Though its affiliates may be reluctant to acknowledge its existence, the sudden appearance of a Romanian New Wave took the film world by surprise around Cannes, 2005 and has not relented—drawing critical attention to a complex well of creativity within a country often cinematically overshadowed in the 20th Century by its Czech and Polish neighbors. Joined by directors Cristi Puiu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Aurora), Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), Cristian Nemescu (California Dreamin’) and Catalin Mitulescu (Way I spent the End of the World), Romanian filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu (b. 1975) shares his compatriots’ reflective opposition to the oppressive twenty-four-year communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu—both its “Golden Age” fantasies and lies, as well as the cautious filmmaking during that period which avoided censorship through still more mythmaking and metaphor. Often slyly humorous and meditatively hypnotic, the films shy away from overt or forced melodrama and action—leaning more toward a mode of observational documentary in which dramas of details, shadows and subtleties develop in masterful long takes. Porumboiu’s cinema, in particular, is quietly emotional, offering patient descriptions of the lives of non-heroic, nondescript, lonely people whose private dramas are non-didactically linked to Romania’s public ones.
A teenager when the Ceausescu dictatorship quickly and bloodily fell, Porumboiu studied management at the Academy of Economic Studies in Bucharest, yet was quickly taken in by the local repertory theater’s offerings—Charlie Chaplin, Michelangelo Antonioni, the French New Wave, Polish cinema—and began studying film at the I.L. Carnegie University in Bucharest. After receiving international acclaim at festivals for his short films, he won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes for his debut feature, 12:08 East of Bucharest—a comic rejoinder to the whole concept of a Romanian revolution. The prizes and praises intensified for his follow-up, Police, Adjective—an even more understated, incisive analysis of the individual’s impossible movement within a defective system. His two latest—When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metbolism and The Second Game—reduce his explorations of meaning down to the elements of filmmaking itself and the mediated image’s relationship to reality.
Porumboiu’s films keep a certain distance, not too close nor too faraway—just enough for critical surveillance of characters moving around one another in environments not always tailored to their needs, in a dislocated time and space. Never fully reoriented after the regime and its fall, Porumboiu’s characters are in transition, their lives irresolute and alienated seeking strength and security through—often outdated or meaningless—grammar, laws and beliefs. With a modest wink, Porumboiu surreptitiously strings together the absurdities, frustration, wasted time, fruitless struggles and “non-events” of daily existence into his own unexpectedly revelatory cinematic language.
We are excited to glean further insights when we welcome Corneliu Porumboiu to the Harvard Film Archive for two evenings of film and conversation.
Directed by Corneliu Porumboiu
Romania 2014, digital video, color, 97 min. Romanian with English subtitles
Porumboiu’s talent for shaving extraneous cinematic elements away to expose a surprisingly rich understatement is taken to a mildly ironic extreme in his first documentary. With simply a snowy soccer match from 1988 playing on the screen, he discusses the game with his father who was the referee—with no cuts, in real time. The winter before Ceausescu fell, Steaua, the army’s team plays Dinamo, the police’s. While wistfully admiring Romania’s top players, his father’s commentary alternates between criticism and nostalgia—how things have changed in football and in Romania. Amid technical remarks, he blithely describes the frightening pressures applied to referees who were often also international informers. He also notes what is not being seen: “In the Communist era, you couldn’t show bad sportsmanship.” Subtle layers of silenced poetry and painterly beauty develop over the course of the snowy game replayed now in the analog haze of VHS.
Directed by Corneliu Porumboiu. With Constantin Dita, Ion Sabdaru, Pusa Darie
Romania 2002, digital video, color, 9 min. Romanian with English subtitles
The first of a series of Porumboiu’s short films populated by characters demoralized and thwarted by a toxic—if comic and bittersweet—atmosphere; in this case a ubiquitous alcoholism. Choosing life on an oil rig over life in his village, the young student finds that even if he has never had a drink, he is still under the influence.
