BOOK REVIEW: Contemporary Romanian Cinema: The History of an Unexpected Miracle by Dominique Nasta
A far-reaching book printed in the UK and the US by a prestigious publishing house has been at last dedicated to contemporary Romanian cinema. It is a well-deserved and long-awaited one because Romanian filmmakers have strongly asserted themselves in the last decade or so. In order to better understand that this is of international significance we should notice that Romanian cinema – similarly to other Romanian arts – has never benefited from the honour of having a book entirely dedicated to it in English or other international language.
Dominique (Domnica) Nasta is a Professor of Film Studies at Université libre de Bruxelles and the author of two books: Meaning in Film: Relevant Structures in Soundtrack and Narrative (1992) i and New Perspectives in Sound Studies / Le son en perspective: nouvelles recherches (2004) ii, dealing with film music and sound. She has also contributed extensively to several encyclopedias and dictionaries on cinema (for instance the chapter on Romanian cinema in Storia del cinema mondiale  edited by Gian Piero Brunetta iii). Perhaps not coincidentally, the author is of Romanian origin and lives in Brussels. Being an ‘outsider’ to some extent is both an advantage and disadvantage involving a certain distancing and lack of bias, but requiring great endeavor to see and review a long list of Romanian films and access a long bibliography in Romanian. In addition, Nasta returned several times to her native country to meet filmmakers and obtain important details from the directors Nae Caranfil, Radu Gabrea, Lucian Pintilie and Corneliu Porumboiu, as well as from the scriptwriter Razvan Radulescu and the cinematographer Oleg Mutu.
Unlike other books of this kind, the author makes use of a rigorous theoretical scaffolding – namely Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutical perspective – in order to explain the miracle of contemporary Romanian cinema’s success and identify a tradition, or at least some precursors, and a formative environment. First of all, it should be noted the merit of using the term "contemporary Romanian cinema" – instead of "Romanian New Wave" – which may seem trivial, but allows the inclusion of a valuable and even ineluctable filmmaker like Nae Caranfil, who was born earlier than the New Wave generation (Cristi Puiu, Cristian Mungiu, Corneliu Porumboiu, Catalin Mitulescu, et al.). The author's approach is both national and historical. Therefore, it is not only limited to film culture, but turns to literature, folklore, philosophy, and history, attempting, for instance, to briefly define the Romanian ethos, especially its Latin insularity and fatalism. She draws from the ballad and myth of “Mioritza” iv as a source of inspiration for The Stone Wedding (1973, Dan Pita and Mircea Veroiu); the “Ballad of the Dictator” which is performed by the well-known Roma band Taraf de Haïdouks; and mainly writers such as Ion Luca Caragiale and Eugene Ionesco or philosophers such as Lucian Blaga and Emil Cioran. Moreover, when analyzing The Death of Mister Lazarescu (2005, Cristi Puiu), she cites the views of other French-speaking authors such as Jean Luc Douin in Le Monde, who makes reference to Cioran ("a nihilist full of irony, an apostle of despair") and Ionesco ("playwright of the absurd") (qtd in p. 163). Eventually the "prehistory" of contemporary Romanian cinema’s success represents half of the book, a fact that could be criticized by a hasty reader. This expanse, however, is necessary to demonstrate that successful filmmakers today have not appeared from nowhere. Therefore, the book allows generous space to the precursors of the Romanian New Wave such as Mircea Daneliuc and Lucian Pintilie, and also includes other major filmmakers such as Liviu Ciulei, Dan Pita and Mircea Veroiu.
