Anyone who keeps abreast of trends in international cinema probably already knows that, thanks to a series of major-prize wins at the Cannes, the films and filmmakers of Romania have gone from relative obscurity to belles of the international film-festival ball. But before the lauded trifecta of Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest, and Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or–winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, there was an earlier golden age of Romanian film production that resulted in nearly as many Cannes triumphs: animator Ion Popescu-Gopo’s A Short Story, which won the Palme d’Or for short films in 1957; Liviu Ciulei’s The Forest of the Hanged, which copped the official competition’s best director prize in 1965; and Mircea Muresan’s The Uprising, which was awarded a special jury prize for best first feature in 1966.
The twain meet in Lincoln Center’s 18-film series “Shining Through a Long, Dark Night: Romanian Cinema, Then and Now,” which also devotes attention to those in-between decades of the 1970s and ’80s, when directors continued to function under Ceausescu’s thumb until national filmmaking ground to a halt on the eve of the 1989 revolution. Divided almost equally between pre- and post-revolution films, the series is nothing if not an object lesson in the habit of artistic movements to reject what has come before: Where the Romanian films of the new New Wave have been celebrated for their documentary verisimilitude, long hand-held tracking shots, and absence of original music, their precursors—to judge by the evidence here—are deeply formalist works very much influenced (particularly in their approach to montage) by the Soviet constructivists. Yet, past or present, the films share a certain inescapable air of ironic fatalism, which might be considered something of a national temperament.
Set during World War I, as the Romanian and Austro-Hungarian armies battle for control of Transylvania, The Forest of the Hanged depicts the odyssey of a young Romanian lieutenant (played brilliantly by Victor Rebengiuc) from order-following drone to conscientious objector. But a cruel reality awaits: In the war zone, pacifism is akin to treason. Said to be based on the first “psychological” Romanian novel, written by Liviu Rebreanu, it’s a stunning film, shot in black-and-white Cinemascope with a restless moving camera, marked by epic-scale battle scenes and bold surrealist touches.
No less impressive is Sunday at Six (1965), the debut feature of director Lucian Pintilie (The Oak, An Unforgettable Summer), who was, until recently, the only Romanian filmmaker whose work was regularly distributed in the West. Set in the 1940s, during the buildup to the Romanian People’s Republic, the film’s intentionally mysterious, nonlinear narrative traces the arc of a romance between two Communist revolutionaries who find their mutual affection at cross-purposes with the interests of “the Party”—a juxtaposition of individual and national identities that Pintilie would revisit throughout his career, and which has proved a dominant subject of interest for Romania’s New Wave directors.
The shadow of both The Forest of the Hanged and Sunday at Six loom over Radu Muntean’s The Paper Will Be Blue (2006), which is probably the one major New Wave film to have not yet landed an American distribution deal. It too takes place in a war zone, only this time the place is Bucharest and the date is December 22, 1989—the final 24 hours of the revolution—as an idealistic private in the national militia decides to desert his patrol in order to join the anti-Ceausescu forces that have commandeered control of the national TV station. What ensues is nearly Strangelove-ian, as the private is waylaid in an under-siege apartment building, mistaken for a pro-Ceausescu terrorist, and accused of being a spy. All the while, his fellow militiamen search for him through hails of bullets and the dawning realization that nobody quite knows who’s shooting at whom.
Of the Romanian films from the 1980s, some, like Dan Pita’s The Contest (1982), tilt towards the allegorical and heavily symbolic. Others may be seen as harbingers of the coming neo-realism, including cinematographer turned director Iosif Demian’s A Girl’s Tears (1980), which employs a mix of 16mm and 35mm film stocks, and professional and nonprofessional actors, to retrace the unsolved murder of a young woman in a small Transylvanian village. Like two other films in the Lincoln Center series—Mircea Daneliuc’s Microphone Test (1980) and Alexandru Tatos’s Sequences (1982), neither of which were available for preview—it is also a film about filmmaking, and further proof of the high level of narrative sophistication and formal invention at work in Romanian cinema at a time when relatively few were paying attention. Indeed, in the best of these films, there’s a vitality that suggests they could have been made yesterday, rendering the distinction between “then” and “now” all but irrelevant.