The current era of Romanian film has been dubbed “The Romanian New Wave”. While the term is itself an obvious nod to the 1960’s French “Novelle Vague”, when separated from that context and placed in its own context, the term very well fits. Romania has produced a grand wave of rich cinema over the past decade and continuing to the time of this writing. However, I feel it’s important to recognize that, rather than lumping together all contemporary Romanian films venturing West of the Eastern Bloc in this category, as seems to be the desire, there is a notable style unique in the history of film and very particular to this section of them. Like that of the French New Wave, it is a small collection of auteur filmmakers creating films according to aesthetic philosophy, humanism, and love for the craft. As such, all of these films contain some similar stylistic elements, which can only lead one to believe that it is a veritable movement.
A strong stylistic point is that they all focus on faithfulness to the inherent reality of the scenes. There is little to no ominous overarching music, and if there is music it is from the scenes themselves. The acting is highly realistic, leading one to often feel as though one is gazing at people in their lives through some impossible invisible camera, creating a sense beginning at voyeurism and ending in total immersion. There is very little editing, and when there is editing one can tell it is with the most reluctance. The cut is treated with great respect in this way, and the camera is treated with even more – the camera must capture as much as possible in order to fulfill the reality of the scene, be it with fixed shots or fully mobile, fluid shots.
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days in particular has a great display of camera fidelity to the reality of the scene. One scene, from the beginning of the film, comes to mind in its absolute immersion in the world of the film. 1989 Romania – a co-ed dormitory in a university. The shot begins immediately after the main character leaves her dorm. We follow her as she walks through the hall into the bathroom and showers. A girl is showering – Otilia asks her casually if there is hot water, which there is. She walks to the bathroom where some girl tells her that an officer was looking for her as she was absent from something and didn’t leave a note; after some discussion, Otilia finds out what brand of cigarettes she likes. She leaves the bathroom and knocks on a neighbor’s door – apparently a casual smuggler of cigarettes and Tic-Tacs. She tries to get the proper cigarettes but can’t get the ones she wants. He asks her if she wants to go to a movie screening that night, but she cannot (the reason for this we find out, as the film encompasses this single day and night in their lives). She leaves and walks back towards her room, but stops in front of another neighbor to pet her kitten in adoration, which it turns out was found in the boiler room. She is told from down the hall by a guy that the father Gabita, her roommate and a center part of the film, called. She goes back into her room. End shot.
The total of the shot is just over three minutes. The camera behaves dynamically to follow her from place to place – into the bathroom, over her shoulder talking to the smuggler and friend, and then watching patiently from down the hall. If it was cut in the traditional Hollywood fashion, the impact and atmospheric immersion in the world of her life would not have occurred. Rather, the camera allowed for it to take place, as well that of the overall mundanity of the conversation, a topic I will discuss more later.
These films are very personal, intimate films, all taking place between a few hours and a few days, with little regard to typical conservative filmmaking values concerning nudity, editing, expository dialogue, archetypes, and narrative plot structure. Rather, they seem overall to embody a desire to explore the depths of the reality of living, and in doing so they explore compelling emotional stories hidden within the mundane of life, as well as in charged topics of abortion, murder, affairs, life in harsh conditions, the justice of law, and so on. In the minimalism of their display, a great wealth of life is held quietly and with an emotional impact that cannot be compared to any other movement except perhaps that of the Italian Neo-Realists of the late 40’s and early 50’s; yet the Romanians have achieved a realism of perhaps even greater intimacy than those Italian masters.
Intimacy is a key word in this movement. I can think of numerous shots in which this fidelity to the reality of the world which I established is followed. In Police, Adjective, when the main character eats leftover food that his wife prepared, and we are forced to sit and watch him eat while his wife listens to some pop song on repeat on Youtube, then goes and makes fun of the song in the room with his wife, and then goes and brushes his teeth and still jokes about it (all in one 9-10 minute shot). Tuesday, Afternoon’s opening shot is perhaps the loudest example of immediate intimacy – we are in bed with the main character and his lover, in which they are both naked, discussing simple nothings.
The movement’s dedication to the mundane, as I call it, is both derived from and donates to this intimacy and fidelity to the reality of the scene. In the sense I use it (also called the banal by some people whose thoughts opinions I greatly respect), the mundane is anything which does not necessarily advance the plot or relate directly to traditional exposition or traditional comedic effect. Rather, it is the simple realities of life which add to the dimensions of the world the characters live in and to the characters themselves. By skipping the simple aspects of life in traditional Hollywood cinema (a toilet wasn’t heard flushing until Psycho in 1960!) and focusing solely on the sensationalist plot and most extreme emotional moments, the human aspect is effectively reduced. But the human aspect is the most emotional and connected part! Aurora, perhaps the coldest and most isolated film of this movement, could have been an hour and a half and been simply a thriller about murder. But by showing us the mundane of his life, showing us him showering, him struggling with his antiquated gun, him picking up his daughter after… this adds a human element making the acts all the more terrifying in a moral and psychological way.
This is by no means an invention or discovery of the Romanians, they are quite simply the most effective users of this essential aspect of realist storytelling. Early Tarantino featured the mundane to great effect – no one can forget the scene in Pulp Fiction in which the two hitmen are discussing Amsterdam and burgers on their way to their hit. Coppola‘s Golden Years, as I see it (between The Godfather and Apocalypse Now) featured many great instances of mundanity, especially in The Godfather I – the entire wedding scene with the exception of the end and when they are sitting around eating Chinese food come to mind – and The Conversation. Blowup is a good example too – much of the film is the mundanity of his life as a photographer and a narcissist, with a lot of great psychological descent mixed in.
The use of the mundane thus immerses us even more deeply into the worlds and realities of cinema, and thereby provides the potential for deeper meaning to be reached. In Romania, these deep, complex, breathing scenes are so rich and full of life and energy beneath a subdued exterior that it cannot but make one excited about contemporary cinema and that of the future.