5 Films That Will Help You Better Understand Romania
Romanian writer and philosopher Emil Cioran once noted, "Essentially, people from Eastern Europe, regardless of their ideological orientation, are always against History. Why? Simply because they are all its victims." An inherent characteristic of Romanian cinema has always been and remains its engagement with key moments in national history. During the era of Ceausescu's regime, this was more akin to mythologizing the past, while now it entails a meticulous exploration of collective traumas.
"Police Commissioner Accuses" ("Un comisar acuză"), directed by Sergiu Nicolaescu, 1974
Photo: "Un comisar acuză", Source: Wiki
The directorial career of Sergiu Nicolaescu mirrors that of his Italian namesake, Sergio Leone – both started with "peplum" films (for Nicolaescu, it was "The Dacians" and the collaborative film "The Battle for Rome" with Robert Siodmak), ventured into Westerns (Nicolaescu directed several films based on James Fenimore Cooper's novels), and eventually arrived at the gangster genre. This is where Police Commissioner Tudor Moldovan, played by Nicolaescu himself, takes the stage. His incorruptible, elegant, ironic, and quick-to-punish-wrongdoers character became something of a Dick Tracy for Eastern European audiences. However, the primary adversaries of Commissioner Moldovan were not mobsters, but rather members of the "Iron Guard" legionnaires, and the main setting was pre-war Bucharest, not bootlegging Chicago. Understandably, in the cinema of socialist Romania, the legionnaires – who were admired in reality by Emil Cioran and Mircea Eliade – were depicted as brutal, fascist bandits. Yet for Moldovan (and for Nicolaescu as a director), ideological nuances were not as important as the restoration of justice.
The very first film about Moldovan (then named Tudor Miklovan), which was released in 1972 and titled "With Clean Hands," didn't originally foresee any continuation, let alone a series of films. In this film, the brave commissioner perishes, while his partner – the serious communist-fanatic Mihai Roman – continues to combat crime independently (several films were also made about him). But the character of Miklovan was so beloved by the audience (the commissioner didn't engage in moralizing and didn't need the support of the Romanian Communist Party; he admired Gary Cooper and relied solely on his "Smith & Wesson" revolver) that Nicolaescu was compelled to revive him under the name Tudor Moldovan for an entire film cycle. "Police Commissioner Accuses" is the finest entry in this series. It's no wonder that it's watched on television by the characters of "Whistlers," like Cornel Porumboiu, one of the leaders of the "Romanian New Wave."
"Road of Suffering and Wrath / Road of Bones" ("Drumul oaselor"), directed by Doru Neștase, 1980
Photo: "Drumul oaselor", Source: Wiki
In addition to the series of films about Tudor Moldovan in socialist Romania, another equally popular film cycle was made, known as the "Seria Mărgelatu," named after the main character. The action of all the films takes place on the eve of the 1848 national liberation revolution that ignited in Wallachia and Moldavia (both principalities were vassals of the Ottoman Empire but were under the protectorate of the Russian Empire) as part of the so-called European "Spring of Nations." Mărgelatu is a free shooter and adventurer who sympathizes with revolutionaries from the secret society "Brotherhood" ("Frația"). He was portrayed by Florin Piersic, infusing his character with the Clint Eastwood-esque charm of a "high plains drifter" – enigmatic, rugged, partial to aniseed liqueur, proficient with all kinds of weapons (but favoring a six-barreled pistol), and serenely cracking sunflower seeds everywhere. Essentially, "Seria Mărgelatu" is a blend of spaghetti western and Zorro films. In "Road of Skeletons," the first film in the cycle, the conspirators from the "Brotherhood" must locate the treasures of the leader of the 1821 Wallachian uprising, Tudor Vladimirescu, and use them to purchase weapons for the revolution. However, right from the start, things don't go as planned. And just when it seems that the treasure adventure is doomed to fail, Mărgelatu appears.
By the way, judging by the "flower-themed" names (the first film features a character nicknamed "White Tulip," and in the second film, Mărgelatu himself adopts the moniker "Yellow Rose"), "La tulipe noire" with Alain Delon was once very popular in Romania.
