem to have faces frozen in frowns. When you do see something that might offer some levity to the proceedings, it only appears incidentally, on odd props denoting the everyday, like the rows of bright red, little hearts that ring a white broom stick handle in the corner of a room or the Tom and Jerry cartoon character stickers on the dashboard of Viorel’s car, slightly blurry, in the corner of a frame.

But, indeed this is all leading to something. By the time Viorel is handling the giant double-barrel shotgun that will become his murder weapon, putting it together in his bedroom, surrounded by stacks of books and CDs and rows of LPs and DVDs, not to mention a shelf dedicated to a miniature car collection, it makes your skin crawl to see how he nonchalantly turns the weapon at his chest and then under his chin, unable to reach the trigger, only an inch or so away from the reach of his outstretched arm.

Puiu has done an ingenious trick. By offering repetitive shots of the everyday as a set-up, he has reminded the audience of the banality of life, enhancing the shock when the shotgun finally goes off without showing the gruesome side-effects of the result. When Viorel first fires the weapon, it is inside his own house at some furniture. But it does not come with any immediacy, as the film— though long— unfolds with the efficiency of very few edits. The camera lingers as Viorel stands up, points the gun at some cushions, positions himself in a stance, snuggling the rifle’s butt into his shoulder. He decides to turn off the light. There’s a delay in the shadowy image and time again for him to find the right stance. The waiting again. Boom! Bright yellow lights up the dark. With very deliberate patience, it all seems to lead to that gun blast that comes with a shock. When Viorel finally goes out to use it on someone, you never know who these people are until the very end. The distance of the camera enhances the mystery. The shots never come fast enough, as Viorel spends some decent time bracing and positioning himself before firing the weapon. When the first fatal scream penetrates Puiu’s coldly directed film, the ghost of it seems to echo throughout the rest of Viorel’s ho-hum day.

In the end, Puiu makes distance, be it physical, emotional or social, the most creepy aspect of Aurora. Viorel is not always alone in the movie. He interacts with co-workers, neighbors, relatives and even loved ones, which include one of his 7-year-old daughters, almost never giving off a hint of edginess, until the killings begin, then he seems to loosen up, growing bolder with his mouth, most of all. Then the film truly starts to roll, as the presence of Viorel seems threatening to everything around him, including his own child. Halfway through the movie, all of a sudden the tone and the drama has been heightened, and everything Viorel does is tinged with a bit of edgy tension that culminates with him finally turning himself over to the police, where he admits to the killings and shares the connection and reason behind the murders, which is the real mystery that loads the movie.

The film is an odd experience and a true test of audience expectations, offering something beyond what one would expect in a suspense thriller, where the killer is often cloaked in darkness. Indeed, by shining a light on a lonely man, barely ever putting him outside of the frame (except one scene, where the camera seems to hesitate in following Viorel, as he commits one of his atrocities), Puiu flips the psycho-killer movie on its head, but maintains a creeping sense of dread, nonetheless.

Aurora is Unrated and will make its Florida theatrical debut at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which provided a screener for the purpose of this review, for one night only: Wednesday, Oct. 12 at 8 p.m.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)