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  • Ilinca Stroe

Romania’s Treasures: the Film Makers

Popcorn and movies – such a match made in heaven. Don’t ask when Romanians took to popcorn just to find out when cinema appeared in this country, though - in case that precise question was on the tip of your tongue (not). It doesn’t work like that, you see. Cinematography happened in Romania long before (and, for almost a century, most likely without) popcorn. Let’s see how it fared when it emerged at the turn of the century, through communist times, up to the brave and famous Romanian New Wave.

The first cinema screening proper took place on 27 May 1896 in Bucharest, five months after Lumière brothers’ Paris debut screening, and it consisted of several films, one with the stupendous title of L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat. It was enough for a local journalist from the French-language daily L’Indépendance Roumaine to proclaim the cinema “the miracle of the century” [1]. By “films”, it should be pointed out, they meant what is termed “actualities”, i.e. about one-minute, one-shot daily-life scenes.

A few more years later, belle époque Bucharest was sporting cinemas with fancy names such as Edison, Volta, Bleriot, Bristol, Apollo, and Venus. And while actualities were still on, longer newsreels, fiction films peopled by characters, and shots of real people were gaining ground: imagine, for example, going to cinema Volta to watch a five-minute shot showing a poet (Victor Eftimiu) and an actress (Aristizza Romanescu) taking “a stately walk on the seashore” [2]. (With no popcorn, right?) Or buying tickets to films named Amor Fatal/Fatal Love Affair (1911), Amorul unei prințese/The Love Affair of a Princess (1913), Urgia cerească/The Sky-borne Disaster (1913), or Dragoste la mănăstire/Love in a Monastery (1914, script by the same Victor Eftimiu above).

Despite such clumsy beginnings, however, cinema took hold in the public consciousness as an important (mass) education and civic tool: it was expected, “having great power at its disposal,” to bring about “the greatest good of peoples,” peace. Also, it was supposed to fulfill a mnemonic and patriotic function, re-creating the past, with its battles, sacrifices and hardship, so that future generations saw the “live tableau of [past] Romanian bravery” and learned the lessons history had for them. [3]

It was precisely cinema’s mass education potential that the pre- and post-WWII regimes (i.e. the late 1930s far-right, and late 1940s communist governments, respectively) picked up on: with a little bit of a twist on the “educational” factor, those regimes used cinema as a mass propaganda tool. The screening of fiction films subsided, leaving more room for newsreels, travelogues and downright wartime propaganda; and after 1948 even fiction films, along with much else in the country, became the carrier of “socialist values”, oftentimes with stereotypical depictions of greedy overweight bourgeois characters being defeated by dignified, tenacious and clever workers and peasants, in an environment of glorious nationalisation of all (bourgeois) private property.

Even so, cinema saw some important achievements in this period: a National Cinematographic Office was set up in the ‘30s that produced, inter alia, director Paul Călinescu’s documentary Țara Moților/Moților Land, which won a prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1938. In the 1950s, the communist regime built a state-of-the-art Centre of Cinematographic Production (the Buftea Studio), mainly for the production of fiction films, and the “Alexandru Sahia” Studio, mainly for documentaries and newsreels. And since animation director Ion Popescu-Gopo won Palme d’Or for Best Short Film at Cannes in 1957, with his “omuleţ” (little man) featuring in “a charming, wordless animated short [Scurtă istorie/A Short History] in which human evolution and industrial development culminate in the planting of large daisylike flowers on distant planets” [4], the regime also decided to set up the Animafilm studio in 1964, mainly for the production of filmstrips and TV commercials.

Film makers were now technically well equipped to either align with the propaganda and the requirements of (self-)censorship, or try to eschew it by rendering things metaphorically and sticking to “acceptable” subject matters, under those political circumstances. TV production flourished in the ‘70s, with humorous sketches becoming extremely popular (learners of Romanian should ask their elderly local friends about Toma Caragiu’s “elefantul, vrăbiuţa, plus bursucul şi maimuţa”), while romances like Declaraţie de dragoste/Love declaration (1985) şi Liceenii/Highschoolers (1987) broke and unbroke many a heart…

It was the 2000s, however, which made a clear-cut difference in Romanian cinematography, because massive international recognition came its way: director Cătălin Mitulescu’s Trafic/Traffic won the Short Film Palme d’Or

Award at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, Cristi Puiu’s Moartea Domnului Lăzărescu/The Death of Mr. Lazarescu won the Cannes 2005 “Un Certain Regard” Prize, Corneliu Porumboiu’s A fost sau N-a Fost/12:08 East of Bucharest won the Camera d’Or Award for Best First Feature at Cannes 2006, Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Luni, 3 Săptămâni şi 2 Zile/4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days got the Cannes 2007 Palme d’Or, and Marian Crişan’s Megatron - the Short Film Palme d’Or at Cannes 2008.

