In 2007, Romania capped a startling four-year streak of major victories on international cinema’s grandest and most controversial stage, the Cannes Film Festival, where Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 saptamâni ssi 2 zile) seized the Palme d’Or. One of the most oppressed nations in Europe throughout the previous century, Romania had won but a pair of major prizes in competition in the influential festival’s 62-year history. (1) Romanian cinema in the latter half of the 20th century was the most overtly and consistently propagandistic in Europe, glossy but stale, relaying blatantly communist sympathies through simple stories, each principally concerned with getting the message across as clearly as possible. In a 2008 article in The New York Times titled “New Wave on the Black Sea,” chief film critic A.O. Scott notes that preeminent Romanian directors Cristi Puiu and Cristian Mungiu both describe classical Romanian cinema as “metaphorical,” and that both uttered the word “with a heavy inflection of disgust,” and Mungiu adding, “I wanted to become a filmmaker as a reaction to that kind of cinema.” (2) This new generation of Romanian filmmakers retaliated with a style dominated by long takes that emphasize the mundane while simultaneously augmenting tension in a manner that the allegorical cinema of the past never would have allowed. The long take is not only dominant in contemporary Romanian cinema but indicative of a collective reaction against an oppressive past.

The 2013 publication of Dominique Nasta’s book, Contemporary Romanian Cinema: The History of an Unexpected Miracle, is, significantly, the first English-language book dedicated to the history of Romanian cinema. The lack of English-language literature devoted to Romanian cinema is understandable given Romania’s utter absence in the United States prior to the very limited release of Puiu’s first feature, Stuff and Dough (Marfa si banii, 2001), which premiered at Cannes in the Directors Fortnight section. Romania’s film industry blossomed in the early 1960s but quickly devolved to lack the most basic structure – practically negating the possibility of distributing films overseas – upon commencement of Comrade Nicolae Ceausescu’s reign in 1967. (3) Only one film reached a wide international audience while Ceausescu was in power, an epic period drama, The Last Crusade (Mihai Viteazul aka Michael the Brave, 1970), which was sold to Columbia-Warner, dubbed into English and distributed in forty countries and on eighteen TV channels. (4)

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“The dissatisfaction with the cinema of the time was soon answered by the young directors who were competing among themselves to find different and innovative ways of making movies – both at the narrative and visual level. Cristi Puiu brought in the hand-held camera and the short span narratives, with a deep observational technique quickly to be used by directors like Porumboiu and Mungiu.” (5)

The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu

The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu

The film that can be said to have at least announced the presence of Romania in modern world cinema is the film which marked the country’s first major prizewinner at Cannes in 50 years, Puiu’s The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu (Moartea domnului Lazarescu, 2005), a pitch-black comedy concerned with a retired engineer, Dante Remus Lazarescu (Ioan Fiscuteanu), who is carelessly handed off from one hospital to the next in comically bureaucratic fashion until he dies an unceremonious death. The style and themes of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu are eminently indicative of the reaction against the spineless allegorical cinema upon which Puiu’s generation of Romanians was raised. In noting Puiu’s radical cinematographic departure from classical Romanian cinema, Nasta points to a scene that would have been particularly unfathomable in a the era of Ceausescu:

“Stylistically, the sequence from the second hospital is one of the film’s most dazzling and challenging ones. Puiu refuses classical editing with frequent cuts; he asked the cinematographer to move not before but after an action. During an unusually long shot, [Oleg] Mutu’s camera constantly wanders from inside the consulting room and to different annexes, tracking all the characters, as if their actions were far more important than Lazarescu’s ever-growing pains.” (6)

