Romania's arthouse films have won respect worldwide, but their lack of popularity among domestic audiences spells danger
Any new wave in cinema is duty-bound to make surprise its mission, cocking a snook at tradition and shuffling conventions. The one that broke in 2005 got off to a good start: hailing from Romania, a filmic backwater compared to Russia and Poland. Kicking off with Cristi Puiu'sThe Death of Mr Lazarescu – the whispered hit of Cannes that year – this revolution had ready-made class: it was aesthetically rigorous; serious-minded yet buoyed by a mordant sense of humour; it scraped its truths from the dingy fabric of everyday life, often covered in the residue of 42 years of communism.
Corneliu Porumboiu, Cristian Mungiu and Radu Muntean all followed up in this vein in the second half of the noughties, with pure festival-bait that was still clocking up awards this year when the drama Child's Pose took the top prize at Berlin.
And yet it was a movement almost totally disconnected from its Romanian audience. Even given its purist arthouse allegiances, the box office figures were appalling. Aurora, Puiu's last film, grossed just $6,942 in Romania, the country's 96th most popular film in 2011. Only Mungiu's Palme d'Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days has breached the top 10 – making $274,611, as 2007's seventh most successful; with Florian Serban's prison drama, If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle struggling into the top 50 in 2010. Compared to other east European audiences, Romanians were definitely not interested in getting high on their own supply: domestic films had a paltry 2.5% share of the market in 2010.
Does a new wave exist if there's no one around to hear it crashing to shore? Festival audiences and international arthouse buffs certainly marvelled at the high quality of the Romanian new wave – AO Scott called it "the most exciting development in a European national cinema since Spain in the 1980s" in his exhaustive piece for the New York Times in 2008.
But it's easy to think that the lack of interest on the part of those whose lives were in closeup made the pressing questions posed by the films peter out in a vacuum. Shouldn't there be more sparks of recognition over The Death of Mr Lazarescu's sly digs at the healthcare system, or Porumboiu's droll debate in his fantastic 12:08 East of Bucharest (about whether the 1989 revolution actually happened, or the provocative sadism of the clergy in Mungiu's biting convent drama, Beyond the Hills(out in the UK this week)?
Perhaps these are questions more for the directors than for audiences, touching on their motivation for carrying on. The Romanian new wave has noticeably slowed down since its mid-noughties eruption, the lack of local acknowledgement might be one reason why; every artistic movement needs nourishment from the grassroots (Mungiu, in his recentinterview with Xan Brooks, pinpoints the lack of film theatres in the country as a crucial problem area).
Now it looks as if Romanian film-goers could be moving off in another direction. There was a small resurgence at the box office for local films last year – for more conventional commercial fare, such as Minte-mă Frumos (Sweet Little Lies), which followed on the heels of 2011's Bună! Ce Faci? (Hello! How Are You?), the first Romanian romcom for many years.
But no one cares about these films abroad. Romania's commercial industry might help put the much-needed infrastructure in place, but only the arthouse can bring it respect. The rift between the Romanian new wave and its home audience could end up hurting the global profile of the industry, if the movement runs to seed. Unfortunately, the government's priorities lie elsewhere: last year, it killed off funding for the body responsible for promoting Romanian films abroad (which had to resort to Kickstarter to help fund last year's Romanian film festival in New York).
In some ways, the Romanian new wave is fighting the same battle undergone by the other localised culture surges of the noughties, such as Japanese J-horror, the Latin American buena onda, the South Koreanhallyu; the battle for survival outside the initial warming spotlight of the global media. But they weren't short on commercial appeal – compared to them, Romanian cinema is the grumpy, grimy puppy of the bunch. It would be a shame if audiences – home and abroad – didn't discover how much character it has. And what bite.