Although I was only one of the few film critics who did not find Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” worthy of an Academy Award for best film of 2020, I was happy to see a foreign-language film get such an award for the first time. As a fan of two of his earlier films (The Host, Mother), I do count him as one of South Korea’s top directors. As should be obvious from my surveys of South Korean film for CounterPunch, I consider the country to be on the leading edge of filmmaking today, alongside Iran, China and Romania. Ironically, these four nations that have long histories of repression are far more richly endowed cinematically. Perhaps, it is not such an irony in light of our greatest composers having served as court musicians under clerics and monarchs.
Until now, there has only been a single review of a Romanian film on CounterPunch, and it was not mine. It was by the redoubtable Kim Nicolini, who in 2008 described “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” as “the movie that I’ve been waiting to see for months, and it did not disappoint.”
Here’s the good news. “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days”, which describes the desperate search by a young woman to find someone in 1980s Romania to perform an illegal abortion, is part of a traveling film festival titled “Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema.” Scheduling information is here (https://makingwaves.filmetc.org/schedule/). The festival includes thirty films, including a number originating before what film scholars have dubbed the Romanian New Wave or New Romanian Cinema.
My introduction to the new Romanian film was in 2006 when I saw “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.” Looking back at my review of Cristi Puiu’s film, an observation about how the medical professionals treat the titular character, an old man dying of cancer, rang a bell:
When they finally begin to examine him, they scold him for his drinking and generally treat him like a piece of meat. When he pees in his pants during a CAT scan, the attending physician heaps abuse on him. The last time I saw such callousness on display was in Frederick Wiseman’s “Titicut Follies,” a documentary about Bridgewater Hospital for the Criminally Insane. In one scene, a doctor stands on a gurney above a catatonic patient and pours liquid food into a funnel connected to a tube that descends into the patient’s mouth, all the while nonchalantly smoking a cigarette.
In doing some background research on the new Romanian film, I learned that my observation was on solid ground. In Romanian film studies professor Andrei Gorzo’s talk to an audience at the British Film Institute in 2016, he describes how Cristi Puiu developed the minimalist style that helped shape the Romanian New Wave’s aesthetic. Gorzo notes that Puiu was a student at the Haute École d’art et de design of Geneva, where the film department favors cinéma vérité. Despite his work in narrative films, Puiu acknowledged Frederick Wiseman as one of his models. He also studied the films of John Cassavetes, whose “direct cinema” mode that used handheld cameras as in a documentary. Gorzo adds that keeping in mind that Wiseman and Cassavetes were not well-known in Romania. (In taking another look at my 2006 review of “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” I notice that the press notes credit Cassavetes as a top influence.)
While I have found no evidence of other influences on Puiu, “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” reminds me very much of films by Werner Herzog and Aki Kaurismäki. Like them, Puiu is a minimalist who brings a sardonic sense of humor to a grim subject matter. And in turn, Puiu’s aesthetic appears throughout the films discussed below, all of which are part of the Making Waves Film Festival.
Stuff and Dough (Cristi Puiu, 2001)
Although film critics regard Puiu’s “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” as the first Romanian New Wave film, this one that preceded it by four years has the same unique style. Like Jafar Panahi’s “Taxi,” “Stuff and Dough” takes place almost entirely inside a motor vehicle, in this instance a van transporting drugs from a provincial town to Bucharest.
The “stuff” in the film’s title refers to the beer, Coca-Cola, cooking oil, etc. that a middle-aged husband and wife sell out of their house. They count on their son Ovidiu, who lives with them, to pick up supplies in Bucharest in their van. Early one morning, a sleazy businessman named Ivanov shows up with a bag of medicine (so, he says) that Ovidiu will deliver to someone in Bucharest for a sum sufficient to pay for a stall in a local market, where his parents could reach more customers. This job pays the “dough” in the film’s title. Existing on the margins of the Romanian informal economy, they descend into its dark, illegal depths.
Ovidiu has company on his four-hour drive to Bucharest, his best friend Vali and his new girlfriend Bety. The three are all in their early 20s and see the drive as an opportunity to trade wisecracks and listen to music. Their conversation is about inconsequential matters, giving you no inkling that before long they will fear for their lives. On the road to Bucharest, a Red SUV begins tailing them ominously. It finally pulls alongside and a man in the front seat orders them to pull over. As soon as Ovidiu stops the car on the side of the road, the men jump out of the SUV with baseball bats and begin breaking the van’s windows. Ovidiu and his friends manage to drive off with minor injuries but realize that the worst is yet to come after Bety claims that one of them was carrying a gun. They were intent on robbing the “stuff” in the bag, which represented a lot of “dough” on the black market.
The film has a superficial resemblance to road movies in the U.S.A. in which homicidal truck drivers chase innocent young people, but Ovidiu is less interested in action than he is in capturing the mood of young people in Romania hustling to stay afloat in the country’s post-Communist economy. Like most films in the new wave, there is always the ghost of Romania’s past lurking in the shadows.
