While much of the festival’s programming in recent years has been impressive, some of its much-touted microthemes were underwhelming. “New Japanese Cinema” in 2009? Sure, Departures won an Oscar, but you were basically looking at a lot of: 1) flowers; and 2) long pans. “Politics and Film” in ’08? We get it: Afghanistan fatigue and the Obama bump.
But we can get behind at least one of 2010’s prestige groupings: “The New Romanian Wave.” Noroc!4
It’s astonishing that Filmfest hasn’t already mined the cachet of the Noul Val Românesc. The movement has all the charm of a culture at a crossroads: Romanian is the outlier of the Romance languages; its country is—and isn’t!—a portion of the Balkan Peninsula; its cinema is characterized by dark humor, nerdy wordplay, formal austerity, a frequent focus on the country’s communist years—and abortion. The Romanian New Wave began tickling festival-hopping cinéastes during the middle of the last decade, with confident, minimalistic slices-of-life from directors like Cristi Puiu, Corneliu Porumboiu, Cristian Nemescu, and especially Cristian Mungiu, whose 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, in which a young woman procures an abortion during a time when the practice was banned, won the august Palme D’Or at Cannes in 2007, not to mention the admiration of critics and art-house audiences the world over.
It was a large triumph for a people who, at least in this country, can often feel overlooked. Remember Györgi Ligeti? Of course you don’t. He wrote all those Kubrick themes. How about John DeLorean? He invented the car with the doors that open the wrong way for Michael J. Fox. And you’d think it would be hard to forget Washington Wizards goodwill ambassador Gheorghe Mureşan—the 7-foot-7 Bullets star who’s shared screen time with Eminem (in the “My Name Is” video) and Billy Crystal (in My Giant). But not so.
At least in the realm of film, there’s a reason why the Romanian auteurs have largely gone unnoticed until recently. For starters, says Corina Suteu, the director of the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York, directors produced by the prestigious University of Film in Bucharest during the Communist era were limited by the society’s closed nature—they had no access to other countries’ ideas, and international filmgoers had no access to Romania.
But undoubtedly, Suteu says, Romania has seen a burst in cinematic creativity since 2004 and 2005, which saw the debuts of Trafic by Cătălin Mitulescu and The Death of Mr. Lzărescu by Cristi Puiu. Nu înteleg5 , you say: Why didn’t this renaissance happen immediately after the fall of the Iron Curtain? “It took some time for this generation, who are now in their 30s, to really grow, mature, and distance themselves from a way of making art that was completely contaminated by ideology, and turn the language into an aesthetic that makes sense in the modern world.” So, she says, while many of the Romanian New Wave films are set during the Communist years under Nicolae Ceausescu, they’re elucidated in a universal language.
So let it be known: This is Romania’s moment of redemption. And it’s a pleasure and an honor to watch these brave Romanians on the front lines of this exciting movement. Remember: O singură limbă nu ajunge niciodată!6
In fact, we’ll go one further: If the Cinefest’s Romanian spotlight sparks a new era of cultural exchange in Washington, then we’ll be that much richer for it. Sure, a Brickskeller waiter says the Romanian brews on its online menu haven’t been stocked for a while. And the D.C. band Romania—whose music references the English and American New Wave music of the early ’80s—hasn’t released an album since Ion Iliescu led the band’s namesake into post–Iron Curtain stability. James Noble, the group’s singer, is as ready for a Romanian resurgence as anyone. Although Romania had no Romanian members—“we’re 100 percent American,” Noble says—for a period in the mid-’90s the band attracted the attention of a number of Romanian musicians eager to collaborate. “When the Soviet Union fell apart, they started doing rock music—and it was really terrible,” Noble says. “Their stuff was sort of backwards and quaint.” But to hear Noble tell it, the Romanian arts have now come of age—he’s a big fan of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. “I really like the austerity, the simple camera movements,” he says. “That wasn’t born out of necessity. They’re really in this artistic groove.”
“I think New Wave is the right word for it,” Noble says. “What we were doing was practically old wave.”
A new Bucharest on the Potomac, then? We’re ready, and we’re hungry. Poftă bună! That means bon appétit.
2Do you speak Romanian?
3My hovercraft is full of eels!
5I don't understand.
6One language is never enough!
Filmfest blurbs were written by Andrew Beaujon, Jonathan L. Fischer, Benjamin R. Freed, Amanda Hess, Maura Judkis, Steve Kolowich, Ryan Little, Tessa Moran, Tricia Olszewski, Ted Scheinman, Matt Siblo, T.D. Smith, and Aaron Wiener. New Romanian Wave films are indicated by the Gheorge Mureşan icon.
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