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Studies in Eastern European Cinema


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Contextualising contemporary
Romanian cinema
a

gnes Peth
a

Sapientia Hungarian University of Transylvania, Romania


Published online: 22 May 2015.

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To cite this article: gnes Peth (2015): Contextualising contemporary Romanian cinema, Studies in
Eastern European Cinema
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Studies in Eastern European Cinema, 2015


http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/2040350X.2015.1042254

BOOK REVIEW
Contextualising contemporary Romanian cinema
Contemporary Romanian Cinema. The History of an Unexpected Miracle, by
Dominique Nasta, New York, Chichester, West Sussex, Columbia University Press,
Wallflower, 2013, 268 pp., 15.23 (pbk), ISBN 978-0-231-16744-4

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Romanian New Wave Cinema. An Introduction, by Doru Pop, Jefferson, North Carolina,
MacFarland @ Company, Inc. Publishers, 2014, 240 pp., 40.95 (pbk),ISBN 978-0-78647937-5
Romanian cinema has come into the spotlight after
2000 with a series of successful films at international film festivals. Within the span of little more
than a decade, the phenomenon of the Romanian
New Wave emerged as a substantial addition not
only to the reorganised scene of postcommunist
Eastern European cinema but to contemporary
world cinema, as a whole. Romanian films became
the latest sensation to be reviewed, commented and
analysed around the world. An equally substantial
evaluation, however, coming from Romanian
scholars, joining the international critical discourse
on this phenomenon, did not immediately ensue.
The two books that were published in 2013 and
2014, written by Dominique Nasta and Doru Pop
can be seen as the first extensive studies in English
to fill this gap and to offer well-researched, comprehensive overviews and interpretations of the
success story of the new Romanian cinema. Both
books are ambitious in scope, yet cover almost
completely different grounds and employ different
personal and theoretical methodological points of
view.
Dominique Nasta, professor of film studies at
the Universite Libre de Bruxelles, is a Romanian
living abroad, who begins her book with a personal
recollection of her own experiences when she left
the country in 1984, instantly immersing the reader
into the nightmarish atmosphere of those times.
Rediscovering her homeland through its triumphant
new cinema, her text is, on the one hand, quite
openly, infused with a touch of nostalgia and personal pride. On the other hand, she benefits from
the duality of the perspective offered to her as an
emigre: she can speak of this culture both with the

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Book Review

intimate knowledge of an insider, and view it all from the outside. This perspective from
the outside is clearly perceptible in her attempt to provide a nuanced cultural and historical context for what might be interpreted in the eyes of foreigners as an unexpected
miracle, thus implicitly arguing against this unexpectedness of the New Wave by sketching its lesser known antecedents.
The long list of acknowledgements preceding the preface attests to a research done
with a lot of passion and personal engagement, performed over a substantial length of
time, based on archive materials, interviews and film analyses. Overall, Nastas book is
an admirable tour de force taking into account the sheer amount of information accumulated on its pages. As such, it is more than a treatise on contemporary Romanian cinema:
it includes a complete historical survey. Moreover, the range of her examples is not limited to fiction films; it extends to documentaries, short films and animations. After outlining the very beginnings of movie-making in Romania, she details a period of a shortlived thaw in the 1960s, when there was a relative golden age of international co-productions and some important films by Liviu Ciulei or Lucian Pintilie were made. The uneven
output of the 1970s is presented under the heading Versatility on the Menu. Before
arriving in 1989, Nasta devotes individual chapters to important and versatile directors
like Dan Pit a, Mircea Daneliuc (Romanian cinemas rebel with a cause), Lucian Pintilie
(who managed to make equally significant films before and after 1990) and Nae Caranfil
(an author of sophisticated comedies of the first decade after the fall of communism). The
book deals with the phenomenon of the so-called New Wave itself in three chapters,
Chapters 9 11, analysing short films on the crest of the New Wave, the films of Cristi
Puiu, Corneliu Porumboiu, Radu Muntean and Cristian Mungiu, whose 4 luni, 3
saptam^
ani si 2 zile/4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) is presented as a stylistic paradigm for the characteristic minimalism of new Romanian cinema. This is followed by a
close-up on contemporary mainstream films made for wider audiences and an overview
of the Romanian exilic and diasporic cinema. The final chapter further widens the lens to
include recent experiments in animation, in so-called expanded cinema, and finally even
foreign mainstream films shot on Romanian locations.
Such an all-inclusive approach is a consequence of Nastas methodology, which is
first and foremost that of a passionate cin
ephile, writing for audiences abroad. This cin
ephile attitude, the attention to details in both image and sound in speaking about the films,
the enthusiasm about discovering hidden gems that pervades the book, is probably the
most compelling and undisputable, albeit not unproblematic feature of her book. Defining
Romania as a Latin island set in a sea of Slavic neighbours in the introduction of the
book, Nasta proposes a study developing a better understanding of both Balkan and Latin
features particular to Romanian Films making use of concepts drawn from sociology,
philosophy, ethnography and literary theory (2). Her main references in this respect are,
the archetypal tale of Mioritza as the main Romanian symbolic paradigm (4), the
thoughts of the literary theorist, Paul Ricoeur regarding the time of fiction and historical
time in narration, and Aristotles threefold theory of mimesis. Although employed more
or less consistently, these few theoretical highlights, together with similarities pointed out
with the works of Romanian writers or philosophers like Ion Luca Caragiale, Emil Cioran
or Eugene Ionesco, ultimately get lost within the descriptions of plots and enumerations
of film-makers.
By offering an interpretive framework for new Romanian cinema almost exclusively
through an explanation of the political, economical and cultural background, and through
identifying periods, precursors or contemporaries employing similar themes, or stylistic
features, Nasta effectively convinces the reader of the existence of a film culture with

