BUCHAREST, Romania: Two Romanian movies have won top prizes at the Cannes Film Festival — one a gritty portrait of illegal abortion, the other an unfinished tale about American soldiers in a small village — shining the spotlight on the burgeoning film industry in the ex-communist nation.
Jurors crowned Cristian Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" with the festival's top prize — the Palme d'Or — over 21 other movies in competition in the French Riviera.
And "California Dreamin,'" by filmmaker Cristian Nemescu, who died in a car crash last year at age 27, won honors in a secondary competition called "Un Certain Regard."
The Cannes recognition is a special honor for Romania, which has deep cultural ties to France and a passion for cinema that thrived even during the rule of late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
Romanians, whose language comes from the same romance family as French and Spanish, have also sought to set themselves apart from their Slavic neighbors, and the Cannes honor helped feed that effort.
Mungiu, who just six months ago barely had enough money to complete his low-budget film about abortion during the communist era, said winning the Palme d'Or was "like a fairy tale."
He paid tribute to the young filmmakers before him who paved the way with success at home and at Cannes.
"We are perceived as a generation which is making the difference," he said in his acceptance speech.
In 2005, Cristi Puiu's "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" won the "Un Certain Regard" honors and was Romania's official selection for the Academy Award competition for Best Foreign Film.
The film, a portrayal of ageism in Roman's health care industry, won critical acclaim worldwide, but was initially refused funding by the national Center for Cinematography. Officials had turned down Puiu's project for fear it would harm Romania's image abroad by revealing the dire state of the country's health system.
But Puiu successfully appealed to the culture minister and got his funding, setting a precedent and winning an important victory for new, young filmmakers.
Nemescu's "California Dreamin'" so impressed Cannes jurors that they decided to include it — even though the filmmaker died before he could complete the movie.
Mungiu, 39, said Romania's Cannes success would boost smaller productions and help young filmmakers.
"This film belongs to the entire team that worked on the film, but is also the win of the new generation of filmmakers," he said.
Mungiu said his film, a grim portrayal of a girl seeking to have an illegal abortion, shows how people's choices are affected by the political system, indoctrination and stereotyping. The film had a budget of about €500,000.
"We showed that you don't need big budgets and big stars to win the Palme d'Or," he said.
The prize also is a boost for a film industry that suffered during the transition from communism.
In recent years, foreign production companies increasingly have chosen to film in Romania because it is a picturesque yet cheap place to shoot movies, spurring and inspiring local directors.
Among the larger productions was filmmaker Anthony Minghella's "Cold Mountain," starring Nicole Kidman, Renee Zellweger and Jude Law, filmed in southern Romania and in Transylvania in 2003.
A strong local television market and a growing advertising industry also helped develop local talent. Mungiu and other directors maintained day jobs in advertising to pay the bills when they were not directing films.
This made it possible for actors, technicians and local film studios to make money and develop, industry analysts say.
Winning two awards in the same year at Cannes "is extraordinary for the young Romanian filmmakers," said Radu Gabrea, a 69-year-old director who returned to Romania in 1997 after 23 years in exile and helped reform the film industry. His latest film, "The Beheaded Rooster," is set in Transylvania in the early 1940s.
He said state-funded grants and loans have enabled young directors to make films — on very limited budgets.
"In America, a low budget would be considered a film with about US$3 million (€2.2 million). They would not consider a budget like Mungiu had," he said.