Overall, Romania gained, according to Variety magazine, “new prominence in the film world” [5]. Film critics started (and ever since haven’t stopped) talking about what they’ve termed the “Romanian New Wave”, so we might just as well, with a humorous proviso regarding the categorisation, have a look now at some “Senior Wave”, as well as “New Wave” film directors.

As part of the “senior Wave”, theatre and film director Liviu Ciulei studied architecture and theatre at the Royal Conservatory of Music and Theatre in Bucharest, debuted as a theatre director in 1957, was the artistic director of Teatrul Bulandra for about ten years, as well as the artistic director of Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota (1980-1985), and taught film directing at Columbia University in New York (1986-1990). In 1965, Ciulei received the Best Director Award at Cannes for his film Pădurea Spânzuraţilor/The Forest of the Hanged, a story based on the case of novelist Liviu Rebreanu’s brother, a character torn between his military duty as an Austro-Hungarian Army officer and his natural affinity for the Romanians he was fighting against, eventually court-martialled and executed for desertion.

Actor, politician and film director Sergiu Nicolaescu was, acting-wise, Romania’s Alain Delon blended with a bit of detective Columbo/Peter Falk, at least in Nicolaescu’s Cu mâinile curate/Hands Clean (available here with English subtitles), a crime thriller where he played police commissioner Miclovan. As a film director, Nicolaescu produced hugely popular epic films based on major personalities in the history of the country: Mihai Viteazul, about Wallachian ruler Michael the Brave, the first to ever (briefly) unify, around 1600, the three principalities which make up today’s Romania; Dacii/Les Guerriers, about the Dacian king Decebalus, who sacrifices his own son Cotyso to the god Zamolxis, in a desperate attempt to infuse success to his resistance military campaign against overwhelming legions of the Roman Empire army; or Mircea, about the Wallachian prince Mircea the Elder, grandfather to Vlad the Impaler (“Dracula”), who, at his own level, holds a bit of Christian Europe’s fate in his minor ruler’s hands while he’s considering whether to form an ethically correct alliance with the Catholic Poles or a militarily profitable one with the Muslim Ottomans.

Screenwriter and director Lucian Pintilie graduated from the Theatre and Cinematography Institute in Bucharest, was resident director at the Bulandra Theatre, and won two important awards in the ‘60s for his film Duminică la Ora Şase/ Sunday at Six o’Clock: the Prize of the Jury at the International film festival in Mar del Plata (Argentina, 1966), and the Grand Prize of the Jury at the International Encounter of Films for Youth at Cannes (France, 1967). In 1968 he made Reconstituirea/The Reenactment, a tragicomedy “structured as a film within a film and largely shot as a mockumentary” [6], in which the reenactment of a brawl between two youngsters ends up in crime because of the militiamen’s mishandling of it. As a result of, according to Ceauşescu’s censors, the “defamatory” depiction of the State Miliţia, Pintilie was forced to leave the country. He worked for Théâtre National de Chaillot and Théâtre de la Ville in Paris, as well as for Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and Arena Stage in Washington. After the Revolution, he returned to Romania and made around seven more movies, of which beautifully set O vară de neuitat/An Unforgettable Summer, with Kristin Scott Thomas, can be watched here.

Director Elisabeta Bostan, on the other hand, was probably the only “Senior Wave” Romanian director who took up atypical genres for Romanian cinematography, such as fantasy and musicals. In Tinereţe fără bătrâneţe/Kingdom in the Clouds (1968), featuring an Empress of Youth, a Fairy and a Lord of Time, a young man sets out to reach the realm of eternal beauty, but he must first fulfil three wishes and overcome related obstacles such as defeating an evil witch or crossing the Kingdom of Lies, assisted by his flying horse. And in Veronica (1972), which was “the Romanian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 46th Academy Awards [7], and Veronica se întoarce/Veronica returns (1973), the main character is “a good beautiful girl” who inspired the look and outfit of many little girls in ‘70s and ‘80s Romania. Finally, Bostan’s musical of 1976, a Romanian-Soviet-French co-production, Ma-ma/Rock’n’Roll Wolf, featured dancers from the Moscow Circus and Bolshoi Ballet and won the Silver Cup at the Children's Film Festival in Venice (1977).