One could imagine that in this sequence Puiu is reacting against the formal and thematic rigidity that handicapped the cinema of his youth. In one of the film’s many enthralling long takes, Puiu opts to feature sickly characters not yet depicted on screen and of no essential value to the story. Puiu moves away from the protagonist to reveal the overall bleakness of the hospital – which is to say, the Romanian healthcare system – at once bemoaning the state of the nation and exercising his agency as a filmmaker, his right to focus on the mundane, the ugly, whatever he feels necessary to express his vision cinematographically. This is the antithesis of a typical scene in a classical Romanian film. In contemporary Romanian cinema, freedom of expression is transposed to the screen in sublime minimalist fashion, and frequently through long takes. “Deconstruction of violence and examination of the banality of evil follow the minimalist line,” writes Nasta, “and so do the ‘slow cinema’ techniques: long takes and sparse dialogue, features of a varied strain of austere cinema that favours mood over event.” (7) No Ceausescu-era film could conceivably favour mood over event, let alone a mood marked by sparseness, austerity and a rebellious, sociopolitical edge.

Cannes is suspiciously responsible for the ascent of Romanian cinema. The coupling is unavoidable – at no detriment to Romania, of course. The new wave, however, was in large part determined by success at Cannes with the run of four major prizes in a three-year span (2005-07) a notable achievement. Not until Calin Peter Netzer’s Child’s Pose (Pozita copilului) took the Golden Bear at Berlin in 2013 did a Romanian film achieve fame outside the Croisette. France has consistently added cultural capital by adopting artists – writers, filmmakers painters, come who may – in effect incorporating them into its culture. Recent examples in film abound. France 3 Cinema produced the most recent films by powerhouse Iranian auteurs Abbas Kiarostami and Asghar Farhadi. (8) 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days was exclusively financed by Romanian companies but Mungiu’s next feature, Beyond the Hills (Dupa dealuri, 2012), was primarily backed by France 3 Cinema, Why Not Productions (frequent financier of French auteurs Arnaud Desplechin Claire Denis) (9) and Les Film du Flueve, the producer of every feature film directed by the Dardennes Brothers. (10) Mungiu was awarded Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012 for Beyond the Hills. In his analysis of the evolution of the film festival network, Thomas Elsaesser argues, “Films are now made for festivals, in the way that Hollywood during the studio era made its films for the exclusivity release date of first run picture houses.” (11) One can be fairly certain that from its inception Beyond the Hills was primed to premiere at Cannes. France’s exertion of influence as a conferrer of cultural capital is responsible for the elevation of Romanian cinema to an extraordinary extent.

Beyond the Hills

Beyond the Hills

The new wave captivated critics. Psychological realism so utterly self-assured and provocative, Romanian films became the most formidable prizefighters at festivals and those that achieved transnational theatrical exhibition tended to land on a great many critics’ end-of year lists. “Here was a genuine Eastern European ‘New Wave’ to compare with the Czech New Wave of the late 1960s, or the Black Wave in Yugoslavia of the same period,” proclaimed Sight & Sound. (12) In a 2008 feature article A.O. Scott took up the cause of the Romanian new wave at its peak when 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days was still generating buzz in theatres in the United States. The long take lent itself perfectly to expressing psychological realism, and such shots were not only evident in the most acclaimed Romanian films but widespread across a generation of exceptionally skilled filmmakers appalled by the uninspired “metaphorical” cinema of their youth.

The long take engenders above all a heightened sense of time’s passing. As David Bordwell notes:

“With a long take, especially a static one, the filmmaker is in effect asking us to register all the dead time between more important gestures, expressions, or lines of dialogue. It can yield artistic advantages, too, by building suspense (as in A Mere Life [Beolgeo soongi, 2012]) or surprise (as in The Charm of Others [Miryoku no ningen, 2012]) or both (as in People’s Park [2012]). It can also be a mark of virtuosity, a quality prized in most artistic traditions. A well-done long take can be like a sustained aria in an opera; its confident audacity can make you smile.” (13)

Appreciation of dead time and building of suspense are highly relevant to the function of the long take in contemporary Romanian cinema, the directors taking advantage of their stylistic freedom to force the audience to interrogate the frame.

