Time again to take the temperature and test the cholesterol of the Romanian New Wave, so far the 21st century’s favorite surge of superhip anti-hipness. Generally, a new wave isn’t a new wave unless it cuts across industrial pop production and goes all nitty-gritty, or meta-ironic, on contemporary life, and the Romanians have had plenty to work with, beginning with the historical gravitas that comes with generations of brutal Communist dictatorship and maintaining the cataract with Balkan death-rattle humor.
By now, of course, the movement’s youth-wave marketing program is aging out. Its primary figures — Cristi Puiu, Corneliu Porumboiu, Cristian Mungiu, Catalin Mitulescu, Radu Muntean, Radu Jude — teenagers and film-school students when Ceausescu met the firing squad in 1989, are all now in (or, in the case of Jude, fast approaching) their forties. As an almost inevitable consequence, the menu for the new series at the Walter Reade has become more varied; homing in on the absurd Communist days is no longer automatic. Commercial rhythms and paradigms have crept in like weeds, and new-waveness has diffused into other modes.
State-of-the-art hypernaturalism hasn’t entirely lost its hold, but it took a documentary I was never sure wasn’t just an extraordinarily tough-skinned, nitty-gritty Dardennes-style fiction, Alexander Nanau’s Toto and His Sisters, to bring the pain. Ten-year-old Toto’s soul-dead mother is in prison, and he lives with his two teenage sisters in a Bucharest hovel routinely used for heroin buys and shoot-ups; somehow, Nanau’s camera is in their laps every minute, and as the eldest sibling slips away into junkiehood, the boy and the fragile fourteen-year-old middle sister, the film’s weakening moral center, ride the tide and eventually decamp for an orphanage. Formidably unresolved, the film would also warrant acting awards at every turn, if in fact anyone were acting.
Far less of an ordeal, Muntean’s new film One Floor Below is an enigmatic character study trailing after a midlife-crisis, aging-jock family man (Teodor Corban, the Wave’s own Harvey Keitel) privately fascinated by the murder of a girl in the apartment downstairs, as her possibly guilty boyfriend begins to stalk suspiciously around. Offscreen spaces, a Romanian specialty, are as powerful as ever, not least the secrets in the hero’s head; we’re never sure what kind of stake he might’ve had in the dead girl to begin with.
Still, the micro scale of the film pales compared to the series’ older, more expansive returning movies, including Puiu’s classic The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) and Cristian Nemescu’s California Dreamin’ (Endless) (2007) or even old-timer Mircea Daneliuc’s pre–New Wave explosion Patul Conjugal (The Intimate Bed), from 1993, a Kusturica-style hyper-farce in which a splenetic moviehouse manager (the boiling-point Gheorghe Dinic?) is frazzled by the capitalist chaos in the days after Ceausescu’s death, in between sussing out the secret police’s motivations, making his wife jump off furniture to abort her pregnancy, falling so in love with his bimbo assistant that he ends up committed to and escaping from an asylum, and deciding to kill himself. Eventually Patul Conjugal loses its own mind in a propulsive whorl, which is more than Daneliuc’s earlier film, the curiously aimless Microphone Test (1980), manages to do as it tracks a TV cameraman’s idle and frustrating romance with an alluring scofflaw redhead, both of them stymied by life’s limited options under Communist rule. (As the Wave’s Altmanesque uncle figure, Daneliuc is being feted with a mini-retro and will be on hand for intros and Q&As.)
The more familiar and even Sundance-y of the newer films include Dan Chisu’s Bucharest Nonstop, an adequate if tame Crash manqué in which four stories intersect and converge on an all-night grocery stand, and Tudor Giurgiu’s Why Me?, a draggy and predictable true-story drama about government corruption in which a not-very-bright young prosecutor gets set up for a fall. There’s even a teen fiction sidebar, with Nicolae Constantin Tanase’s The World Is Mine and Igor Cobileanski’s Moldovan-coproduced The Unsaved, pouty lost-youth sagas about, respectively, an abused girl-toy suffering absurd high school bullying and yet another disaffected hoodie punk cluelessly bouncing from dead-end jobs to hopeless schemes to real crime. The textures sometimes leap out in both cases, but both movies are spinning their wheels in a muddy-from-traffic indie-film side road.
Porumboiu’s The Treasure is more like it, a low-key, fact-sourced comedy about hapless treasure hunters tearing up layers of Romanian history searching for a fabled cache, while Jude’s Aferim! may be the least new-wavey Romanian saga yet, a road trip through the peasant Wallachia of the Gypsy-slave-trading nineteenth century. Also starring Corban, as an aphorism-spouting bounty hunter on the trail of a runaway slave, and shot in opalescent widescreen black-and-white, the film’s an observational, shrugging comedy of no-manners, hilariously articulating the region’s xenophobic legacy, bouncing with banter and sidling toward a butchering climax that wipes the smile right off your face.
Even odder is the issuance of a “guest country” in the series: George Ovashvili’s Corn Island, a largely silent Georgian fable about a farmer and his doe-like daughter claiming a temporary river island as a cornfield, right down the middle of the war zone between Georgia and Abkhazia. Not remotely Romanian, it has the iconic force of an old Dovzhenko ballad while casting a gimlet eye on how the region’s ethnic bloodshed threatens the essential rhythms of life.
Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema
Film Society of Lincoln Center, December 2–7
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 1, 2015