Screenwriter and director Dan Piţa has made action movies, romantic dramas and even westerns. In Pepe and Fifi (1994), Romania’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 67th Academy Awards, two brothers are dreaming of getting rich and famous around the time of the Revolution, but they can’t “escape the tentacles of the mob” [8]. Pruncul, petrolul şi ardelenii/The Oil, the Baby and the Transylvanians deals with the fate of early Romanian and Hungarian émigrés to the American “Wild West” in the 1880s. In Rochia albă de dantelă/The White Lace Dress (1989), a terminally ill woman finds herself romantically torn between her children’s natural father and her physician, and Pas în doi/Paso Doble, the story of a rebel vacillating between an angel-woman and a devilish one, won an Honourable Mention at the 36th Berlin International Film Festival.

Producer and director Nicolae Mărgineanu graduated from the Institute of Theatre and Cinematographic Art in Bucharest (1969) and directed Romania’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 56th Academy Award: a drama titled Întoarcerea din iad/Return from Hell (1983), in which a rich peasant gets caught

up in a love triangle, only to find himself, after the break-out of WWI, fighting side by side with his amorous rival, forced to entrust his life to him. More interesting, however, seem Mărgineanu’s attempts at capturing the unique experience of political prisoners during communism (a theme which he presumably took up because his own father had been a prisoner for 16 years), in Binecuvântată fii, închisoare/Bless You, Prison (2002) and Poarta Albă (2014). The former, a drama based on ex-prisoner Nicoleta Valeria Bruteanu/Nicole Valéry Grossu’s autobiographic novel, depicts the horrors of the interrogation, torture and isolation, but also the spiritual experience of imprisonment, which sets the heroine on an “in-depth soul-searching” course towards discovering “the power of faith”, and “steels her to put up resistance.” [9]

Somewhat in-between the two waves, actor and director Nae Caranfil graduated from the same Institute of Theatre and Cinematographic Art in 1984 and specialises in comedies. He made his debut as a director in 1993, with E pericoloso sporgersi, a film about career, politics and love in the intersecting lives of three characters, which won awards at the Film Festivals in Bratislava and Baule. Asfalt tango/Asphalt tango (1996) followed, starring Charlotte Rampling, with a desperate husband chasing the bus in which his rebellious wife together with 11 other beautiful women are heading for Paris, on their way to becoming professional dancers. But Caranfil’s masterpiece is bitter comedy Filantropica/Philanthropy, Romania’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2003 Academy Awards. It unveils a Bucharest underworld of beggary and petty crime

ruled by a magnificently crooked “lord of the beggars” whose cynicism is likely to put you off charity for a while… For a taste of it, here’s its opening intertitle: “Once upon a time, there was a city whose inhabitants were divided into princes and beggars. Between these two worlds there were only stray dogs. They made up the middle class.” (Those who lived for a while in Bucharest in the early ‘90s might tend to agree…)

With Caranfil’s Filantropica we’re already nearing New Wave shores: “intense realism, with an underlining vein of black humour” [10]; “a penchant for long takes and fixed camera positions; a taste for plain lighting and everyday décor; a preference for stories set amid ordinary life” [11]; a minimalist style; above all, an indomitable gusto for free, honest approaches to communist-era taboos, issues, consequences, traumas and mentalities. These are the main features of the Romanian New Wave, plentifully illustrated in the much acclaimed work of the directors we’ll meet briefly in the following paragraphs.

Cristian Mungiu is probably the most prominent representative of the New Wave. His masterpiece, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) is the story of two young women “subjected to the sadism of an unscrupulous abortionist and, almost worse, the indifference, hostility and incomprehension of just about everyone else,” providing to non-Romanians “an absolutely convincing anatomy of what ordinary people endured under communism.” [12] Mungiu also directed Bacalaureat/Graduation (2016), which won the Best Director Award at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, and După dealuri/Beyond the Hills (2012), which was nominated for the Best Foreign Film at the 2012 Academy Awards, won the Best Screenplay Award at Cannes 2012 and the Golden Ástor at the 2012 Mar del Plata International Film Festival.