One can easily notice that the author is fascinated with Romanian New Wave films and that she proves in many ways this predilection. Thus, she cites with satisfaction assertive opinions of foreign scholars avoiding to provide examples of negative critical analysis. We must admit, however, the existence of negative criticism: In 2007, Derek Elley in Variety characterized recent Romanian films as “grungy, DV-shot, miserabilist dramas” v, while the German press stated about Calin Peter Netzer’s film Child’s Pose – although it was awarded with the Golden Bear at the 63rd Berlinale – that “a whole movie filmed like this gives a feeling of seasickness” vi. On the other hand, sometimes, although without resorting to superlatives, fervor makes the author add to a sober and professorial tone flattering comparisons for Romanian filmmakers. Overall, both authorial styles are justified and give a certain charm to the text. Thus, actor Mircea Albulescu is a “Romanian Marlon Brando”; Paso Doble (1986, Dan Pita) recalls “Love’s Labor’s Lost” by Shakespeare; Luxury Hotel (1992, Dan Pita) reminds of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927); the omnibus documentary Black Buffalo Water (1970) reminds of Daguerréotypes (1976) by Agnès Varda; classroom gags in Sundays on Leave (1993, Nae Caranfil) resemble those of Fellini's Amarcord (1973) and Woody Allen's Annie Hall (1977); some scenes of anger in Radu Muntean's The Rage (2002) remind of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), etc. Obviously, such flattering comparisons, less common with Romanian criticism until recently – however, we should mention that Alex Leo Serban ironically called director Sergiu Nicolaescu "a Romanian DeMille" (qtd in p. 202), a comment that the author reproduces – were also made by foreign critics such as, for example, Philippe Azoury in Libération when he stated that "the Dardenne brothers seem to have a son: he is Romanian and his name is Cristian Mungiu" (qtd in p. 198). In the same spirit the author takes responsibility for affirming that Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills (2012) “is an absolute masterpiece and the Romanian director would have certainly deserved a second Palme d`Or” instead of Michael Haneke for Amour (p. 200). But the most relevant and quasi-novel critical appreciations – or, at least, the ones that made me discover covert aspects – are dedicated to music scores. It is the case of films like 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006, Corneliu Porumboiu) and The Paper Will Be Blue (2006, Catalin Mitulescu) in the discussion of which Dominique Nasta amply demonstrates her expertise, resulting from long-term preoccupation with issues related to film sound.
Taking the difficult task of explaining – especially for the uninformed Western reader – the communist period and tackling the "thaw" of the 1950s and 1960s, the author uses the prestige of mainly foreign historians and critics and tends to generalize. In fact, such issues in Romanian cinema and culture are little more complicated. It is rather the perpetuation of the Romanian film historians’ inability to properly deal with such matters and the absence of a genuine comparative perspective – especially when they serve as easy arguments – that lead to hasty conclusions. Self-critical as we are, we can see that our “thaw” was more intense and even the whole society was more permissive compared to other former communist countries. Even mentioning in passing the special status (although not the same) of directors such as Ciulei, Pintilie and Nicolaescu under communism is laudable. Detailing these cases could be useful for an analysis of Romanian communism and remains as a future task for film historians and others to elucidate the problem.
One may object to the final chapter "Romanian Exilic and Diasporic Cinema: The Case of Radu Gabrea”, which seems an addendum. Although Radu Gabrea is an important filmmaker, in my view, he has his place rather elsewhere, in the introductory chapters.
It is unfortunate, especially when it comes to a film book, that a genuine publishing event for Romanian cinema has an obvious flaw, for which the author is not responsible. The illustration of the book suffers because the film stills are too small (45 mm X 25 mm) and without enough contrast, which is almost unbelievable in the case of the prestigious Wallflower Press. We hope that the next edition will remedy this shortcoming, so we can unreservedly highlight the author’s and publishers’ extraordinary merits.
i Meaning in Film: Relevant Structures in Soundtrack and Narrative , Peter Lang - International Academic Publishers, New York, Bern; Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 1992.
ii Dominique Nasta, Didier Huvelle (editors), New Perspectives in Sound Studies / Le son en perspective: nouvelles recherches, Peter Lang - International Academic Publishers, New York, Bern; Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2004.
iv “Mioritza” tells the story of a shepherd who accepts his death although his favorite sheep warns him that he is about to be killed by his neighbours.
v Review: ‘The Rest Is Silence’ , in: Variety, 19/08/2007, http://variety.com/2007/film/reviews/the-rest-is-silence-1200557071/#u=http://variety.com/2007/film/reviews/the-rest-is-silence-1200557071;k=pmc-adi-31bb2464aad8b905af7a81e1d57b77ae .