The long take can also notably engender competitiveness and reactions between auteurs. Regarding competition, Bordwell writes,

“It seems to me that in 1940s Hollywood, directors came to a new consciousness of the long take. Preminger, Ophuls, Sturges, and Welles became famous for their sustained shots, and even Hitchcock, a long-time proponent of editing, switched sides, making some of the longest-take films of the era. Sometimes an action scene might be played out in one flamboyant take, as in The Killers [1946] and Gun Crazy [1949]. It does seem that these big boys appearing to compete to see how long they could hold their shots and how complicated they could make them.” (14)

Directors did not merely use the long take towards artistic means but as a way of reacting to one another through one-upmanship. In reaction to an impressive long take in Otto Preminger’s work, an director such as Orson Welles might react with a longer, more exotically choreographed long take in his next film; in such a case, competition is synonymous with reaction. This is the manner in which I am approaching the function of the long take in contemporary Romanian cinema; not as a form of competition between contemporary Romanian filmmakers but as their way of assessing the work of previous directors and reacting to it. Thoroughly repulsed by allegorical Romanian cinema, Mungiu, Puiu and Poromboiu, among others, react with long takes that not only exceed the quality of the previous generation of directors’ work but in an ideological manner defined by the freedom to dwell on any subject for any length of time.

Implicit in the title of Brian Henderson’s 1970 essay on Jean-Luc Godard’s increasing predilection for uniquely dynamic long tracking shots, “Toward a Non-Bourgeois Camera Style,” is a distillation of the attitude that this new generation of Romanian filmmakers has adopted as a standard mode of production. Henderson’s proposition that Godard’s tracking shots repudiate the individualist conception of the bourgeois hero is applicable to contemporary Romanian cinema in its reactionary ideology. (15) The camera style of the most prominent contemporary Romanian filmmakers is this “non-bourgeois tradition” pushed to an extreme, utterly infatuated with sustained emphasis on monotony and the anxiety induced by existing in a communist nation.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Nasta devotes a chapter to Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days – “The 4, 3, 2 Paradigm” – and points to the myriad ways in which the film emblemizes contemporary Romanian cinema by foregrounding the long take. Introducing the film in the context of the tendencies exhibited by Puiu and Porumboiu, “4 Months overtly sticks to the minimalist trend, as the film’s detailed survey will aim to demonstrate: static, frontally-framed long shots, refusal of any kind of ellipsis, frequent use of hand-held camera shooting, no pre-composed score and underplayed acting.” (16)

There is a scene, or rather a shot, in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days that not only distills the motivations and quality of craftsmanship that have come to define contemporary Romanian cinema but which exercises the full potential of the long take to achieve suspense while highlighting the mundane, and to equal effect. It is set at a crowded dinner table. The eleven-minute scene is covered in one shot, the camera positioned at the head of the table, directly opposite the protagonist, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca). As her boyfriend’s family stuffs its mouths and debates fantastically uninteresting issues, Otilia sits silent, shifting uncomfortably. She has more pressing issues to consider. Only a few hours earlier she was sexually abused by a dubiously licensed doctor in order for him to perform an ill-planned abortion for her college roommate, Gabita (Laura Vasiliu). The tension that so captivated the Cannes jury is never more prevalent than in the focus directed towards Otilia’s silence amidst the commotion around her at the table. As the duration of the shot becomes palpable, something miraculous happens: the utter boringness of the conversation around her illuminates her tortured psyche to a riveting effect that could not have been achieved in Ceausescu-era Romanian cinema, the dialogue dissolving in service of heightened awareness of Otilia’s profound unease. The audience prays for a merciful edit as the trauma inflicted upon Otilia is foregrounded and eventually overwhelms. An eleven-minute scene in which nothing disturbing is mentioned or depicted is rendered unbearably intense.