“Stuff and Dough” is a tightly-wound drama that demonstrated Puiu’s ability to make the most of a modest budget. In 1971, Stephen Spielberg made his first film. Titled “Duel” and made for TV, it depicts California businessman driving a Plymouth Valiant on his way to meet a client. Before long, the unseen and menacing driver of a trailer-truck pursues and then overtakes him. Coincidence? Maybe not.
Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, 2005)
Once again, from my review of thirteen years ago:
Defying conventional cinematic expectations, director and screenwriter Cristi Puiu has made his central character totally unremarkable. Indeed, the only thing that distinguishes him–like Tolstoi’s Ivan Illich–is the fact that he is sick and will die.
We first meet Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) in his dingy apartment that he shares with three cats. Widowed for a number of years, his only solace is in his pets and in alcohol. For the entire day he has been suffering from an acute headache and stomach ache. Only after he begins to vomit blood does he decide to call an ambulance. When his next door neighbors, a rough-hewn husband and wife distracted from their jelly-making chores, come to his aid, all they can do is lecture him about how his drinking will kill him and offer him homeopathic remedies. The interaction between Lazarescu and his neighbors has a dry comic quality that pervades the film until a darker tone sets in as illness deepens. No matter how much poor Lazarescu complains about his stomach ache, the wife seems determined that he eat some of the moussaka she has whipped up.
After the ambulance finally arrives, a female paramedic named Marioara (Mirela Cioaba) examines Lazarescu and decides that he needs to be taken immediately to the hospital. It is Lazarescu’s bad luck to have fallen ill the very same day that a highway accident involving a bus has filled Bucharest’s emergency rooms. Since the doctors, nurses and practically everybody who smells his breath decide that Lazarescu’s problems are nothing more than a bad hangover, they either neglect him or pass him on to the next hospital like a baton in a relay race.
The only medical professional who treats Lazarescu with dignity and respect is [a female paramedic] Mariora, who acts as his Virgil during this descent into hell. Some of the most powerful scenes involve her speaking up to the doctors who constantly remind her that she is beneath them and to mind her own business. Although the film is focused on existential and moral questions, just as Tolstoi’s tale was, it still has a class dimension. Mariora wants to do her duty as a professional and also probably identifies with Lazarescu as a fellow member of the lower orders of Romanian society.
However, this film is not really an indictment of Romanian society or an examination of the economic pressures that have turned medical care in post-Communist societies into a disaster area. Puiu’s main inspiration is the minimalist cinema of Jim Jarmusch and the idea for making the film came from watching ER on Romanian television!
Perhaps it is understandable that Eastern European film-makers shy away from political or social commentary since the oppressive system that they lived under paid hypocritical lip-service to such an approach.
12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2006)
Set in the city of Vaslui, it brings together three men on December 22, 2006 on a local TV talk show to discuss whether or not there was a rally on the city’s central plaza seventeen years earlier that called for the overthrow of Ceauşescu. In addition to the host, the two others are an alcoholic schoolteacher named Virgil Jderescu and Emanoil Pișcoci, a retiree who will be playing Santa Claus at a party for children.
Jderescu begins by describing the battle he had with cops that day, who were trying to clear the square of “revolutionaries.” Taking calls, the host hears one after another caller denying that any such rally took place that day. The original title of the film was “Was There or Wasn’t There?”, a clear break with the post-Communist commemorations of Ceauşescu’s overthrow that led to the growth of the informal economy as depicted in “Stuff and Dough.” Not only do callers deny that Jderescu was present that day, they also denounce him as a drunk.
As he battles verbally with the callers, the retiree Pișcoci occupies himself making paper boats and chiming in, often inappropriately. When Jderescu names a local businessman named Vali as the leader of regime secret police, he calls in as well threatening to sue the station for libel. During the hour or so as the talk show unfolds, you get the same kind of absurdist comedy found in other Romanian New Wave films.
As is the case with most of the directors from the heyday of these films, most have evolved away from social commentary, including Corneliu Porumboiu. Right now, his new film “The Whistlers” is playing in major theaters everywhere. In my review, I noted:
“The Whistlers” was likely made for an international audience and lacks the darkly introspective character of Romanian films of 10 to 15 years ago that explored the corruption of both Communist and post-Communist rule. In its favor, it is a throwback to Alfred Hitchcock’s confections like “To Catch a Thief” or “Marnie”. Intricately plotted and swiftly paced, it is far more entertaining than the lead-footed movies I endured in the weeks before the NYFCO awards meeting in early December.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
As the movie begins, we see Otilia Mihartescu (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabriela ‘Găbiţa’ Dragut (Laura Vasiliu) making preparations for a weekend trip in their dormitory apartment. It takes a while for us to learn that Găbiţa is pregnant and that Otilia plans to help her navigate through an abortion, which was illegal in 1987, the year in which the story is set and the twilight of Ceauşescu’s rule.
