Culture | Film & Theatre

Corneliu Porumboiu: The Youngest Voice of the Romanian New Wave, by Lidia Meras


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Almost a year ago, an Iranian blogger based in London published an article on his recently deceased hero, Romanian actor and film director Sergiu Nicolaescu, who turned his hand to politics after the fall of Ceauşescu. In post-revolutionary Iran, Nicolaescu was well known: the adventures of Inspector Moldavan (Nicolaescu’s onscreen alter ego), a combination of Hollywood gangster movie and French film policier, were hugely popular. In a country without movie stars, isolated by eight years of war against Iraq and with a distorted film industry under the ayatollahs that banned the appearance of women on screen, Inspector Moldovan’s narratives, exclusively male, supplied hours of anti-Fascist entertainment to mainstream audiences.


Nicolaescu as Inspector Moldovan

“Ceauşescu Era’s Last Action Hero”, the Iranian blogger’s article,  concludes by drawing a parallel between the tyrant and Nicolaescu, as both men had used history as a way of misleading Romania. “Nicolaescu’s cinema can be read as an attempt, similar to Ceausescu’s, to give a false sense of progression” says Ehsan Khoshbakht, “by using the already tested formulas of populist mass entertainment (Italy in the Fascist era; popular Nazi cinema) which pretends to use history as its elemental source, whilst in reality, real history the least of its concerns”.

Nicolaescu’s death generated an enormous debate in Romania regarding his cinematic legacy as well as his political role in the previous two decades –  a debate which, according to documentary filmmaker Andrei Ujică “was turned by commercial TV stations into the most vulgar spectacle of nationalistic propaganda and tabloid filth”. Not surprisingly, the director behind the celebrated Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu(2010), posted Khoshbakht’s article in his Facebook page where it went viral (see article here). The piece even experienced a kind of afterlife when, on Ujică’s suggestion, “Ceauşescu Era’s Last Action Hero” was translated into Romanian and published in the prestigious weekly magazine Dilema (No. 465, 10-16 January 2013).

Unlike Nicolaescu, Ujică’s genuine interest in Romanian national history has been a common trait of his country’s filmmakers since the turn of the new millennium. His prize-winning documentary on Romania’s last dictator seems to challenge Winston Churchill’s possibly apocryphal assertion “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it”. The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu is a 3-hour film of official and domestic footage edited to illustrate the over-choreographed demonstrations, massive party meetings, and official visits of foreign dignitaries to the Eastern-European socialist utopia. The documentary refuses to add a single comment to images; nor does it even stoop to including music to accompany the silent domestic footage. Structured around the Stalinist-style interrogation faced by the dictator and his wife and recorded in the last hours before their executions, the film wisely renounces putting on display the actual fate of the accused, instead stressing the “autobiographical” nature of a film whose aim is to replicate the statesman’s lifetime extravaganza.


Nicolae and Elena stand trial a few minutes before being executed, December 1989

Far from the lavish spectacles of colourfully orchestrated mass-gatherings, Romanian directors today employ a gritty realism in direct contrast to the idealization of public figures or the embellishment of historical events. Filmmaker Radu Muntean explained the creative sources of inspiration for this new trend in the DVD leaflet of his Tuesday after Christmas (2010): “For us, I think, the main objective is to make very honest, straightforward films. And for me, it’s a reaction to the kind of Romanian movies. There was a lot of ‘poetic’ cinema and a lot of flashback and, I don’t know, white horses running in slow motion. That’s my theory about the ‘new wave’ (…) It was a reaction toward those old films”.

In the last decade Romanian filmmakers have been very successful in screening their films at international film festivals, gaining prestigious awards (including the Palme d’Or in Cannes to director Cristian Mungiu for his 4 months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) as well as obtaining worldwide recognition from the specialized press. The leading filmmakers of the Romanian New Wave, namely Cristian Mungiu, Cătălin Mitulescu, Corneliu Porunboiu, Cristi Puiu, and the aforementioned Andrei Ujică and Radu Muntean, were all born (with the exception of Ujică) between the late sixties and the late seventies.


