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Contemporary Romanian Cinema: The History of an Unexpected Miracle (2013)

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A Book Review by Brandon Konecny.

In the introduction of his Post New Wave Cinema in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, published in 1989, Daniel J. Goulding writes, “Among the internationally significant national cinemas of Central and Eastern Europe, only Romania has shown little sign of renewal…At the time of this writing, film developments in Romania do not seem to warrant separate treatment in a book focusing upon resurgence and new cinematic breakthroughs.” With privileged position of the present, however, we know that times change, especially in the realm of world cinema. Over the last decade, Romania has secured more prizes at festivals than any other country (231), sustaining a level of international attention disproportionate to its size and economic strength. And while the Balkan nation’s cinematic output wasn’t enough to earn a modest chapter twenty-four years ago, it now more than deserves its own complete study, as is the case in Dominique Nasta’s Contemporary Romanian Cinema: The History of an Unexpected Miracle.

Eastern European film obsessors, indeed, have been eagerly awaiting a book like this, in both months and, at least for myself, years. Now it’s here, available from Wallflower Press, and there’s much that can be said about it. For one thing, there is its obvious novelty, which resides in its standing as the first full-length study of Romanian cinema available in the Anglophonic world. Until now, information on this cinema has been localized to the occasional essay in specialized film journals and chapters in highly expensive, bulky anthologies such as A Companion to Eastern European Cinemas and Cinemas in Transition: Central and Eastern Europe after 1989. What’s been lacking, however, is “a complete overview of the Romanian film phenomenon” (2), a void which Nasta ably fills with her impressive scholarship.

But the really salient feature of Nasta’s book is its rigorous historical interrogation of the Romanian New Wave (also called the New Romanian Cinema) and its meteoric rise. As anyone who’s seen one of these remarkable films and possesses even a vague familiarity with Eastern European cinema can confirm, the whole phenomenon seems to have come out of nowhere, much like the Hong Kong New Wave’s popularity in the States or Grunge music in the early 90s. You think of Romania, a country plagued by all the economic and social hardships associated with a transition to a market-oriented economy, troubled in so many ways, and yet: Porumboiu, Puiu, Mungiu, Muntean, Nemescu, in nearly one decade—how did this happen? As Nasta’s subtitle suggests, it seems like a miracle.

There’s more to it, though. If Contemporary Romanian Cinema teaches readers anything, it’s that these films didn’t simply “come out of nowhere.” To believe as such would be to suppose that the nation did not have much of a cinema at all before Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) or even Cristi Puiu’s Stuff and Dough (2001), considered by many to be the progenitor of the so-called new wave. But international visibility is not equivalent to proof of existence or aesthetic merit. This recent film phenomenon, Nasta rightfully argues, has a history, a cinematic lineage; and it arose from a fecund admixture of Romania’s penchant for tragicomedy, early auteurs, postmodernity, relation to history, economic factors, and more besides.

To demonstrate this, she devotes the book’s early chapters to Romania’s cinema both before and during Communism, and chronicles its development and major players. The research here is overall comprehensive. While Nasta just skims the thickets on the structural details of the Communist film industry, these chapters’ strength lie in the picture she sketches of a nation with its own film trends and masterpieces, its own cinematic presence. With an almost encyclopedic scope, these pages are awash with engaging plot summaries and formal analyses of pre-1989 films, and Nasta concisely interweaves considerations of socio-political context and director biographies to give readers a firm understanding of Romania’s film culture. And what is notable about this—and why it’s nothing short of a gift to Anglophone readers—is that the vast majority of these films, even those of its early auteurs like Pintilie and Daneliuc, are unattainable in the West, making these chapters a considerable service to English-speaking Eastern European film enthusiasts.

With this cinematic lineage laid out, Nasta turns to what is perhaps of most interest to many readers—the efflorescence of the Romanian New Wave. These chapters follow a similar format to those prior, giving brief attention to the country’s social climate and film trends, as well as director biographies, mention of notable films, and textual analyses. There’s one variation: she goes through a thorough taxonomy of these recent new wave films, isolating their narrative approaches, discursive strategies, and stylistic tenants. Her findings are impressive as they are richly informative. Naturalistic dialogue, frontal tableaus, long takes, sarcastic humor, combination of Ricouer’s “historical time” and “time of fiction,” lack of non-diegetic music, subdued acting—all are, according to Nasta, constitutive of this, if I can use the designation, movement. And more than simply being a virtuosic demonstration of her attention to filmic detail, this taxonomy is a great service to the those in the field; it provides readers a means to discuss these works with specificity, going beyond the trite classifications bandied about by so many critics like “minimalistic” and “darkly comic.” It is certainly appreciated, and her work in these chapters reveals Nasta to be amongst the most astute film scholars, possessing an attention to formal and narratological detail that’s the best I’ve seen in the literatures on Eastern European cinema since Peter Hames’ The Czechoslovak New Wave.

What Nasta tackles in Contemporary Romanian Cinema: The History of an Unexpected Miracle is both impressive and worthwhile, and it marks a major contribution to the study of world cinema. If readers are like myself, they will doubtlessly be proud to give over their bookshelf’s real estate to Nasta’s text. It’s my hope that Contemporary Romanian Cinema serves as a clarion call to other scholars in the field, inspiring them to publish on this sinfully neglected cinema that has provided some of the most stimulating works of the past decade. And perhaps the fulfillment of this is already in motion, with Doru Pop’s Romanian New Wave being released earlier this month. Indeed, if these future publications are anything like Nasta’s book, readers will be in good hands.

Brandon Konecny is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.

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