Corneliu Porumboiu has a taste for pushing his cinema viewers to hysterical laughter in side-splitting scenes, such as in A fost sau n-a fost?/12:08 East of Bucharest (2006 Cannes Festival Camera d’Or), the trailer of which (with English subtitles) can be watched here. In that film, on the occasion of the 16th anniversary of the revolution which ended Ceauşescu’s regime, the “pompous host of a provincial television talk show” debates with a panel “consisting of an alcoholic schoolteacher and a semiretired Santa Claus” whether or not “in their sad little city in Moldavia (Porumboiu’s hometown of Vaslui), the revolution really happened.” [13] Porumboiu also directed Police, Adjective/Polițist, Adjectiv, which received the Jury Prize in the “Un Certain Regard” section at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, and Comoara/The Treasure, which won the “Un Certain Talent” award at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival.

Cătălin Mitulescu shows exactly how sweetly dangerous kids whose sisters dictators oppress can be, in Cum mi-am petrecut sfârşitul lumii/The Way I Spent the End of the World (2006): towards the end of Ceauşescu’s reign, little boy Lalalilu, whose sister Eva had accidentally broken a bust of the dictator and is consequently sent to a reformatory institution, decides to take revenge on the tyrant by devising with his schoolmates a plan to kill him. [14] Mitulescu also directed Loverboy, premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and Trafic/Traffic, which won the Short Film Palme d'Or at the 2004 Cannes.

Radu Jude produced a striking tableau of 19th-century Wallachia, “where for almost 500 years ending in 1856,

the Roma (or Gypsies, as they have been more commonly known) were viewed as property to be bought and sold” [15]: in black-and-white drama Aferim! (2015), “a constable and his teenage son track a runaway slave, meeting a cast of characters along the way who underscore the xenophobia of the ruling class, peasantry and Orthodox Christian priests of the day.” [16] The runaway slave will eventually be returned to his master only to face horrifically inhuman punishment. The film won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2015, and the next year Jude’s new movie, Inimi cicatrizate/Scarred Hearts, received the Best Director Award at the Mar del Plata International Film Festival.

More of the Romanian New Wave? Well, late Cătălin Nemescu’s California Dreamin’ won the Un Certain Regard at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. Călin Peter Netzer’s Poziţia copilului/Child’s Pose got the Golden Bear at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival. Adrian Sitaru’s Pescuit sportiv/Hooked (2008) received a New Voices/New Vision award at the 20th Palm Springs International Film Festival, and his Din dragoste cu cele mai bune intenţii/Best Intentions (2011) - the Leopard for Best Direction at the 64th Locarno International Film Festival. Florin Şerban’s Eu când vreau să fluier, fluier/If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle (2010) won the Jury Grand Prix Silver Bear at the 60th Berlin International Film Festival. Marian Crişan’s Morgen (2010) was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the 63rd Locarno International Film Festival. And the wave is still rolling…

For a final touch to this reel-off of impressive cinematographic feats, let’s now zoom in on a fine, fine trio.

Jean Georgescu – film director, actor and screenwriter

Born: 25 February 1904 in Bucharest

Died: 8 April 1994, Bucharest

Career highlights

* 1920s: graduated from the Royal Conservatory for Dramatic Arts in Bucharest

* 1923: made his debut as an actor in Ţigăncuşa de la iatac/The Little Gypsy Girl from the Upper Quarters

* 1924: produced his first film, Milionar pentru o zi/Millionaire for a Day in a Bucharest cabaret whose owner wanted to advertise the building

* 1928: wrote the script for Maiorul Mura/Major Mura, financed by collecting money from friends

* 1929: left for Paris

* 1933: directed La miniature and Ça colle, starring French comedian Fernandel * 1939: returned to Romania * 1941-42: made his masterpiece, O noapte furtunoasă/A Stormy Night, based on Ion Luca Caragiale’s eponymous comedy, under wartime conditions (i.e. no exterior shooting and no panoramic or travelling shots were possible)

* 1944-45: directed Visul unei nopți de iarnă/A Winter Night's Dream, commissioned by a Romanian-Italian company, Cineromit

* 1951: co-directed În sat la noi/In our Village, a film about two opposing groups at the time of collectivisation, in which heated debate about the latter eventually leads to murder

* 1952: directed Vizita/The Visit, a popular humorous sketch based on Caragiale’s eponymous short story

* 1955: made Directorul nostru/Our director, a subversive satire of the mores and bureaucracy of the communist regime, which came in for harsh criticism by the authorities of the time; the “comrade director” was found to have “immoral tendencies” and was consequently marginalised [17]

* 1959: was banned from cinematography and forced to live in poverty for a few years, at the mercy of his students

* 1962: directed Lanterna cu Amintiri/The Torchlight of Memories

* 1965: directed Mofturi 1900/Trifles 1900

* 1969: directed Pantoful Cenuşăresei/Cinderella’s Shoe, a situation comedy-cum-musical


* the “Jean Georgescu” Room at the Eforie Romanian Cinematheque

He was...

very logical; really good at raising funds for films (and not just his own) in the interwar period, either from wealthy but shy patrons of the arts, or from friends; also, a perfectionist, according to actor Radu Beligan: “like an alchemist, he knew how to extract gold out of every metre of film shot”, as if “he had a feeling he was working for eternity, and he probably knew better than the rest of us.”

