FILM In the five years since Cristi Puiu's improbable epic, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), a small group of philosophically-inclined filmmakers who were still young during the last days of Ceausescu have been disproportionately responsible for the minor masterpieces of world cinema. None of the Romanian films at Cannes (including Puiu's follow-up, Aurora) nabbed a prize this year. But the three features in the Pacific Film Archive's "Tales from the Golden Age: Recent Romanian Cinema" series — Lazarescu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), and Police, Adjective (2009) — were all heavily garlanded. They gain power when seen in series, where their common syntax comes into focus.
All three films unfold as underground odysseys. A character is tested in a series of trials flowing, directly or indirectly, from the state. In Lazarescu, the eponymous figure is sent upon a Styx-like course of hospitals, accompanied first by reproachful neighbors and then a willful medic. By the time the doctors correctly diagnose his original complaint of the stomach and head, his neurological condition has deteriorated to the point that he can no longer form the words himself. In 4 Months, we trace a young woman's movements through the city as she ensures a safe course for her friend's illegal abortion (the film is set two years before Ceausescu's fall). As more and more is asked of her promise, the film's handheld style comes to seem charged by irreversibility. In Police, Adjective, we watch a quiet young detective trail a dead-end case: he's been assigned to gather evidence for a uselessly punitive drug bust of a few teenaged hash-smokers. When he finally refuses to order a raid, he gets an unexpected linguistics lesson from his chief (played with appalling charisma by Vlad Ivanov, the abortionist in 4 Months; in both films he seems the very embodiment of the banality of evil) who dismantles the detective's logic word by word.
With narratives like case histories, peeling back a social situation until its very marrow is exposed, these films take no shortcuts to empathy. Morality is specifically broached, and each centers on protracted, tangled negotiations carried off by wonderful acting. The apparent detachment of the long-take style is deceptive. In fact, the films' scenarios are rigorously worked out to express moral quandaries with concern for those on the receiving end. The ostensible real time of the long take is easily distended by exigent circumstances; the decision not to cut gives a taste of the agony, powerlessness, and tension that meet the characters. Indeed, the observational camera is an insinuation, drawing us into the complex ethical mechanics at the level of action and plot. They induce the presence of mind required to dislodge a nasty splinter. It's difficult to imagine an American documentary taking on health care with an unblinking intransigence on par with Lazarescu, and this, more than the formal style, accounts for critics using the language of ethics and truth to describe the film.