Friday, February 27, 2009

Abundant quality at Romanian Film Festival here this weekend

February 27, 2009

"They live in a small country that has often found itself in the path of imperial powers, a condition they address with guile, stubbornness and a measure of grace. And lately with some pretty great movies."

That's how film critic A.O. Scott concluded his rave review of the Romanian film "California Dreamin'" in the New York Times in January. "California" is just the latest film out of the relatively small Eastern European country of Romania, along with "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" and "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," to gain international acclaim.

Madison international film fans have been fortunate to be able to tap into this new wellspring of quality films with the Romanian Film Festival, a free homegrown festival showcasing the best in the country's film, including movies that have played nowhere else in the U.S. ("California Dreamin'" played at last year's festival.)

This year's festival includes some brand-new films by some of Romania's New Wave of young directors, along with some short films that were honored this year at the Cannes and Berlin Film Festivals, and a couple of classic films that date back to when the country was still under Communist rule. Not bad for a country that doesn't have much of a film industry in terms of output or dollars.

"These films came from such a small number of directors," said Elena Richard, director of the festival. "If you look at how many movies Romania produces, and you look at the quality, there's a lot of very good films selected from a very small number."

Richard moved from Madison to Flagstaff, Arizona last summer, but continued to program this year's festival, which is sponsored by the Romanian Cultural Institute and the UW-Madison's Center for Romania, Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

All the screenings take place at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's lecture hall, 207 State St. through Saturday. All screenings are free and open to the public, and every film features English subtitles.

The showpiece of this year's festival is a series of short films at 4 p.m. Saturday that include two big festival winners. "Megatron" won the Palme d'Or for Best Short Film at last year's Cannes Film Festival, while "A Good Day for A Swim" won the prestigious Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival.

Both films focus on deceptively small events -- "Megatron" revolves around a Romanian boy who wants to go to a fast-food restaurant for his birthday -- that hint at larger, darker truths.

"They have subjects that seem very mundane, and are treated very casually," Richard said. "But they have this emotional aspect. They have these undertones and suggestions of things that might happen that you don't see. You're left with this impresson that something terrible has happened or will happen."

Ecaterina DiMancea Dumbraveanu, project manager of the Romanian Cultural Institute, has traveled from Bucharest to Madison to attend this year's festival and take part in a Saturday night discussion on Romanian film. She said the common thread between the short films and celebrated features like "4 Months" is the realism on screen, allowing the audience to be utterly pulled into the story.

"They are very pure," Dumbraveanu said. "You see them and you see the director doesn't lie to you. He tells you the truth and you believe him. It's a great thing about the catharsis of film, when you go to the cinema to see a movie and you are actually in the movie. Not for a moment do you feel superficial or that you are told a story. You are with them."

That on-screen honesty has not come easily for a country that spent decades under the repressive rule of Nicolae Ceaucescu. Back then, films tended to stoke the nationalist fires of the regime or pass along its propaganda.

"They made a lot of movies about historical figures," Dumbraveanu said. "But all the historical figures were speaking the way Ceaucescu spoke. It is actually very funny to see them."

After Ceaucescu was overthrown and executed for his crimes in 1989, Romanian filmmakers found themselves suddenly and totally free to make whatever films they wanted. Dumbraveanu and Richard said that freedom wasn't necessarily a plus, and many of the films made in the 1990s were graphic and incomprehensible messes.

But about 10 years ago, a new and younger generation of filmmakers began making movies, and their New Wave has marked the worldwide interest in Romanian Film. Just as the country itself has survived some dark times, the movies often deal with dark subject matter but retain the possibility of a brighter future.

"Even when you watch something like 'The Death of Mr. Lazarescu' or '4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," they seem very depressing due to what they're showing," Richard said. "They have a very hard-to-watch subject -- someone dying, someone going through an abortion. It's harrowing. But both of these films at the end, they show you hope.

Romanian Film Festival schedule

7 p.m. Friday -- "Day Bar and Other Stories," a documentary about the regulars in a "day bar" (a state-owned relic from the days of Communism) that focuses more on personal accounts and less on historical context.

8:30 p.m. Friday -- "Tache" is a typically black comedy for Romanian film, about a gravedigger who tries to organize a grand funeral for himself and secure the best plot in the graveyard, only to run into one obstacle after another.

noon Saturday -- "Sequences" is a rare 1982 Romanian film that was preserved by the New York Museum of Modern Art. It's actually three short films about the lives of the cast and crew filming a movie called "Happiness."

2 p.m. Saturday -- "Elevator" is what an indie film in Romania looks like. Made for just 200 euros, the film looks at two young lovers who get trapped together in a cargo elevator in an abandoned warehouse.

4 p.m. Saturday -- The festival's short film program includes "Megatron," a family drama that won an award at Cannes, and "A Good Day for a Swim," a short about three teenage delinquents on a destructive lark.

6 p.m. Saturday -- "Exhange" looks at the transition from socialism to capitalism in Romania, as a couple try to raise enough money to flee the country, only to find all their savings are lost. The husband soon finds that he has a knack for surviving in the untamed world of capitalism.

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