How Romania’s cinematic domination at Cannes is a tale of two rival directors

The films of Cristian Mungiu and Cristi Puiu explore similar themes and have similar aesthetics – but while Puiu may have started the Romanian New Wave, it is Mungiu who has taken it to the greatest glory at Cannes

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:30pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:30pm

As the Cannes Film Festival wound down last month, the festival jury offered a reminder of how large a shadow one small country has cast on this gathering.

Romanian director Cristian Mungiu took the director’s prize (he shared it with French filmmaker Olivier Assayas) for Graduation, a story/parable about a father who skirts ethical lines in the name of his family. The trophy became the latest prize for a country that, with apologies to Donald Trump, just seems to win, win, win.

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It was fully 11 years ago that Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu , about the ways a health care system fails a dying man, took the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes, kicking off the so-called Romanian New Wave. Two years later Mungiu won the Palme d’Or for his period abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days .

Ever since, the Romanians have turned out complex, interesting and subtle work, reliably, every year, often using their signature long shots and rigorous minimalism. California Dreamin’, 12:08 East of Bucharest , Beyond the Hills and Police, Adjective have all won major prizes at Cannes in recent years. If you’ve never seen Radu Muntean’s infidelity drama Tuesday, After Christmas , which was at Cannes in 2010, stream it tonight; it will immediately make your life more profound by a factor of three. Other films, such as Child’s Pose, Tales From the Golden Age and Aurora all have their virtues too. This is less a new wave than a persistent surf-pounding.

But the beach can become a crowded place, to beat up a metaphor (something the Romanians would never do). And even as the south-eastern European nation continues to represent a surprisingly potent cinema movement – Puiu also had a new film at the festival this year, the excellent Sieranevada– the Bucharest gang is at a crossroads of sorts.

How much to continue in a style that’s served it well but could grow stale, as all styles do? It’s an open question, as is the challenge of keeping on in a nation where even leaders admit they’ve failed their filmmakers. And maybe most uncertain of all is the outcome of a rivalry fraught enough it could have come straight from a Romanian drama.

You see, because Puiu started the movement but Mungiu took it to the Palme finish line, the former is a little bristly about it all. And because Mungiu knows that Puiu believes that – and because Puiu thinks his style has been aped by others – well, you see how it could get a little thorny.

And because they’re as different as personalities get – Puiu is a no-nonsense, exacting artist; Mungiu an extrovert and polished statesman – there is enough spice to fill a giant plate of Romanian sausages.

Both filmmakers are too adult, or savvy, to discuss it openly. But it is there, percolating, undeniably, just below the surface.

“I think all in all it’s rather a good thing that this festival supports this kind of cinema and people are paying attention to it,” Puiu said. “But I think it’s obvious. What happened was I got this prize in Cannes, and then lots of directors saw that, and it pushed this style – direct cinema, Romanian realism, neo-realism, black realism, whatever you want to call it. Because I made a movie in 2001 and no one copied that,” he said, alluding to Stuff and Dough, a scruffy little gem of a road movie, and then nodded to Mungiu’s Occident, in 2002, which was not in the Romanian New Wave style.

A few days later, Mungiu offered a slightly more coy acknowledgment of the tension.

“True, we were all being influenced in films that were done in the country that were successful,” he said. “But when you take life as an inspiration and not films, and you try to put life on screen, you can end up with certain types of films.”

Cinema rivalries are strange. Because directors don’t get a chance to play each other head-to-head — the placement of Graduation and Sieranevada in competition at Cannes this year is as close as it gets — it doesn’t manifest itself like a contest between soccer teams. But who can claim the mantle of leadership, especially in a place as small as Romania, is essential.

“I believe Puiu is the ice-breaker and had the power and the very uncanny personality necessary to be a leading figure. He is the context-creator,” said Corina Suteu, Romania’s minister of Culture, playing it admirably and understandably neutral. “And Mungiu is the force who broke through.”

She added, “You have these polar opposites. Puiu is the daring one who made things move, and Mungiu established it and put it down.”

Born a year apart (Mungiu, in April 1968, came second) and growing up at similar historical moments, they culled from the same influences. Many of the concerns of Romanian cinema, and Mungiu and Puiu in particular, involve a country that is supposed to have repudiated and escaped from the corruption that characterised the Communist period. Yet more than a quarter-century after the execution of Nicolae Ceausescu, these films make clear that there remain vestiges of the old system and similar self-justifications.

Graduation focuses on a man, Romeo, who basically just wants his daughter, a graduating high school senior, to get the chances he didn’t – and is willing to wheel and deal in ways that are decidedly underhand to ensure that happens.

“We live in a world and society that is not very moral but is made up of people who believe they are moral,” Mungiu said. “I come from a country where everyone talks about corruption but they blame someone else. You can create a lot of problems this way – what is compromise and what is just laziness?”

Puiu, meanwhile, in examining the ways various family tensions play out in his Sieranevada, also offers a critique about personal accountability, as relatives at a wake hash out competing views on such topics as old grievances and 9/11 conspiracy theories.

“I think it’s very serious what’s happening. We need to rely on some kind of truth. And you look around and it’s impossible to find,” Puiu said. “We keep saying this is truth, and we keep on forgetting and letting ourselves choose the comfortable way, and don’t ask ourselves questions that put our own decisions in the discussion and not the decisions of others.”

If those sound like similar sets of concerns, the irony of the Mungiu-Puiu rivalry is, some small stylistic and other differences aside, that their films would not read as fundamentally different to most viewers. (Which also underscores the rivalry – if the heap is so specific, is there room for more than one at the top?)

That they’re even making these films is remarkable in its own right. A tax-incentive programme, so critical to film production in many nations, is non-existent in Romania. Film culture in general has been shrinking. Since the fall of communism, the number of cinemas has declined – drastically, from nearly 450 in 1990 to about 130 today. Suteu, installed less than a month ago with a mandate to revamp how government funds the arts, says earlier regimes did not sufficiently support film.

Meanwhile, some have quietly begun to question the New Wave style, which, as well executed as it is, can verge into cliché. Mungiu said he debated not shooting Graduation with the same long takes and naturalism, whether to opt for an approach a little slicker and modern, before deciding the New Wave style suited the story.

And after five features apiece, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine that Mungiu and Puiu decide to work outside the country or change their styles in a way that makes their work seem like less a part of a wave.

Then again, a little rivalry tends to go a long way.

Los Angeles Times