Romanian film-maker Corneliu Porumboiu

After the early death of Cristian Nemescu in a car accident, Corneliu Porumboiu became the youngest of this generation of filmmakers and has proved himself a very talented one. His feature films are set in the present, mirroring contemporary Romania, but all deal with the aftermath of Ceauşescu’s era in their historical evaluation of the recent past. Porumboiu also shares with them the distinctively grim mise-en-scene of the Romanian New Wave and, above all, a deep mistrust towards certain institutions. Although the merciless attacksagainst the medical profession seen in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, 2005), 4 months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007) or, more recently, Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu, 2012) are absent in his films, there is likewise a noticeable critique of the hierarchies that democracy has brought, a total distrust of the official version, and a deep sympathy towards the anonymous hero who tries to maintain his integrity against all odds.


Porumboiu’s ‘12.08 East of Bucharest’

All these features are visible in his first feature film, 12:08 East of Bucharest (A fost sau n-a fost?, 2006), awarded with the debut prize at Cannes. The story takes place between dawn and dusk, one day in the life of an alcoholic history teacher invited to participate in a modest local television programme over Christmas. The TV programme’s aim is to clarify whether or not there was a revolt by citizens against the dictator prior to Ceauşescu‘s critical appearance on television. To the presenter’s despair, a call from a spectator casts doubt on the claims of his guest, leading to a hilarious scene which underlines the following question: Were the teacher and his friends agents of historical change, and therefore national heroes, or drunks who simply were in the right place at the right time? One sequence is key: a viewer, who calls in to confront the high school teacher with his past, is depicted as a heartless self-made man strongly identified with the rising bourgeoisie of newly ‘democratic’ Romania. This moment not only introduces the question of how we remember history, but also suggests the rewriting of history by those who are now in positions of privilege. As the calls supporting this viewer’s version multiply, the sole audience-member who defends our antihero is a foreigner, a Chinese shop owner who knows the protagonist personally and is frequently mortified by his insults; a bittersweet finale in which unexpected human warmth mitigates a gloomy ending.


‘12.08 East of Bucharest’s ‘bittersweet finale’

Porumboiu‘s second film, Police, adjective (Politist, adjectiv, 2009) awarded the Jury Prize in Cannes, starts in a very similar way. A dim dawning light suffuses the streets where cloned apartment buildings of ugly concrete familiarize the audience with a mise-en-scene close to documentary. With the same unhurried pace as in his previous film, the camera follows the everyday routine of the hero towards a high school, where the European Union flag waves along with the Romanian. The protagonist is a young policeman investigating a teenage suspect of drug trafficking, and distressed by the possibility of ruining the young man’s life with a long prison-sentence for a misdeed that might, in the future, no longer be considered a criminal offence. His old-school boss does not understand the policeman’s reluctance to prosecute the teenager and condescendingly tells him: “Cristi, listen to this old guy. Maybe attitudes will change a bit but the law won’t”. As in most of these films, the deceptive promise of integration into the European Union offers little hope that the circumstances will improve.

The film is told from the policeman’s point of view with sparse dialogues and a stress on factual events. This concern for the truth is evident, for instance, in Cristi’s surveillance reports, even if, at the end, they turn out to be of no use. As in Porumboiu’s debut, Police, adjective combines fatalism with a humanistic approach, although in this case the film offers an even bleaker outcome. images (4) Unfortunately, When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (2013) had no distribution in the UK, but his last film, The Second Game (2014) -recently selected for the Berlinale- might have better luck. Once more, in this documentary, Porumboiu brings together the distortion of historical facts and shows his reservation about the official version through the revision of a Dinamo vs Steaua 1988 match, a derby held one year before the revolution and arbitrated by his father, a soccer referee under Ceauşescu.

If we had to summarize Porumboiu’s works in a few lines, we could say that his films display the everyday obstacles that ordinary people have faced with regards to historical memory, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Communist bloc. In the closing sequence of 12:08 East of Bucharest, the streetlamps that appeared at the beginning of the film now shine, guiding the audience in the darkness, a comforting reminder of the need to come to terms with the recent past. This inspired metaphor also encapsulates the Romanian New Wave filmmakers’ goal: to shed some light on the past in order to illuminate the future: a role to which the gifted Corneliu Porumboiu is undeniably suited.

Links “Ceauşescu Era’s Last Action Hero” by Ehsan Khoshbakht:

The Second Game (Al doilea joc, 2014) at Berlin Film Festival

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