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Report on Making Waves: Romanian Film Festival

 

by Megan Ratner

 

Film Quarterly

 

Winter 2012/2013

 

Abrupt political changes at home first threatened, then

energized the 2012 Romanian Film Festival in New York

(November 9–December 5). Jettisoning the recalibrated

and underfunded Romanian Cultural Institute, the newly

created Romanian Film Initiative teamed with the Film

Society of Lincoln Center to rescue the program. Given the

precarious circumstances, it seems quibbling to complain

about the quality, but unfortunately there was more spirit

than greatness. Still, the fact of the festival at all is a boon

and there were excellent choices, both vintage and new.

 

An Alexandru Tatos retrospective included Sequences,

his 1986 take on filmmaking and life in a closed society.

The epigraph from the nineteenth-century poet and

author Mihai Eminescu—‘‘Truth is our master. We don’t

master the truth.’’—could easily be applied to any of the

films discussed here. In a series of studio and location

vignettes, a (fictional) film crew apes the various humiliations

and fakeries of the regime. Concealing their equipment

in a bar, they provoke unwitting extras—people

actually queuing to use a public phone—by having their

protagonist jump the line. The goad is staged, the effect

real. And the film crew, like most film crews, is indifferent

to the fallout.

 

Set in a studio, the final and most devastating sequence

features two older extras, apparently strangers, who are

playing friends at dinner. As the newcomer listens to his

more experienced companion, it slowly dawns on him that,

in real life, this helpful chum was once his torturer. Their

encounter resembles one in Lucian Pintilie’s Afternoon of

a Torturer (2001). (Pintilie has a cameo early in Sequences,

and his work is a clear influence on the film, especially in

the way Tatos uses archival footage to contextualize it.

Tatos clearly sympathizes with what Pintillie terms the

‘‘promiscuous complicity between torturer and victim.’’)

While the cast and crew fuss to obtain the shot, the two

men are revealed to us as mutually culpable in the death

of another prisoner. The revelation remains private,

a personal hell they share. At the same time, by showing

the moviemakers as utterly inattentive to the startling

reality playing out right under their noses, Tatos makes

a subtle case for obliviousness as a kind of conformity.

The filmmakers worry about the details of a clichéd love

story, missing the actual drama and contributing merely

another state-approved diversion.

 

An analogous sense of futility hangs over Stone Wedding,

co-directed by Dan Piţa and Mircea Veroiu. Based on

tales by Ion Agârbiceanu, it was screened to celebrate its

fortieth anniversary. (Adaptations of sanctioned material

stood a better chance of circumventing the censors under

the Ceaușescu regime.) The two 19th-century stories are set

in the same tiny hamlet in Rosia Montana, near a quarry. In

the first part (directed by Veroiu), widowed Fefeleaga (Leopoldina

Bălănuţă) clings to wedding hopes for her one surviving

child (Eliza Petrăchescu), a girl of perhaps 17 whom

she doses periodically with medicine. Wandering around

the cottage, the girl seems to prepare for death by revisiting

her meager possessions, even perambulating her childhood

dolls. Already she seems to haunt the place. Meanwhile,

Fefeleaga and her emaciated white horse labor in the

quarry, gathering stone amidst others who pan for gold.

The stark black-and-whites of peasant life, enlivened by

minimal dialogue, have the same folktale quality found in

Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light (2007) and many of Béla

Tarr’s films. The events are shown in nearly real time, and

an unavoidable boredom on our part provides a glimpse of

the unremitting tediumof the women’s existence. Throughout,

long shots emphasize a barren environment that seems

intent on erasing what few people remain, and the narrative

is often carried by a spare, plaintively sung soundtrack.

Trading her horse to pay for her daughter’s funeral, the

unmarriageable Fefeleaga loses her tiny place in the community,

doomed to a lonely wait for death.

 

In the second part, Piţa’s directorial touch is lighter, but

ultimately nearly as bleak. A deserter (Mircea Diaconu)

teams with a handsome musician (Radu Boruzescu) on his

way to a village wedding. They acknowledge the ill omen

of passing Fefeleaga’s bony white horse en route, but are

soon caught up in the bridal procession. At the country

feast, the young bride (Ursula Nüssbacher) does her best to

ignore her boorish husband (George Calboreanu Jr.), who

is busy eating both their shares of the spread. Piţa has

a knack for portraying faces; the actors here are reminiscent

of August Sander’s rural portraits. Lingering shots of

the characters enjoying all the free bounty in their Sunday

best emphasize the rarity of such abundance. When the

bride finally raises her eyes from the ground—and we see

her pretty face for the first time—she fixes on the musician.

