This year marks the 30th anniversary of the bloody revolution that toppled Nicolae Ceaușescu’s dictatorship. A lot has changed in Romania since then, yet stories about his repressive regime and the socio-economic convulsions that followed continue to dominate Romanian cinema. However, despite the continued success of realist directors like Cristi Puiu, Cristian Mungiu and Călin Peter Netzer, there was a noticeable appetite for change at this year’s Transylvania International Film Festival.
Held annually in Cluj-Napoca, the festival has become a platform for promoting and celebrating the nation’s vibrant film industry. Central to this is the Romania Days program, which this year boasted 15 homegrown feature films and 22 shorts. Some of these, like Cătălin Rotaru and Gabi Virginia Șarga’s Thou Shalt Not Kill and Radu Muntean’s Alice T, persevered with the naturalist aesthetic of the Romanian New Wave, while others looked to evolve the house style.
The hottest ticket at this year’s event was Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Whistlers. Porumboiu has always loitered on the fringes of the New Wave, lacing his observations about Romanian society with absurdist humour. His latest is no different, an oddball crime thriller that charts the downfall of Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) a corrupt police inspector who finds himself entangled in a money laundering scam. When things inevitably go wrong – as they almost always do for Porumboiu’s protagonists – he’s sent to the Spanish island of La Gomera to learn an obscure whistling language so he can communicate with his fellow crooks without alerting the police.
The Whistlers, not only represents a geographical departure for Porumboiu, but a stylistic one too, with his narrative echoing countless film noirs such as The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep. Although lacking the national introspection of his earlier work, Porumboiu’s latest does revive his fascination with linguistics. It’s a topic he previously explored in Police, Adjective, which also starred Ivanov as a crooked police chief who, during the film’s dialogue-heavy ending, uses a dictionary to humiliate and undermine a conscience stricken cop.
Ten years later and he’s still manipulating language to get his way, although this time it’s to avoid detection in a world of increased surveillance. Although The Whistlers arguably fails to utilise the comedic potential of its titular device, Porumboiu’s latest study of the relationship between language and the Law beautifully articulates how corruption has become a universal dialect.
Previously, New Wave films like Puiu’s Stuff and Dough and Mungiu’s Graduation have suggested that violence is inevitable in a post-communist state unaccustomed to the competitiveness of a market economy. However, these violent events could also be viewed as a hangover from the oppressive controls implemented during the final years of Ceausescu’s regime, the brutality of which is explored in Andrei Cohn’s Arrest.
Winner of the festival’s Award for Best Feature Film, this formally innovative drama about the interrogation measures used during the Communist-era opens with Dinu (Alexandru Papadopol) being taken in for questioning by the secret police. From here the film ostensibly becomes a two-handed chamber piece, set almost entirely within a prison cell. Dinu is suspected of colluding against the Party and the following morning he’s introduced to his cellmate Vali (Iulian Postelnicu) a small-time crook turned police collaborator. Vali initiates what he refers to as his “repressive, restrictive” style of interrogation, inflicting a series of callous beatings on Dinu, followed by what he sadistically refers to as “moments of rest and relaxation”.
To pull this kind of simple premise off demands exceptional performances, and the two leads rise commandingly to the challenge. Papadopol, who received his breakthrough in Stuff and Dough, remains remarkably dignified despite the escalating cruelty he’s submitted to, but it’s Postelnicu, best known as the menacing antagonist in Muntean’s One Floor Below, who astonishes. Although much smaller in stature to Papadopol, he dominates proceedings, switching from gregarious cellmate to unhinged psychopath in a heartbeat – with the quivering intensity of his performance creating a hugely uncomfortable atmosphere.
Cohn’s cat-and-mouse narrative efficiently articulates the mental anguish of living under a repressive regime thanks to a script that snaps with the abrupt barbarity of a mousetrap. As the beatings dished out by Vali intensify, the audience is forced to imagine how they would cope in a similar situation. Although hard to stomach, these scenes never succumb to tawdry sensationalism, with Cohn filming the onscreen violence from a detached perspective, affording just enough space to consider the psychological complexity of collusion within abusive power structures.
Addressing more contemporary concerns, Marius Olteanu’s Monsters. explores a topic rarely touched upon in Romanian cinema. It’s been over a decade since Tudor Giurgiu released the lesbian romance Love Sick, but since then Romanian directors have tended to steer clear of LGBT topics. It’s not surprising when you consider how negative reviews of Adina Pintilie’s provocative study of sexual intimacy Touch Me Not were appropriated by right-wing groups to justify their support for last year’s referendum to establish a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
Since then there have been signs of progress. Bogdan Theodor Olteanu’s lesbian relationship drama Several Conversations About a Very Tall Girl received critical acclaim for its tender exploration of the prejudices prevalent in Romanian society, but male homosexuality still remains taboo.
A relationship drama neatly divided into three segments, Monsters takes place over the course of 24 hours, with the film exploring the conflict between modernising cultures and sexual identity through a husband and wife struggling to self-actualise. Across the course of one night, the film follows Dana (Judith State) whose rejection of motherhood has put her at odds with her friends and family. The focus then switches to her husband Arthur (Cristian Popa) as he hooks up with a stranger he meets on Grindr.
The film’s construction is precisely managed, with the first two chapters shot in a 1:1 square ratio to emphasise the conservatism of Romanian society. Unlike conventional romances, where love blossoms between two partners, here we observe a couple attempting to dismantle their marriage to achieve a semblance of personal growth, with Olteanu suggesting a loving relationship might not be the most nurturing space for a liberating exploration of identity.
It’s testament to the vitality of Romanian cinema that the Transylvania International Film Festival continues to discover directors like Olteanu, who are eager to redefine how their country is portrayed on-screen. Historically, national film movements don’t last long, but 15 years since the New Wave ignited with Cătălin Mitulescu’s Traffic, it doesn’t look like Romanian cinema is going anywhere anytime soon.
For more on this year’s Transylvania International Film Festival visit tiff.ro
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