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Studies in Eastern European Cinema

significant and colourful achievements beyond the Romanian New Wave of the last decades, yet does not really manage to reveal its distinguishing features within the region, or
within contemporary cinema as a whole. More precisely, a larger context of world cinema
is evoked, but only through sporadic associations with individual examples. Andrei
Blaiers Ilustrate cu flori de c^
amp/Postcards with Flowers (1975), we learn, echoes
scenes from Pasolinis classic Mamma Roma (43), Porumboius presentation of different
accounts of the same events in A fost sau n-a fost/12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) seem to
resemble the technique of Akira Kurosawas Rashomon (1950), while Politist, adjectiv/
Police, Adjective (2009) reminds the author of Bressons Pickpocket (172), and so on.
This method of comparisons, on the one hand, might indeed help foreign readers to imagine scenes from films that they have not seen, and therefore may become a shorthand for
a more vivid description based on knowledge shared by film connoisseurs. On the other
hand, however, without an in-depth elaboration of these comparisons, their role remains
mainly rhetorical.
Compared to Nasta, Doru Pop, the author of Romanian New Wave Cinema. An Introduction, is a home-grown critic and analyst of the New Wave, an academic living in
Romania, working as an associate professor at the Babes -Bolyai University in ClujNapoca. His approach, as expected, is quite different from Nastas perspective. The range
of questions covered in his book is both narrower and wider than the one we find in
Nastas monograph. It is narrower, inasmuch as it explicitly focuses on the phenomenon
of the so-called Romanian New Wave, and does not attempt to write a comprehensive history of (contemporary) Romanian cinema. It is wider because it employs an impressive,
though rather eclectic arsenal of theoretical apparatus in unfurling its different layers.
The book contains a collection of previously published research articles, reworked and
assembled to provide a kaleidoscopic view of the new Romanian cinema.
While Nasta traces the inner evolution of Romanian cinema and ties contemporary
practices to their prehistory, identifying its main markers in correlation with elements
of Romanian national culture, Pops approach is determined by the basic argument that
films of the young directors working after 2000, although bearing some specific traits to
national identity, as a whole, cannot be considered as a national phenomenon. Pop
declares that the Romanian New Wave must be considered as the latest addition to all
the previously announced New Waves in the history of European filmmaking (Pop
2014, 7). He states that both historically and politically, Romania did not have uprisings
or social movements comparable with the ones in Hungary, Czechoslovakia or Poland,
where the artistic movement was part of a wider cultural, political and ideological resistance against a totalitarian regime (2). This accounts for a late development of New
Wave practices, due to similar circumstances, only after the radical political changes in
Romania. Not only does Pop argue against the existence of a proper New Wave in parallel
with the others, but also categorically denies any organic link to the old cinema of
communist times. Speaking of these young directors as an orphaned generation, he
claims that the fact that the new film-makers did not have a steering father-figure (26), a
masters voice, can be seen as perhaps the essential feature of this New Wave, manifest
also in the way their films bring into focus and ridicule the absurd institutional authorities
and father figures both from the present and the past, addressing a symbolic void of
authority through their narratives. Accordingly, Pop presents this new Romanian cinema
as being the belated parallel of various other European New Waves in modernist cinema,
like the Italian Neorealism, British New Cinema, the French Nouvelle Vague, or the New
Waves in Central and Eastern Europe, identifying in it the specific, local version of a
European cinematic tradition (4).