Risking the inevitable fury of her father (Petre Gheorghiu)

and the groom (the two men are physically almost

interchangeable), the young woman arranges a tryst. Meanwhile,

officers in mufti recognize the deserter, nab him, and

pummel him to death in a juxtaposition of the lethal and the

liberating, a combination that continues to inform Romanian

cinema.

 

So too does the inescapable shadow of the Ceaușescus,

which is mordantly delineated in the fiction-documentary

hybrid Three Days Till Christmas (The Last Days in the Life

of Elena and Nicolae Ceaușescu). ‘‘Don’t let them run,’’ the

revolutionary crowd shouted as the couple was evacuated

from Bucharest on December 22, 1989. Director Radu

Gabrea combines archival footage with stylized reenactments,

and the patent artificiality is ideally suited to the

actions of people who were flagrantly out of touch. A

companion piece of sorts to Andrei Ujică ’s Autobiography

of Nicolae Ceaușescu, Three Days depicts the mythologized

pair as a stereotypically elderly, infirm, and cranky couple

childishly accustomed to having their own way. Alongside

news footage, Gabrea includes modern-day interviews

with various personnel involved in the Ceaușescus’ flight

from Bucharest. Most compelling are the two officers

ordered to guard the couple once they were in the countryside.

Actors impersonate these men and the Ceaușescus

(Constantin Cojocaru and Victoria Cocias) in the claustrophobic

dramatizations, which are played very straight.

When the action reverts periodically to the real officers,

the playacting emphasizes both the horror and farce of

their ordeal. Interspersed are radio and television reports

that the Ceaușescus insist be immediately turned off,

their denials strikingly like the refusal of Klaus Kinski’s

crazed protagonist in Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Herzog,

1972) even to acknowledge his wounds: ‘‘That is not an

arrow in my leg.’’

 

Elena towers over Nicolae, maternally cosseting him

like an infant. When presented with cots, they huddle

together on a single bed, appearing nearly pathetic. The

stylization works especially well to convey their maniacal

conviction, despite the inescapable reality, that they will

survive. The film culminates in a black screen with a voiceover

and the sound of machine guns: The Ceaușescus were

executed on December 25, 1989. There is no official record

because, as the endnotes state, the one camera on hand for

the occasion had no batteries. Although not at Ujică ’s masterful

level, this slightly too-long film does contribute to

the ongoing cinematic attempt to decipher the combination

of monstrosity and ineptitude that allowed the unsavory

Ceauşescu couple to maintain a stranglehold for so long.

Acknowledging in the final notes that ‘‘terrorists’’ were

blamed for protester deaths during the 1989 revolution

(although no perpetrators were ever found), Gabrea leaves

no doubt as to how little was changed by the removal of

Elena and Nicolae.

 

Even the highlight of the festival, writer-director Cristian

Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills, bore the traces of the dictatorship

despite its contemporary setting. Drawing on two

nonfiction novels by Tatiana Niculescu Bran that detailed

a botched 2006 exorcism, Mungiu’s multiple Cannes prizewinner

focuses on the complex friendship between two

young women, friends since their orphanage childhood.

The film opens as Alina (Cristina Flutur) and Voichita

(Cosmina Stratan), now in their early twenties, reunite

in the hinterlands for the first time since Alina moved to

Germany. Each has expectations the other will find difficult

to meet. Alina expects to bring Voichita back to Germany;

Voichita hopes her friend can accept or even join

the remote convent where she is an informal novitiate.

 

Much to Alina’s distress, the priest in charge (Valeriu

Andriuţă ) and the mother superior (Dana Tapalagă ) have

become for Voichita father and mother. However they are

very parochial people. Introduced to Alina, the inquisitorial

priest notes that he has never set foot outside Romania

but has no regrets; to him, the world at large lacks

restraint: ‘‘Tolerance is very well, within reason.’’ Despite

the impression Alina initially gives of being weak—she

appears to collapse into Voichita’s arms when they first

meet—she is outspoken and has plenty of moxie. Each

young woman believes she can save her friend.