Radu Mihăileanu – French-Romanian film director and screenwriter

Born: 23 April 1958, in Bucharest

Career highlights

* 1980: left Romania and went to live in Israel, then France

* 1980s: graduated from L'Institut des hautes études cinématographiques in Paris

* 1989: co-directed with Marco Ferreri the TV adaptation of Plato’s Symposium

* 1993: directed Trahir/A trăda, a film about “the confines of the Eastern European dictatorship” [18] which won the Grand Prix des Amériques at the Festival des Films du Monde in Montreal * 1998: directed Trenul vieţii/Train de vie (FIPRESCI Prize for Best First Feature at the Venice International Film Festival), the story of how some Romanian Jewish villagers plan to avoid the Holocaust by impersonating Nazi officers and setting up a fake labour camp transportation operation – which can be watched here, with Italian subtitles

* 2005: directed Trăieşte!/Va, vie et deveins (2006 César Award to Best Original Screenplay), a drama about an Ethiopian boy who pretends to be Jewish so that he can be safely transferred to an adoptive family in Israel, as part of Mossad’s “Operation Moses”

* 2009: directed Concertul/Le Concert, a film “with smiles, tears, music and passion” [19]

* 2011: directed La Source des Femmes/Izvorul femeilor (César Awards nominalisation), a comedy about a “love strike” initiated by the women of a Moroccan village to punish their men

He has been...

interested in the interplay of tragedy and humour; a supporter of humour as a survival skill; a firm believer that Romanians are “condemned to humour” [20]; a fan of the social mix of ethnicities in Paris, where he lives, as well as in Romania; a lover of life’s simple values, such as “friendship, solidarity, love and human dignity.” [21]

Adina Pintilie – screenwriter and director

Born: 12 January 1980, in Bucharest

Career highlights

* 2007: directed Nu te supăra, dar.../Don’t Get Upset, but..., which won the Golden Dove for Best Documentary at DOK Leipzig, as well as the Best Documentary Award at the 2008 Vukovar Film Festival

* 2007: co-directed Balastiera # 186, a documentary which won the Runner Up Award at the Miami Film Festival, as well as the Special Mention at the 2009 Trieste Film Festival

* 2008: graduated from the National University of Theatre and Cinematographic Art in Bucharest

* 2018: made her debut feature film Nu mă atinge-mă/Touch Me Not, an experimental drama praised for “its frank presentation of the diversity of intimacy, thought-provoking and possibly therapeutic” [22], which won the Golden Bear at the 68th Berlin International Film Festival

She has been...

interested in discovering what intimacy really is to people; open to asking herself and others any “personal questions”; curious about people in general; happy whenever her work helps her live “this short life” in a beautiful way.

Now, are you ready for some Goran Bregović soundtrack underlying a bit of village action from Mihăileanu’s Train de Vie? ;)

Photo credits

Notes & sources

[1] “Cinema of Romania.” Wikipedia. Accessed 22 June 2018. <>

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Scott, A.O. “New Wave on the Black Sea.” The New York Times Magazine. 20 Jan 2008. Accessed 22 Jun 2018. <>

[5] “Romanian New Wave.” Wikipedia. Accessed 22 June 2016. <>

[6] “The Reenactment.” Wikipedia. Accessed 23 June 2018. <>

[7] “Veronica (1972 film)”. Wikipedia. Accessed 23 June 2018.

[10] Bergan, Ronald. Romania’s New Wave Is Riding High.” The Guardian. 25 Mar 2008. Accessed 22 June 2018. <>

[11] Scott, op.cit.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[15] Gillet, Kit. “Aferim!, an Oscar Contender, Explores the Enslavement of the Roma.” The New York Times. 8 Sept 2015. Accessed 23 June 2018. <>

[16] Ibid.

[22] Young, Deborah. “'Touch Me Not': Film Review | Berlin 2018.” The Hollywood Reporter. 22 Feb 2018. Accessed 24 June 2018. <>

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