The scene has proven worthy of extensive critical study as well as undiluted enthusiasm for filmmaking at its finest. Nasta writes,

“Framed in a packed tableaux format by Mutu’s minimalist camera, this highly symbolic, unusually long (11’) satirical sequence, which needed twenty takes and 500 metres of filming material, has often been cited in critical surveys as an undisputable tour de force. In terms of visuals, Mungiu set up various geometries of the seated guests until he reached their right position and the right filming distance. The scene makes innovative use of the off-screen space: gesticulating hands are shown and voices are heard, and a phone is ringing (it might be Gabita), but the camera refuses to move so as to reveal their source/identity.” (17)

This “undisputable tour de force” is most notable for the use of off screen space, Mungiu not only exercising his right to direct attention to the mundane atmosphere but to an astonishing cinematic effect, suggesting great psychological terror but giving away nothing in such a way that the tension becomes agonizing. Similar to the previously mentioned scene in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, this shot would have been unthinkable for a young Christian Mungiu in communist Romania. Addressing the cinema of his youth in conversation with A.O. Scott, Mungiu states,

“Nothing like this ever happened in real life. And you got this desire to say: ‘People, you don’t know what you’re talking about. This is all fake. This is not what you should be telling in films. I could do way better than you.’ I felt this way, but I think this whole generation had that feeling. Those movies were badly acted, completely unbelievable, with stupid situations, lots of metaphors. It was a time when, you know, saying something about the system was more important than telling a story.” (18)

The Romanian films so warmly embraced by festival juries are not nearly as popular in their own country as one would reasonably assume due to unwelcome nostalgia that returns audiences to a period the people are still aching to forget. A mere $274,000 of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days’ $9.2 million global haul was earned in Romania and domestic releases claimed a pathetic 2.5% share of the market in 2010. (19)

This unfathomable rift between quality and consumption is emblemized by Catalin Mitulescu’s The Way I Spent the End of the World (Cum mi-am petrecut sfarsitul lumii, 2006), a playful and endearingly poignant work that nevertheless adheres to the dominant stylistic traits that endowed Romanian cinema with a gritty and captivating verve.

The Way I Spent the End of the World

The Way I Spent the End of the World

A coming-of-age tale that eschews the unsparing attitude of the aforementioned pillars of contemporary Romanian cinema, the film is set in 1989, revolutionary spirit palpable as teenage lovers Eva (Dorothea Petrie) and Alex (Ionut Becheru) destroy a statue of Ceausescu and become separated as a result. Transplanted to a new school, Eva befriends a similarly rebellious young man, Andrei (Christian Vararu), with whom she plans, rather ambitiously, to swim across the Danube to escape the communist nation. Mitulescu’s feature-length debut screened in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, where Mitescu had won a Palme d’Or in 2004 for her short film Trafic.

In her essay, “The Romania New Wave: Witnessing Everyday Life in the Ceausescu Era and Understanding Post-Communist Dilemmas,” Stefania Marghitu argues that despite the film’s lightheartedly nuanced depiction of the waning days of Ceausescu’s reign and its pervasive nostalgia, stylistically the film is typical of contemporary Romanian cinema:

“Both 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and The Way I Spent the End of the World adhere to an aesthetic of a quasi-documentary film. In her review of The Way I Spent the End of the World, [Deborah] Young writes that the ‘cluttered, old-fashioned sets’ and ‘retro costume designs’ emphasize the historical accuracy of the film. To this end, both films also share unadorned lighting techniques and an almost perpetual gray, overcast colour scheme. (Ion) Martea writes that nearly all the Romanian New Wave filmmakers use ‘long-takes with little camera movement or close-ups; quasi-documentary techniques augmented by minimalism in mis-en-scene and dialogue’” (20)

The Way I Spent the End of the World serves as a tonal counterpoint to 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days among the pillars of the new wave yet it is unmistakable as a new wave film in its style, the long take arguably the most conspicuous marker of cinematographic equivalence.