Despite one’s expectations that the pregnant Găbiţa will be the main character, it is really Otilia around whom the plot revolves. She serves as an advance party to make contact with the abortionist and line up a hotel in which he can work on Găbiţa. Despite being somewhat taciturn in nature, Otilia’s gestures and facial expressions convey much more feeling than you will see from the average Hollywood actor. As the horrors mount in this brutal story, you find yourself identifying more and more with her character even though director Mungiu spurns the kind of melodrama that you would expect from such a story.
By avoiding close-ups and a musical score, he surrenders what most directors see as their most potent weapons. He seems influenced by the Dardenne brothers in Belgium who likewise prefer an austere setting for their morality tales. But all of these directors now sprouting up around the world (except of course in the ever-so-corrupt Hollywood) would appear to be following the trail blazed by France’s Robert Bresson, who was famous for his unsentimental but sympathetic view of his tormented characters.
The most powerful scene in this unforgettable movie takes place in the hotel room when the two women find themselves at the mercy of one of the most villainous characters I have encountered in a long time. Forget about James Bond’s adversaries, Mr. Bebe the abortionist (Vlad Ivanov) is evil incarnate. When he learns that the woman lack sufficient funds to abort a pregnancy now 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days old, he alternates between browbeating them for wasting his time and implying ways that they can make up for the shortage of funds. Suffice it to say that Otilia comes to the aid of her roommate in a way that underscores the brutal sexism of Romanian society under Ceauşescu.
Aferim! (Radu Jude, 2015)
“Aferim!” was Romania’s official entry for the 2016 Academy Awards. Directed by Radu Jude, it is a commentary on contemporary Romania even though it is set in 1835 Wallachia, a state that would eventually be part of the modern state that is still going through post-Soviet agonies. Indeed, just about all of Romania’s very talented filmmakers are consumed with the question of how they lived under Ceaušescu and how his overthrow has failed to bring them the economic well-being and freedom they had hoped for. As director Radu Jude put it in an interview with CineEurope: “I truly believe what Johan Huizinga said: ‘We analyse every age for the sake of the promises it contains for the next age.’”
“Aferim” is a vernacular term meaning something like “Bravo” that is heard from its characters throughout the film. It is obviously related to the Turkish word “aferin” that is part of the term “aferin sana” that means “good for you” and that my wife often says to me after I tell her I have been published in some high-toned journal.
It is used with irony in Jude’s film since everything is marked by degradation of the most appalling nature. It is the story of a father and son who are seen riding across a desolate plain on horseback in their search for a runaway slave. The father, named Constandin (Teodor Corban), is a constable and his son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu) an unpaid assistant. The story evokes a John Ford western except in this instance the posse is wicked and the runaway slave, a Roma named Carfin Pandolean (Toma Cuzin), is their better. In fact, the higher up you are on the social ladder in feudal Wallachia, the closer you are to savagery.
As Constandin and Ionita wend their way through one Roma village after another, they make sure to bully and threaten those they regard as less than human. They always refer to the Roma as “crows” and make sure to call the boyar—a feudal landowner—as “bright master”. In case Ionita slips up on the hierarchy, his father is sure to remind him that this is the way things are in their world and not likely to change.
The film has a grim sense of humor as Constandin hurls colorful invective at everyone who gets in his way, either beneath him socially or on his own level. In a memorable scene, father and son run into a carriage driven by a Turk somewhat higher up than them on the totem pole. When Constandin sees him coming, he says under his breath “Curse them Turks”. When the Turk asks him for directions to a Wallachian town, Constandin sends him off in the opposite direction. But before the Turk leaves, he gives the men a gift in gratitude for the wrong directions, some halvah. After the carriage departs, Constandin confides to his son: “I sent the fool the other way”. Ionita’s response: “Aferim, father!” Constandin’s final words as the carriage heads off:
I hate the Ottomans. The filthiest nation on earth. And he talked to me like I was shit. Said he was afraid of our haiduks [brigands who operated in Ottoman controlled territories in Eastern Europe]. I hope our Romanian boys catch him and tan his skin. You can tell from their talk that they’s nothin’ but beasts. We work like morons for them and the boyars.
That little speech does more to explain feudal Romania than any ten scholarly articles.
The stunning conclusion of this powerful film is set in the manor of boyar Iordache Cîndescu (Alexandru Dabija) who is intent on punishing the runaway slave for having cuckolded him. Suffice it to say that the punishment is gruesome and only made possible in the same way that it was in the Deep South in the pre-Civil War era. And in the same way that modern-day racism and capitalist dysfunctionality are related to life in that period, it would be fair to conclude that director Radu Jude sees Romania today in the same terms.