What’s now referred to as the Romanian New Wave announced itself loudest with Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which in 2007 won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The laurel wasn’t exactly unprecedented—at least one Romanian film had received a major award at the festival each of the two years prior—but it nevertheless felt definitive. Deeply rooted in the nearly quarter-century (1965 to 1989) reign of Nicolae Ceausescu as its authoritarian dictator and characterized by minimalist staging and deadpan black humor, the central European nation’s recent contributions to the world of film have been good or great with almost alarming frequency. “Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema,” the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual series co-sponsored by the Romanian Film Initiative, begins this Thursday with Tudor Giurgiu’s Of Snails and Men and runs for exactly a week. In addition to a dozen or so other recent works, it also features a shorts program and a retrospective devoted to Alexandru Tatos.
Giurgiu’s film is a good deal less somber than most Romanian exports to make it stateside. But its comic tone shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of seriousness: Set against the backdrop of Michael Jackson’s first and only visit to Romania in the early 1990s, it concerns a group of factory workers at a shuttered car plant who scheme to take over the factory by donating sperm en masse. Entwined in its comic narrative is a genuinely felt sense of loss and fear; Giurgiu does take the dark humor so often embedded into his countrymen’s films and, as Corneliu Porumboiu did with 2007’s 12:08 East of Bucharest, quietly moves it to the fore.
Radu Gabrea’s Three Days till Christmas acts as a sort of companion piece to last year’s stunning The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu. Gabrea presents an at times farcical take on the dead-and-deposed dictator that highlights the man’s absurdity via a re-enactment of his last days interspersed with archival footage and talking-head interviews. It offers few rewards to anyone who has seen Ujica’s film, but works well enough as a genre mash-up holding all parties responsible.
The biggest draw is still likely to be Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills, which tells of a young nun and her wayward, overly dependent friend and closes the series next Wednesday night. (It isn’t the only monastic offering on display; Anca Hirte’s Teodora Sinner, a decidedly more modest and lo-fi take on the lives of nuns, screens Sunday and Wednesday.) Mungiu, whose follow-up this is to 4 Months, is, along with Cristi Puiu, one of the Romanian New Wave’s primary standard-bearers; his latest won two more awards—for its screenplay and two lead actresses—at Cannes just this May. Long, deliberately paced, and set on a remote monastery, it’s something like the archetypal Romanian film: so quietly tense on so many levels that its seemingly placid surface seems poised to shatter at a moment’s notice. Waiting for that to happen (or not happen) proves far more exhilarating than exhausting.