Nostalgia and a predilection for long takes in Romanian cinema are never more prevalent than in the work of Corneliu Porumboiu, whose 12:08 East of Bucharest (A fost sau n-a fost?) took the Camera d’Or prize for best first feature at Cannes in 2006 and encouraged acute focus on the long take unlike any of the directors he is so often grouped with. A satire set primarily in a hilariously drab TV station in which the three hosts are seated side-by-side and depicted in long takes that emphasize the blandness of the setting. Porumboiu followed 12:08 with Police, Adjective (Politist, adjectiv, 2009), a similarly bleak satire about a young cop whose task of trailing a hash-smoking teenager incites a moral quandary. Showered with acclaim, including the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes and an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, Porumboiu’s sophomore effort further ennobled the long take in Romanian cinema with a style that emphasized the monotony of the protagonist’s assignment and humdrum life outside his work. Porumboiu’s most recent work, When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (Când se lasa seara peste Bucuresti sau metabolism, 2013), contains only 17 shots. (21)

An interview with Howie Movshovitz upon Police, Adjective’s release in the United States suggests that digging for profound, elusive meaning in Porumboiu’s meandering yet stimulating works would be time wasted but also that his ideology is consistent with that of Puiu and Mungiu. Porumboiu states, “In a way, I’m afraid of metaphor. It’s this character, and he has…he’s in this transition period. He doesn’t have values. He doesn’t have something he can grab, you know.” (22)

The talent cultivated following the revolution of 1989 and which gave rise to contemporary Romanian cinema does not uniformly favour the long take but its prevalence necessitates analysis that accounts for the nation’s complex and traumatic recent history. Mungiu may be the only filmmaker driven to the profession as a reaction to the agonizingly “metaphorical” cinema of his youth but the clearest evidence of filmmaking as a reaction in his work is more common in the work of many others, Porumboiu especially. Puiu’s disgust with classical Romanian cinema is well documented, as are his similarities to the most acclaimed filmmakers of his generation. The post-communism Romanian films that achieved worldwide recognition break from classical Romanian cinema most vividly in the filmmakers’ newfound freedom to highlight the mundane, the seemingly unworthy of cinematic treatment, life in Romania as they have lived it, with government support for their vision. The freedom of expression made possible by the revolution was cause for Romanian filmmakers to celebrate, but also to react.

Endnotes

1. http://www.festival-cannes.com/en/article/60452.html

2. Scott, A.O. “New Wave on the Black Sea” The New York Times Magazine,  

20 January, 2008.

3. Nasta, Dominique. Contemporary Romanian Cinema: The History of an Unexpected Miracle. New York: Wallflower Press, 2013, p.20. 

4. Nasta, p. 29 

5. Pop, Doru. Romanian New Wave Cinema: An Introduction, New York:  McFarland & Co., 2014, p.28 

6. Nasta, p. 160 

7. Nasta, p. 163 

8. http://www.france3cinema.fr/nos-productions

9.  http://www.whynotproductions.fr/ 

10.  http://www.lesfilmsdufleuve.be/les-films-du-fleuve 

11. Elsaesser, Thomas. European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood. Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 2005, p. 97 

12.  http://old.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/exclusive/eastern_promises.php 

13.  http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2012/10/07/stretching-the-shot/ 

14.  http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2012/10/07/stretching-the-shot/ 

15. Henderson, Brian. “Toward a Non-Bourgeois Camera Style.” Film Quarterly. Dec. 1970. 

16.  Nasta, p. 194 

17.  Nasta, p. 194 

18.  Scott 

19. http://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2013/mar/12/romanian-  new-  wave-after-hollywood 

20. http://www.international.ucla.edu/media/files/marghitu-vol-five-r3-ayy.pdf

21. http://cinema-scope.com/cinema-scope-online/tiff-2013-when-evening-falls-on-bucharest-or-metabolism-corneliu-porumboiu-romania-contemporary-world-cinema/

 22. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=122450013