With Romanian cinema’s quality and energy to surprise still high, it seems accurate to say that the New Wave is not yet over. Rather, it’s boldly evolving
More recently, some of Romania’s most thrilling and audacious directors have veered into more radical experimentation. They share a politically urgent, inclusive sensibility that resists the prejudices of a resurgent far-right. Chief among this group are Adina Pintilie and Radu Jude, with their Berlinale Golden Bear winners, Touch Me Not (2018) and Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (2021). Others have retreated into an ever-more esoteric and philosophical realm – see Puiu’s cerebral, extreme, and bracingly strange period epic Malmskog (2020).
There have been clear Romanian New Wave tendencies, including a deadpan, unsparing black humour and minimalist, dialogue-driven naturalism. These are applied to both socio-political dysfunction and human failings in more intimate relationships.
So here are 10 films that are essential.
1.4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
New Wave directors have been intent on telling real, human stories of the indignities of daily life under Ceaușescu, as opposed to the illusions propaganda had sought to propagate. Cristian Mungiu based his stark, unflinching Palme d’Or-winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days on an anecdote he’d heard from the era about an illegal abortion. Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) helps her university dorm roommate (Laura Vasiliu) through a termination in a hotel room at the hands of a black-market
abortionist. It’s a traumatic experience that pits personal bonds of emotional loyalty against a system that gave the state great power over female bodies – and left women vulnerable to exploitation, if they handled their matters outside the law.
Shot in cold greys and blues, a 1987 communist Romania of food queues and bartering for scarce commodities is recreated in impressive period detail. The desperation of the time is channelled into gut-churning suspense.
An American captain and his troops find themselves stuck for days in a Romanian village after the corrupt, embittered station chief stops their NATO train – which is transporting military equipment to Kosovo in 1999 – demanding paperwork. To other locals, including the stationmaster’s infatuation-struck daughter, the appearance of these worldly foreigners seems the most exciting thing that’s ever happened in the town (less traumatic, at any rate, than the arrival of the Russians at the end of the war.
A buoyant satire of geopolitical farce, cynical opportunism and youthful lust, California Dreamin’ riffs on a Romania holding the perennial short straw of historical fate. After 27-year-old director Cristian Nesmecu was tragically killed in a car crash in Bucharest, editing was finished posthumously. The film was left long and sprawling, with the term ‘Endless’ added to the title in honour of a bright talent gone but living on in every frame.
The oppressive years of Ceausescu’s regime may be over, but that has not meant an instant transformation of the rot at its core, or of the habits of a corrupt bureaucracy that metes out everyday humiliations and injustices. Corneliu Porumboiu, whose wry comedy 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) lampooned the selective memory that has warped some recollections of the Romanian Revolution, delivered a whip-smart twist on the cop movie with Police, Adjective, which targets the hypocritical failings of law enforcement.
4.If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle
Imprisonment is not only literal in If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle. Florin Serban’s film is a rough-edged vision of an economically pressured existence of familial rifts and curtailed choices. It shows that, for the have-nots, there is no assured happy ending in the new Romania.
Eighteen-year-old Silviu (George Pistereanu) is nearing release from the young offender institution he’s been locked up in for four years. Any joy over his pending freedom is marred by desperate anxiety over his limited prospects. His mother is a migrant worker in wealthier European nations, and her emotional unavailability has left an aching void that her brief reappearance (to collect Silviu’s younger brother to take to Italy with her) only compounds. A trainee social worker sparks something inside Silviu, even as her unreachability heightens his anger. The film employs non-professionals, handheld cameras and a real-life reformatory setting for its gritty, bare bones naturalism.
5.Tuesday, after Christmas
Men questioning who they are as their families teeter in crisis frequently populate New Wave films. Radu Jude explored familial dysfunction brilliantly in Everybody in Our Family (2012). And Radu Muntean’s acutely observed Tuesday, after Christmas turns on marital (and mid-life) crisis.
Romania’s transition to a free-market capitalism that promised more than it delivered had left citizens questioning the meaning of freedom and the optimal route to personal fulfilment. Domestic dramas of tested values were a means to channel this wider anxiety.
Many credit Cristi Puiu with starting his country’s New Wave through his wry road movie about shady private enterprise, Stuff and Dough (2001), and his black comedy about a cranky citizen shunted from hospital to hospital, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005). Things tend to go wrong for Puiu’s characters, in a mix of systemic incompetence and the merciless fortunes of an absurdist fate.
His masterpiece Aurora shows a tendency that would continue in his career, which has seen him turning toward more existential mullings of alienation, violence, and death, in the vein of Russian thinkers Solovyov and Dostoevsky. Why do people kill? There is both banal logic and deep mystery to the actions of Viorel (played by Puiu himself), a Bucharest engineer struggling to accept his recent divorce who breaks down and commits murder. It’s a portrait of masculinity in meltdown, and of a social code far flimsier than we’re indoctrinated to believe.
7.The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu
Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu ruled Romania for almost quarter of a century before he was overthrown and executed along with his wife Elena in 1989. It’s an era many citizens wish they could forget, characterised as it was by brutal political oppression and tough privation.
New Wave filmmakers have been adamant that its horrors should not be forgotten, nor the official version taken at face value. While other directors told stories of the everyday realities that state propaganda glossed over, found-footage documentarian Andrei Ujica turned to archives, selecting from more than a thousand hours of existing material to create The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu, a by no means flattering portrait of the powerful couple. His magnificent work of resistance directs us where and how to look, showing that the devil is in the detail – and the truth irrepressible for those who care to see it.
Formidably overbearing mother and doctor’s wife Cornelia (Luminita Gheorghiu) is adamant that nothing should stand in the way of a charmed life for her pampered and perpetually infantilised son Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache), even his hitting and killing a child with his Audi after some drinks. The wheels of a corrupt, intertwined power system characterised by bribery, and little concerned with ethics, spin into motion. Cornelia gets lawyers and doctors on the case of hiding or glossing over the evidence in a horror show of new money and old methods.
9.Touch Me Not
Blending documentary and fiction, it’s less a drama than a space to experiment – a therapy laboratory. Laura Benson plays a woman trying to find a way out of her discomfort at being touched by consulting others more at home in bodies considered different, from a Munich transsexual to a married man with spinal muscular atrophy. The film, which sparked a media outcry from conservative quarters in Romania, shows the New Wave’s frankness in embracing marginalised stories has far from exhausted its inclusive possibilities.
10.Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn
Wild and rambunctious, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn gave Romania its third Berlinale Golden Bear in less than a decade. It sees school teacher Emi (Katia Pascariu) publicly vilified after an internet porn scandal in Covid-era Bucharest. It delights in blowing the veneer of social propriety apart, showing up the sanctimonious hypocrisies of a citizenry happy to make sport of a woman’s sex life, while keeping silent about decades of blood on Church and state hands.