"The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" ("Moartea domnului Lăzărescu"), directed by Cristi Puiu, 2005
Photo: "Moartea domnului Lăzărescu", Source: Wiki
Cristi Puiu is the godfather of the "Romanian New Wave," a loosely-knit group of young directors who, in the early 2000s, presented on the big screen the everyday post-revolutionary reality (referring to the 1989 revolution that led to the overthrow of the Ceausescu regime) and made the whole world talk about the phenomenon of Romanian national cinema. Although, in essence, it's not really a "new wave," but rather a pure form of "neo-neorealism," with its social reflections, mundane details, and bitter humor. It all began with "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" and its prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005. In this film, the journey of the unfortunate elderly man with the fitting name Dante Lazarescu through the circles of a nocturnal hospital hell is woven from minor quarrels and weary conversations, stomach ulcers and headaches, mastropol (a concoction of alcohol, sugar, and vanilla), and an old "ambulance" car, a faded Kim Wilde poster in a cat-scented apartment, and names of medicines from the neighbors' downstairs pharmacy.
Moreover, Cristi Puiu never succumbs to the temptation of adopting an accusatory tone throughout the film. Instead of moralizing, he opts for the detachment of a documentary observer. He doesn't shy away from sarcastic symbolism either – the film's ending is open-ended (only by returning to the film's title does the viewer realize that Mr. Lazarescu didn't survive that night). However, the biblical name Lazarus, subtly embedded in the protagonist's surname, hints at his eventual resurrection. After all, someone has to look after the three cats left in the apartment.
"12:08 East of Bucharest" ("A fost sau n-a fost?"), directed by Corneliu Porumboiu, 2006
Photo: "A fost sau n-a fost?", Source: Wiki
At the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, Corneliu Porumboiu (then a newcomer, now a classic) received the "Caméra d'Or" award for his debut feature film. The original title of this film translates to "Was It or Wasn't It?" and doesn't refer to an ontological Hamlet-like question posed in the past tense. Instead, it attempts to assess on a local level the events of December 1989 – whether the notorious Romanian revolution happened universally or only in Timisoara and Bucharest, with the provinces joining in more as an inertia after Ceausescu's downfall. This question, ripe for the next anniversary of the revolution, becomes the theme of a pre-Christmas talk show organized by the owner of a small TV station (who also happens to be the only news anchor) in a provincial town somewhere on the outskirts of the Romanian world.
The talk show invites experts – a heavy-drinking teacher and a retiree who used to play Santa Claus at children's Christmas events. The teacher tries to assure the audience that on December 21, 1989, he and his colleagues participated in a protest action even before 12 o'clock and were even beaten by Securitate agents. On the other hand, other townspeople gathered in the central square at 12:08, after Ceausescu had fled the capital and it was safe to protest without fear. However, TV viewers have doubts about the teacher's heroism – among the townspeople, he is better known for his drunken brawls rather than dissidence. Gradually, the broadcast fills with mundane disputes – the town is small, and everyone knows everything about their neighbors. The revolution had little impact on these people's lives: the teacher continues to drink, the former Securitate "accountant" thrives as usual, and the retiree is forced to dress up as Santa Claus again.
"Bravo!" ( "Aferim!"), Director Radu Jude, 2015
Photo: "Aferim!", Source: Wiki
Radu Jude is yet another of the most vibrant representatives of the "Romanian New Wave." And although for many viewers, this director is primarily associated with the scandalous film "Babardeală cu bucluc sau porno balamuc," for which he received the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival two years ago, we will be discussing his third feature, "Bravo!", which through the motif of a journey immerses the audience into the collisions of 19th-century Romanian history. Two representatives of the law – an elderly captain and his frail and, to put it mildly, not the brightest offspring – travel through Wallachia, searching for a runaway Romani slave (in the first half of the 19th century, Romanian Roma lived in destitution and often found themselves selling themselves into slavery). The Romani slave's owner, a rather influential boyar, accused his escaped slave of stealing money, but as it will later become clear, the poor man's guilt is not in that at all. While following the fugitive's trail, these "headhunters" encounter representatives from all walks of life, from the most privileged to the most marginalized, and neither group elicits even the slightest sympathy.
Essentially, "Bravo!" is also a Western. Only, without the clichés found in movies about Mărgelatu or in "Traps for Mercenaries" by Nicolaescu (for the latter, you could even invent the term "mămăligawestern" – in this cinematic cocktail of "The Dirty Dozen" and "The Magnificent Seven," even the tune of "Man with a Harmonica" from "Once Upon a Time in the West" would fit). Radu Jude directs a Western in which the heroic romance of the frontier is replaced by existential peasant melancholy and almost medieval darkness. After all, in reality, this film is not about the fragmented Romania of the 19th century, but about the present "European Union" Romania, attempting to glimpse its own reflection in the mirror of time.