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Book Review

The first chapters of the book lay out the basic theses of Pops vision, and deal with
the formal characteristics of the films. Introduced by a somewhat obscure theoretical
argument that also throws in catchphrases from Deleuze and Alexandre Astruc, defining
grammar in cinema as a formal recognition of combinations, of rules that make a single
significance for a commonly accepted meaning, thus making it a paradigmatic structure,
consisting in forms and techniques as they are manifested in their content (35, 36), Pop
posits that there is a visual grammar, or image syntax that can be seen as common
denominator in these films. Using the term quite liberally, he then assesses the syntactic
value of the preference for long shots, the elements of theatrical mise en sc
ene, as well
as the iconographical references to the triptychs of the Eastern Orthodox tradition of icon
painting (e.g. in Corneliu Porumboius cinema), or the type of characters who appear in
the film. In terms of the aesthetics of the New Wave cinema, Pop offers an extended analysis of Christi Puius style of cinema-making in Chapter 2, implicitly arguing for the privileged position of Puius art within the film-makers of his generation, declaring that, in
fact, the New Wave begins and ends with his films (Pop 2014, 4). Puius style, and
through his films, that of the New Wave, is described as a way of reconfiguring the tradition of realism and minimalism in cinema. Both of these aspects are explored in depth by
Pop. Contrary to previous analyses, he suggests that merely putting a Bazinism label
on the contemporary Romanian cinema would be simplistic and reductionist (52).
Accordingly, he examines the realist aspects of these films through multiple viewpoints,
taking into consideration almost every possible interpretation of the term, i.e. within a
far-reaching tradition that includes neorealist techniques, kitchen sink realism, literary
naturalism, as well as practices of cin
ema v
erit
e. In contrast to Nasta, who uses it as a key
term defining the New Wave style, minimalism in Pops approach is introduced within
the framework of realist practices and is further broken down into its various forms suggested by Andras Balint Kovacs in his seminal book on the style of modern cinema,
Screening Modernism, European Art Cinema, 1950 1980 (2007).
The larger part of the book, comprising six chapters that follow, use what the author
calls, a multi-method approach to examine common themes and ideas, storytelling devices shared by New Wave films (e.g. the traumatic experiences of the impossible departure or return to the home country, the anti-heroic figures). Chapter 4 delves into the
psyche of the Romanian New Wave, and examines the troubled relationships between
fathers and sons, implicitly between Romanias past and present, interpreting many of
these stories as staging the symbolic killing of the father, and purging the inheritance of
a traumatic past (120). In accordance with the already established kaleidoscopic structure,
we can read further chapters on visual stereotypes (e.g. recurring scenes of eating), on the
iconoclastic use of symbolic images, on the various mechanisms of dark humour, on the
novel ways of representing women as opposed to the old cinema dominated by phallocentrism and so on.
The book concludes with thoughts about the reception of New Wave cinema in Romania, analysing the paradoxical situation that while these films enjoyed an unprecedented
popularity abroad, home audiences found the passage from miserable communism to
the miserabilist cinema less attractive. Consequently, Pop sees in some of the latest cinematic productions a return to the old school of film-making, thus an end to the New
Wave whose last film is identified in Christi Puius Aurora (2010). Nevertheless, the
book closes on a more optimistic note, praising Catalin Netzers Child Pose (2013) as a
film that may convince sceptics that the creative energies of the New Wave are not
depleted yet.

Studies in Eastern European Cinema

Taken as a whole, if Nastas writing is infused with an endearing spirit of cinephilia


and a generous acknowledgement of colleagues and sources in her research, Pops style
is perceptibly critical and even confrontational, he often presents his arguments as
counter-arguments, something that is much closer to the battles waged by the New Wave
film-makers themselves in the arena of contemporary Romanian cinema. In their own
way, both monographs serve as comprehensive introductions into the study of contemporary Romanian cinema on an international scale. The two books, both packed with
descriptions, analyses and knowledgeable details, complete each other in mapping
an extremely intriguing and complex cinematic landscape while this terrain is still
in motion.
Funding

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The review was written within the framework of a research supported by a grant from the Romanian
Ministry of National Education, CNCS
UEFISCDI [project number PN-II-ID-PCE-2012-40573].



Agnes
Petho
Sapientia Hungarian University of Transylvania, Romania
Email: petho.agnes@gmail.com


2015 Agnes
Petho