Iron Curtain Call

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Romania has enjoyed considerable success at the movie theater in the past few years, claiming major prizes at the last three Cannes Film Festivals (with Cristi Puiu’s “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” Corneliu Porumboiu’s “12:08 East of Bucharest,” and Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”). But the cinema of one of the darkest of the former Soviet satellites cannot be called an overnight sensation. Indeed, Romania’s international success on the big screen is unsurprising precisely because its artistic merit is neither recent nor an anomaly. A new series at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Shining Through a Long, Dark Night: Romanian Cinema, Then and Now, allows local cineastes an opportunity to discover its fascinating evolution through the past four decades.

The series, which begins a two-week run on Wednesday, serves up a sampling of eight recent films that helped garner worldwide attention, as well as 10 classics that were lost for years behind the Iron Curtain. Among the latter group is “Forest of the Hanged,” Liviu Ciulei’s 1964 World War I epic that earned the Best Director prize at Cannes. On the contemporary side, admirers of “4 Months” will get a chance to see Mr. Mungiu’s 2002 debut, “Occident.” Eight of the filmmakers will accompany their work to New York, along with three Romanian film critics who will surely provide some perspective on the phenomenon.

“A Romanian movie doesn’t usually get shown in 20, 25 countries,” Mr. Porumboiu, whose “12:08 East of Bucharest” is part of the series, said. “I had no expectations when I was making the movie, but hoped that it would be released in France and the U.K. Certainly, I didn’t expect 25 countries. For a Romanian movie, that’s a lot.”

Film connoisseurs and tastemakers are always eager to make the latest discovery and spot the newest trend, and so the national cinemas of France, Italy, Spain, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Denmark, Iran, and South Korea have all fallen in and out of fashion in the changing tides of film criticism. While many are now hailing the arrival of the “Romanian New Wave,” the term is still a subject of debate among the country’s filmmakers. Mr. Puiu has insisted in interviews that there is no such thing, though Mr. Mungiu readily embraces it as a selling point. “I don’t mind this at all because our films lately have been very respectable films,” Mr. Mungiu said. “And it’s not only my film. I think we have all contributed to the success of Romanian cinema lately. I am sure that it was only possible for me to be in competition in Cannes because of the successes of our recent films that were there. And because everybody is curious about what’s going on with the Romanian cinema, they were curious to see my second film, which is how I got there. And I think it’s a good thing that we could speak about the Romanian wave. We don’t necessarily share the same kind of aesthetic or pursue the same kind of filmmaking.

But there’s a sense of realism in our films. Plus, we are all authors-writers-directors-producers, so we enjoy this freedom of making the films we really believe in.”

Indeed, Romanian filmmakers have various thematic interests. While the nation’s communist past is undeniably a dominant theme among its films, there is also a wealth of features set in the modern day that wrestle with pressing social issues such as the country’s deteriorating infrastructure and the implications of the new European Union economy.

The filmmakers themselves hail from various backgrounds as well. Tellingly, Romania’s only film school — University of Film in Bucharest — has a notorious waiting list, so some of the nation’s brightest talents got their starts elsewhere. “It was impossible for me to just go and study film when I graduated from high school,” Mr. Mungiu said. “This was during the communist era. I wasn’t from Bucharest. There was just one film school in Romania, and everybody knew the slots for film directors were given some five years in advance. So it wasn’t even worthwhile trying to do this.”

Instead, Mr. Mungiu majored in literature and worked as a journalist, while Mr. Puiu studied painting in Switzerland before turning to film.

Mr. Mungiu said that the numerous French and American productions shot in Romania have helped nurture many skillful film professionals. But local directors don’t necessarily reap the benefits of the country’s relatively healthy film industry. Not only are they forced to seek government grants and international co-production funds, but they must watch the country’s top talents bolt for Hollywood projects. Precision became a necessary discipline for the filmmakers.

“It was very risky for us, because I think it was one of the first independent movies in Romania,” Mr. Porumboiu said of “12:08 East of Bucharest,” a devilishly funny film about one small Romanian town that still hasn’t officially figured out what happened on December 22, 1989. “I couldn’t afford to play with things. Even though I had a really good script, I was in school and I didn’t know how to shoot it at that time. Even now I am thinking I could do it better. But you make one movie only one time, so you don’t have a choice. I just found that I could do it with this money, and I could do it in the best way. If I had $1 million, I’d probably do it the same way.”

It’s not especially surprising that Romanian films seem to be intricately intertwined with the country’s history, but they haven’t alienated the international audience. For their parts, Messrs. Porumboiu and Mungiu have said that they aren’t interested in mixing film and politics. That may be unavoidable, but the stories they tell allow them to walk that line with confidence.

“You don’t make your films with some kind of national debate in mind,” Mr. Mungiu said. “I’d like to tell a story. And I am very glad that people get their own opinions about this after seeing the film. But I wanted very much to have my film stay a film and not take sides or draw a conclusion.”

Through April 27 (70 Lincoln Center Plaza, at Broadway at West 65th Street, 212-875-5601).

The New York Sun

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