Directed by Corneliu Porumboiu. With Constantin Dita, Ion Sapadaru
Romania 2003, 35mm, color, 19 min Romanian with English subtitles
Constantin Dita’s quiet consternation once again inhabits Porumbiou’s second short and is once more joined by the more carefree antics of Ion Sapadaru. It is not just old world meeting new as the young teacher’s vain attempts to merely purchase a computer lead to unnecessary delays, political favors, bureaucratic conundrums, criminal activity and unexpected camaraderie. As as in his feature films to come, Porumboiu fills the screen with so much life and so many stories—while his characters still wait for something to happen.
Directed by Corneliu Porumboiu. With Dragos Bucur, Luiza Cocora, Constatin Dita
Romania 2003, 35mm, color, 39 min. Romanian with English subtitles
The darkest and most complex of Porumboiu’s short films, Liviu’s Dream unfolds into more of a stifled nightmare which Liviu has come to bitterly tolerate. Born into a corrupt, disenchanted world, he makes a living by stealing and finds love by cheating on his best friend. Wanting to do things differently from his parents, Liviu blindly navigates through densely populated underworlds of waking and sleeping to finally reach that new world, the unknown.
Directed by Corneliu Porumboiu. With Mircea Andreescu, Teodor Corban, Ion Sapadaru
Romania 2006, 35mm, color, 89 min. Romanian with English subtitles
Porumbiou’s fastidious camera hangs back for the first part of the film, as if it is an interloper peeking into the middle of specific domestic scenes within the Romanian town of Vaslui—the director’s hometown. The three main characters amble in and out of small apartments, debt, hatred, ridicule and fidelity until they all finally coalesce on a low-budget TV talk show around the theme of whether or not there really was a revolution in Vaslui in 1989. Jderescu, the host, persists on earnestly pursuing this question with his two “experts”—a troublesome alcoholic and an erstwhile Santa Claus—while managing irate callers and a young cameraman who can barely keep everyone in frame. Over the course of the program, mismatched memories of the revolution reveal more cowardice, fear, resentment and degeneracy—all of the personal debris left out of mythic history. By the end, Jderescu finally receives from his amateur cinematographer, “a close-up, for once.”
Directed by Corneliu Porumboiu. With Diana Avramut, Bogdan Dumitrache, Mihaela Sirbu
Romania/France 2013, 35mm, color, 89 min. Romanian with English subtitles
In the self-reflexive tradition of Beware a Holy Whore, Day for Night or The Stunt Man, Porumboiu’s third feature foregrounds the games people play with each other on and around the set during the making of a movie. Here, the emphasis is on the relationship between actor and director as the private rehearsals between filmmaker Paul and actress Alina slide toward what seems to be seduction, although the motives and stakes for each person remain elusive. When Evening Falls on Bucharest is meant to be as oblique as a real person, and as opaque as its characters, with Porumboiu masterfully wielding the frame, the long take and the use of offscreen space to set up a game between what we know and what we think we know, what we see and what we realize we want to see.
This screening is also part of Process: In Medias Res, The Inaugural Graduate Student Conference of Harvard's PhD program in Film and Visual Studies. Running April 10 – 12th, Carpenter Center Room B-04. Open to the public, see website for more information.
Directed by Corneliu Porumboiu. With Dragos Bucur, Vlad Ivanov,
Romania 2009, 35mm, color, 113 min. Romanian with English subtitles
The drama and suspense within Porumboiu’s tense policier relies not on chase scenes, interrogations, murder victims or perpetrators finally brought to justice, but instead derives from the very elements which structure civilization: time, space, ethics, language. Cristi, the detective in Porumboiu’s existential crosshairs spends his days surveilling a group of teenagers smoking pot after school. He watches, he waits, he follows, he writes dry, meticulous reports. Upon these minor incriminations of youth hinge enormous, hardly verbalized crises which are discovered through the same close observation carried out by Cristi day after day. Moving through isolating spaces, using “objective” language, following procedures, Cristi bides his time trying to discover a circumstantial loophole through which his conscience can find solace. The festering disconnections between meaning, actions and words leads to a riveting climax as outlandish as it is perfunctory—with the fate of all resting upon a dictionary.