Romania has always been an interesting country for cinema. In present time, every cinephile knows about the Romanian New Wave of Cinema (a film movement that started in 2001). Every year these films are not only present and every major film festival in Europe but they are always held in high regard and given all sorts of awards. In the communist regime there were a lot of movies being made in Romania: most of them about the country’s historical figures or about the communist propaganda.
Some of them were very good, some of them were good but most of them were bad. So what about the 90’s? What happened in Romanian cinema between the fall of the communist regime in 1989 and 2001? Since the State no longer financed the country’s film industry, fewer movies have been made on considerable lower budgets. Most of them dealt with the horrors and oppressions of the communist regime and almost all of them featured profanity, foul language and nudity (often full frontal).
This was only natural being that the directors have not been able to express their artistic visions because of the communist censorship. In a free Romania, directors were finally able to say want they want. It was a troubled time for the world of cinema in Romania but this transition was needed in order to separate the true artists from the pseudo-artists.
A lot of directors blamed (rightfully so) the communist regime for cutting down their artistic freedom but when the 90’s gave them the chance to express they failed miserably. Only the best survived and those who did finally received their much deserved acclaim from critics and audiences alike. Here is a list of 10 great Romanian films from the transition period of the 90’s.
10. Craii de Curtea Veche – The Idle Princes of the Old Court (Mircea Veroiu, 1995)
According to a survey held by the Romanian Academy of Literature the novel “The Idle Princes of the Old Court”, written by Mateiu Caragile (the son of Romanian’s top playwright Ion Luca Caragiale), is considered the country’s best work of fiction. The novel was written between the two World Wars as is viewed as a subtle analysis of love and death. The film tries to convey the novel’s introspective feel but often fails because of the director’s need for profanity.
Nevertheless, “The Idle Princes of the Old Court” is an interesting character study that brings out complex and often paradoxical human emotions for the viewer to see. Pasadia, Pantazi, and Cara are three libertine Romanian intellectuals living in 19th century Bucharest who literally believe that everything in life is futile. They befriend a shady character named Pirgu and slowly being to descend into a life of decadence.
The major fault of this movie is the director’s predilections for foul language and erotic scenery that overshadow the subtle themes of reflection and poor man’s nostalgia. Despite all this the acting in this film is superb; the performances reminiscent the novel’s beauty and give the viewer a special feel of appurtenance.
9. Hotel de Lux – Luxury Hotel (Dan Pița, 1992)
“Luxury Hotel”, is a well-crafted allegory of communism in the similar fashion of Milos Forman’s “Firemen’s Ball”. An ambitious young room chief tries to improve the atmosphere of the restaurant inside a luxurious hotel. His efforts to freshen things up all meet with disapproval from his superiors who think things are just fine the way they are.
The ignorance of his superiors does not discourage our young character as he seeks help from his coworkers. But, to his surprise, he finds that his coworkers are just as indoctrinated in the old ways as his superiors. He ultimately finds that the fragile equilibrium that exists between the persons involved in the restaurant is based on lies and misconceptions.
Worse than that, everyone knows about it but no one is willing to change anything out of fear. The story of the restaurant perfectly parallels the communist regime where the indoctrination of the masses prevents progress from ever occurring.
To give the story even more authenticity director Dan Pița filmed this movie inside the House of the People (one of the biggest buildings in the world built by Romanian communist leader Ceauşescu to be the seat of parliament). The story is filled with events that anyone knowledgeable on communism in the Eastern European Block will surely recognized as being painfully true.
8. Crucea de Piatra – The Last Whorehouse (Andrei Blaier, 1994)
After the Second World War, the Romanian Communist Government decides that abolishing the whorehouses in the country would be the perfect gift for Joseph Stalin. Assigned to perform this task is comrade Puzderie (Gheorghe Dinica in a role written especially for him) who decides to live the sweet life before carrying on with his mission. The main criticism for this film was that the sex scenes, the profanity and the vulgarity overshadow its message.
Nevertheless, the film beautifully and humorously constructs the atmosphere of post-war Bucharest. Humor plays an important part in the film especially in the scenes where Puzderie has to use any means necessary to get the job done – sweet talk, extortion, blackmail, threats, bribe and every trick up his sleeve.
If you get past the directors need for vulgarity and foul language (remember the film was made not long after the revolution) you will find a film nicely constructed with well-shaped characters.
7. Prea Tarziu – Too Late (Lucian Pintilie, 1996)
“Too Late” is one of Lucian Pintilie’s lesser known films. It, nonetheless, delivers a powerful message showcasing a brutal image of post-revolution Romania. “Too Late” has all the ingredients of a Pintilie film – it has humor, it has sex, it has some very inventive curse words and the typical Pintilie absurdity is always there.
On the backdrop of the Romanian transition, the film follows district attorney Dumitru Costa (Razvan Vasilache) and his investigation of a suspicious death in a coal miner town in the infamous Valea Jiului. Costa has to establish whether the death was a result of an accident or a murder. Helping Costa with the investigation is Alina (Cecilia Barbora), a young attractive topographer who soon becomes his lover.
Costa’s investigation becomes relentless after two more miners are killed. Along the way, Costa offends and bothers many local authorities who are afraid that the district attorney’s investigation might unveil their corruption and abuse. “Too Late” is dirty (very much in the manner of kitchen sink English films) but this works perfectly for the film’s advantage.
6. Asfalt Tango – Asphalt Tango (Nae Caranfil, 1995)
“Asphalt Tango” is a perfect example of foul language excess in the Romanian films of the 90’s. If you are knowledgeable on Romanian, you will definitely get a kick out of the curse words in this film. Still, the film manages not to be offensive but rather amusing and at times very serious. In the Romania of the 90’s, eleven beautiful girls are recruited by a dubious manager named Gigi (Florin Calinescu) to go to Paris and become cabaret dancers.
Charlotte Rampling is perfectly cast as the cynic woman who must bring the women to Paris. She faces the unknown as she comes to Romania totally unprepared; she must deal with corruption, very bad roads, a daunting heat and the fact that none of the girls speaks French. Andrei is the husband of one of the women who dream of a better life abroad.
When he finds out of his wife’s plans he decides to follow her all across Romania in order to persuade her to change her mind. He must also face corruption, the country’s bad roads and the daunting heat.
The movie evolves into a tragicomic road movie that raises serious questions about “the good life” and the price you have to pay to live it. Director Nae Caranfil would go on to make the cult-classic “Filantropica”, the nostalgia piece “Restul e Tacere” and his first English language film “Closer to the Moon”. However, this film will always remind us of the Caranfil of the 90’s.