 

As Mungiu makes clear, Voichita could leave anytime.

Alina, frustrated by her friend’s unwillingness to do so,

challenges the priest, reminding him, ‘‘God is for everyone,

not only for you.’’ The convent quickly decides that the

problem lies in the outsider, and they remove Alina to the

local hospital, where the doctor’s sole prescription is a return

to the convent. She runs away, hoping to collect

money she sent from Germany to the foster family that

once cared for her, only to find that they have replaced her

with another girl and spent the cash.

 

Meanwhile, the nuns have all but concluded that Alina

is possessed. Voichita hangs back from her, resisting her

appeals to their former closeness. It’s love, but not

romance. The subtly written screenplay and the extraordinary

lead performances convey a connection that’s above

all sisterly, regardless of whether it once included sex, and

a history that entails far more adversity than joy. (There’s

a reference at one point to ‘‘the German’’ who offered gifts

in exchange for taking orphanage photos of the girls, and

it’s clear that both have been exploited one way or another

for much of their lives.) A short scene on the derelict

grounds of their former asylum is more than enough to let

us imagine the grisly interior.

 

Alina struggles on, resorting to violence against others

and herself in her angry confusion, until the sisters finally

bind her to a plank and then to a cross. More or less with

the hospital’s blessing, the priest embarks on an exorcism,

the result inevitably bad. Mungiu makes clear that what’s

uppermost in the community’s mind is getting rid of Alina

before the nearing Easter holiday. They will resort to anything

to avoid a scandal, and their efforts are inspired less

by Christ than by the Securitate. Far too late, Voichita

realizes she has forfeited Alina for a crowd of charlatans.

Mungiu uses a strategy of long takes and no music to

convey a constant sense of time passing. In interviews, he

mentions precisely choreographing the shots, but he also

observes that multiple takes ‘‘set off things’’ among the

actors. Their deft ensemble work contributes to the peculiar

sense of time and space in Beyond the Hills, which often

makes us feel like we’re observing the action under a bell

jar. The reclusive convent setting echoes Stone Wedding,

and Mungiu’s stark, snowy imagery is reminiscent of

Orthodox icons.

 

The terrible disjunction between Alina’s complete loyalty

and Voichita’s bet-hedging mirrors the emotional miscarriage

between Otilia and Gabita at the center of

Mungiu’s earlier film 4 Months, 2 Weeks and 3 Days

(2007). As in that film, one friend takes action, the other

is passive. Voichita survives, but her life is irrevocably

stunted by her destructive unwillingness to admit that her

chosen view was not reality. Although Mungiu does not

overtly take sides, he does sprinkle the script with stinging

humor that perfectly merges superstitious religiosity with

the workaday realities of provincial Romania, such as the

priest’s recollection that he discovered his vocation when

he was visited by an angel while working at a power plant.

Voichita’s entreaty to him asking if she may ‘‘keep’’ Alina

is only one of several instances when members of the convent

treat their visitor like a stray dog, even to the point of

tethering her outside. Yet there is never any doubt, no

matter how dire her situation becomes, that Alina is the

one sane person in the isolated outpost.

 

Among the best decisions Mungiu makes is to bracket

his film with rough encounters with the outside world,

where the convent has no influence at all. In the very first

shot, the camera follows Voichita from behind as she

walks between two trains against a stream of disembarking

passengers; other than being inconvenienced by her

movement, no one notices her. In the final moments, Voichita

sits under arrest in a police van, surrounded by the

nuns, while the officers discuss a sensational Internet crime;

what we’ve been caught up in for more than two hours has

already become passé, yesterday’s sensation. Alina became

a problem that everyone wanted someone else to solve, illustrating

the indifference and willful ignorance that shape

a great deal of the modern worldview. Mungiu implicates

the audience along with the characters. A movie does not

happen in a vacuum.

 

Each film I’ve discussed deals with the eventual triumph

of truth, if only because convoluted fictions can no

longer be maintained. Like the others, Beyond the Hills

derives from specifics of Romanian political, religious, and

cultural history. But categorizing these productions as

Communist, post-Communist, or Ceaușescan is too narrow.

The tendency to prefer one version of reality to

another has no nationality: This cinema is not only about

Romanians, it’s about everyone.