Programmers in the film festival, cinematheque, and rep-house exhibition worlds are forever hunting for undiscovered cinematic flavors. They are like truffle-sniffing pigs. No offense intended after all, truffles are valuable for their rarity. During the past few years, such programmers have witnessed a stunning renaissance of native film activity in Romania, which has no business being so exciting onscreen because (a) it's Romania, for god's sake, still hobbling out of Nicolae Ceausescu's 20th-century dark ages, and (b) it only produces six features per year. They can't all be good, can they?
Oh yes, they can. Romanian movies are sweeping international prizes and have even scored a couple of theatrical releases in a US art-house market resistant to intelligent, complex, starless films in a foreign tongue. Cristian Mungiu's Cannes Palme d'Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days reaches US theaters next year, and Cristian Nemescu's California Dreamin' is likely to follow.
You can catch California Dreamin' now in the Pacific Film Archive's "Revolutions in Romanian Cinema" series. The process of severance from the Ceausescu dictatorship Communist Eastern Europe's most paranoiac and corrupt is, naturally, a frequent subject. Catalin Mitulescu's warmly observed The Way I Spent the End of the World (2006) views the regime's final chapter in 1989 from a teenage girl's perspective. Radu Muntean's The Paper Will Be Blue (2006) is a gritty you-are-there reenactment of the street chaos and random shootings that occurred on the night of the government's overthrow. Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08: East of Bucharest (2006) ingeniously reexamines the same events as antiheroic satire, with the contradictory recollections of a TV call-in show's guests making hash of the revolution's already mythologized story. Another fascinating flashback, Alexandru Solomon's The Great Communist Bank Robbery (2004), provides documentary scrutiny of an infamous crime in a nation where folks were too terrified to rob anyone, let alone the all-powerful government, suggesting that the case was quite likely a frame-up designed to rid the party of its high-ranking Jewish members.
Other films look beyond Ceausescu to the more recent past and still-problematic present. Cristi Puiu's acclaimed The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) is like Sicko as directed by Aki Kaurismäki, a deepest-black comedy whose hapless elderly protagonist complains of chest pains though it's his endless, Kafkaesque odyssey through a broken-down public health system that kills him. California Dreamin', subtitled Endless because it will never truly be finished (its 27-year-old writer-director died in a car crash before completing the final edit), is nonetheless a marvelously accomplished, sprawling, affectionate, barbed canvas. Set in 1999, it finds a top-priority NATO mission commanded by gung ho veteran jarhead Cpt. Jones (Armand Assante) waylaid by provincial officials who stubbornly demand paperwork, even if the bureaucratic logjam creates an international incident. Forced to cool heels, the visiting soldiers enjoy free-flowing local booze and celebrations in their honor. This cross-cultural tragicomedy might have been shorter had Nemescu lived to complete postproduction. As is, it's close to perfection.
These new Romanian films are special for their attentiveness to individual characters and larger social scales, for their balance of rueful humor and genuine sympathy, and for the unpredictable yet organic intricacy of their narrative courses. Technically, they're all highly polished, without a whiff of the stylistically self-indulgent territorial pissing typical of young filmmakers. The new Romanian cinema isn't personal in the familiar auteurist sense.