Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Romania and the future of film

by David Berke


The Romanian New Wave? Discussing cinematic trends in a single Eastern European country with, as New York Times critic A.O. Scott pointed out, only about 80 movie theaters for its 22 million citizens, sounds like an exercise in arcane futility. But the films of the Romanian New Wave that have been coming out of the country for the last decade are worth everyone’s attention, both for their artistic prowess and what their production means for the future of filmmaking.

The most internationally renowned of the films is, without question, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, a brutal movie about getting an abortion during the rule of the country’s former communist dictator Ceausescu. The film, which won the Palm d’Or at Cannes in 2007, exemplifies the New Wave aesthetic—grizzly realism drained of bright colors, handheld cameras, and actors who look like a regular citizens on the street. What makes 4 Months a brilliant film is the rigor of this construction.

A lot of the film may seem improvisational, but director Cristian Mungiu meticulously laid out every shot and word. In fact, he claims that every single word spoken in the film is from the screenplay. The film’s intricately composed casualness mimics the time it represents when, under fascistic rule, even the seemingly everyday acts—reserving a hotel room, eating dinner with a boyfriend’s family—are imbued with a complex, underlying darkness.

4 Months is also typical of the New Wave in that it is not overtly political. No character ever mentions that Ceausescu tried to turn his country’s women into child-producing machines, outlawing birth control until a woman gave birth to five babies. 4 Months is a movie about an unjust state policy, but it never mentions the state.

This aversion towards the overtly political allows the characters’ poignant personal narratives, rather than a moralizing lesson about the evils of totalitarianism or even the morality of abortion, to control the film. This disinterested perspective has particularly profound implications for contemporary Romania as well as much of Europe where population growth rates have been falling into the negative. This makes the specter of Ceausescu’s forced expansion that much more relevant to a continent that could be tempted by similar policies.

The unyoking of 4 Months from its era in Romanian history has allowed it to perform well on the international stage. No viewer needs a history lesson to understand what’s going on—or even to know that the film is Romanian. This universal quality, prevalent in many New Wave works, matters to the future of film. It also allowed the film, which would probably not have been fiscally viable in Romania alone, to thrive on international box office receipts.

With rapidly expanding production capabilities in countries like Romania, where production costs are low, the future will be the era of the international film. These films will be international in that, like 4 Months, their content will have transnational appeal, and their production will not be confined to one country. As I mentioned in my first column this semester, global co-productions like Slumdog Millionaire will become more and more common. The films of the Romanian New Wave may be exclusively Romanian productions, but the film facilities used to make these movies can be used to shoot films in other countries, such as the 2003 U.S. production Cold Mountain, which was shot in Romania.

Although indicative of larger trends in the movie market, the aesthetic of the Romanian New Wave itself has a very finite lifespan. The bleak energy of these films can simply be just too much. Another New Wave classic, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, had such mercilessly shaky handheld cinematography that it gave me motion sickness. But, while viewers may tire of this trend’s style, its contribution to the internationalization of filmmaking will remain an integral part of film’s ongoing evolution.

David Berke is a Columbia College first-year. Cinema Politico runs alternate Tuesdays.

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