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Romania à Clef

Romania’s burgeoning film movement offers gripping insights into the nation’s oppressive history. TFF artistic director Peter Scarlet reflects on the country’s new cinematic crop, to be highlighted this weekend during the Romanian Film Festival

In June 2006, I spent a fascinating week at the Transilvania Film Festival, which has been held since 2002 in the northern Romanian town of Cluj. Forget the stereotypical vampire imagery conjured up by the name Transylvania (although Udo Kier, who played the title role in Andy Warhol’s Dracula, was indeed on hand). Instead, the festival was filled with unexpected pleasures, aptly symbolized by its closing night celebration in the baroque local opera house, which reached its climax when honoree Vanessa Redgrave led the audience in a joyous foot-stomping dance through the aisles to the music of Fanfare Ciocarlia, one of the world’s top gypsy brass ensembles.

The night’s energy was a manifestation of Romania’s emergence as one of the world’s most fertile hothouses for new filmmaking talent: Since Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Major Lazarescu won the “Un Certain Regard” award at Cannes in 2005, Romanian films have gone on to win four more prizes at the prestigious film fetival. Last December, Mihai Chirilov, Transilvania’s energetic young director, came to New York to curate a series of new Romanian films at Tribeca Cinemas, including 12:08 East of Bucharest, which had won the Caméra d’or at Cannes the previous spring, and The Way I Spent the End of the World, whose star, Dorothea Petre, had won Best Actress. The Tribeca Film Festival was happy to co-present the event with the Transilvania Film Festival, although I cautioned Mihai and his colleagues that while we could try to make such screenings a regular event in New York, they shouldn’t count on winning two top awards at Cannes as a regular occurrence.

Well, now I have to eat my words. Mihai is back at Tribeca Cinemas next weekend for a second edition of the Romanian Film Festival in New York, and, among other treasures, he’s bringing another Cannes winner: Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which last May became the first Romanian film ever to win the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or. The powerful film, which premiered in the US last fall at the New York Film Festival is a gripping, extremely well-acted portrait account of a woman’s harrowing negotiations to obtain an illegal abortion in the waning days of Communist rule. But there are two additional films on the program I’d like to draw your attention to. One is a classic, The Reenactment, directed by veteran filmmaker Lucien Pintilie, who is probably Romania’s best-known director of the late 20th century. It tells the story of two students who commit an act of vandalism after drinking too much. Directed by a judge to reenact their crime in front of a film crew, they wind up as the principal actors in a state-funded documentary about the dangers of alcoholism. But as filming goes on, their feelings about their lives and the grim society around them bubble to the surface. Made in 1968, the film was banned after a few screenings and remained in the freezer until after the fall of Romanian leader Nicolae Ceauşescu in 1989. I feel a small proud glow that it’s resurfacing, since I presented its North American premiere in 1990 at the San Francisco Film Festival.

California Dreamin’ (Endless), the other noteworthy film in the series, hasn’t yet been acquired for commercial distribution in the US—and given the current market, it may never be, so this could be your only chance to see it. The second film from brilliant young talent Cristian Nemescu, its unexpected title derives from both the famous song and the fact that its director was killed in a traffic accident at age 27, before he could complete a final edit. (A more accurate translation of the parenthetical title would be ”unfinished.”) The film’s an absolute knockout, well deserving of the ”Certain Regard” prize it received at Cannes. It’s based on an actual event in the late ‘90s, when a stationmaster in a Bucharest suburb claimed a train carrying US Marines conveying NATO equipment to the war zone in Kosovo was missing customs documents, and held it up for several days. Like all great movies, the film’s about something else too—I can’t think of another film that has taken such an unblinking look at the confrontation between American self-righteousness and the corruption of the post-Communist Eastern Bloc. The Marines’ naïvete ultimately leads to a bloodbath which they escape without even being aware of it. Armand Assante—who knew he had a performance this powerful in him?—is extraordinary, as is the Romanian actor Razvan Vasilescu as the village strongman who has his own reasons for wanting to stop the Yanks in their tracks. Both actors will be on hand for the screenings. Go see this remarkable film—it’s the fastest 155 minutes you’ll spend in the movies all year.

Peter Scarlet
Artistic Director
Tribeca Film Festival

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