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Narratives of the Emerging Self

Romania’s First Years of Post-totalitarian Cinema
Bogdan Ştefănescu and Sanda Foamete

his chapter focuses on the first few years of cinema in post-totalitarian
Romania. At the time, the relevant institutions and new businesses in
the field did not have a consistent and transparent policy, and informa-
tion was acquired through the grapevine. We trace the trials and tribulations
of a society in search of a natural framework for action in one of its areas of
popular interest—just as it was emerging from Communist incarceration. Our
overview considers both sides of the coin, the material and the mental. In the
first section, we provide an account of Romanian filmmakers’ strategies for
handling the infrastructure, the economics, and the social implications; in the
second, we identify the new narrative approaches and discourse strategies of
the film directors working in the first years after 1989.
Although we have included occasional updates and notes about further
developments, our detailed investigation spans the strenuous path of post-
Communist filmmaking only up until 1997. We decided to stop at the time
when Radu Gabrea, a Romanian-born German film director untainted by the
Communist mentality, was appointed president of the National Center for
Cinematography (CNC), the most important institution in the field, and with
the putting in place of a set of laws and regulations that were more transpar-
ent, democratic, and stimulating. In 1997, CNC embarked on a more consistent
policy of open competition and decentralization that was fortunately carried
over by the indefatigable CNC director general, Decebal Mitulescu, in the 2000s.
Among other things, the new strategy of the CNC aimed to promote new young
film directors and to stimulate the entrepreneurial skills of private produc-
ers. Though Mitulescu’s decisions have been scathingly criticized by the film
162 Bogdan Ştefă nescu and Sanda Foamete

community, the policy of CNC since 1997 may explain at least in part the recent
international recognition of young Romanian filmmakers, like Cristi Puiu and
Cristian Mungiu, and the reason for Romania’s becoming “one of the hotbeds of
world cinema.”1

An Overview of the Post-Communist

Film Industry in Romania
The political change of 1989 meant, among other things, that filmmakers in
Romania could reorganize their profession and express their opinions freely.
Sharing in the general exuberance of the Romanian Revolution of December
1989, a group of film directors and directors of photography assembled in the
last days of 1989 and discussed the formulation of new laws for cinematography
where none had previously been in place. Their main concern at the time was to
dismantle the centralized control and censorship that had stifled their profes-
sional spirit during Communism. But in spite of the initial consensus within
the professional community, each individual saw the newly won freedom in
different ways.
This was not only true of filmmakers. Like most Romanians, they found
negotiation and teamwork difficult after so many years of being oppressed
as individuals and prevented from expressing their opinions and making
their own decisions. Once they were finally free to do so, they felt an un-
containable urge to speak up, to give free rein to their private beliefs, even
though it often proved detrimental to social cooperation. Indeed, in the first
years of post-totalitarian Romania, public debates often consisted of a series
of monologues.

Counterproductive Elements of Centralized Control before 1989

Before 1989, the film industry was under the jurisdiction of the ministry of
Communist propaganda, the so-called Council for Socialist Culture and Edu-
cation, which controlled all arts and cultural sectors. The Communist state
was the sole financier and distributor of films, as well as the unique author-
ity that could ruthlessly repress all dissidence. Films were distributed by the
Romania Film Centre, which enjoyed a monopoly on distribution, imports,
and exports. There were four feature film producers (case de filme) and one
major studio (Studioul Cinematografic Buftea) with film processing labs that
serviced the other studios. Documentaries and propagandistic material on
Romanian history or on despot Nicolae Ceauşescu’s activities were shot by the
Alexandru Sahia Studio. Cartoons were made by the Animafilm Studio and
military films by the Army Studio. The Ministry of Domestic Affairs also had
its own studio.
Narratives of the Emerging Self 163

Quality Management
The film industry was a monolith whose sole reason for existence was propa-
ganda. The Communist state commissioned films irrespective of artistic worth,
cost, or market success. The selection criterion for film projects was a concoc-
tion made up of numerous private connections and a touch of the Communist
decision makers’ vague aesthetic taste, monitored through a system of censor-
ship. The same applied to the films selected for international festivals. Some
guidelines appeared occasionally from propagandists and censors, usually hi-
larious rules of what could not be screened. A list of such must-nots included
anomalies such as burning candles, prayers, black cats, and nudity. In most
cases, the censors’ activity depended directly on Ceauşescu’s idiosyncrasies, in
which case interdictions were communicated only privately. One of the heads
of the national television reportedly decided what to broadcast nationally by
looking down from his eleventh floor office window to see whether Ceauşescu,
whose residence was close by, was at home and might be watching TV.

Film Genres
The public went to see Romanian films because foreign ones were shown only
rarely and were in most cases imports from the other Communist countries—
a result of cultural exchange agreements. Romanian films were appreciated
mainly for their actors and, sometimes, their stuntmen. The general public had
a propensity for comedies and action films, which usually had to be set in the
past, since it was politically more safe.
The more sophisticated public enjoyed opaque allegories, which used am-
biguous metaphors and quasi-mythical scenarios to obliquely criticize dicta-
torship and salvage endangered values. Such films helped establish the special
social status of filmmakers and were especially praised for the courageous vi-
sion of their directors, who in most cases had also written the script. Such films
were nevertheless rare, because it took a combination of impenetrable symbol-
ism, strategic personal connections, and good fortune to get past political cen-
Communist authorities naturally favored mainstream Socialist realism,
which usually meant films with a rather flat, commissioned recipe. Their cliché
ingredients were tender-hearted yet principled apparatchiks and wittily critical
peasants/workers who appeared as good guys ultimately triumphing over the
typical arch villains of the Marxist/Leninist canon: egotistical, narrow-minded
intellectuals or wicked and pompous representatives of the aristocracy and
With the advent of Ceauşescu’s personality cult, another type of film
emerged, the nationalist historical epic. Like Gheorghiu-Dej before him, who
had managed to negotiate the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Romania,
Ceauşescu was part of a group of home-brewed Communists who gradually
turned against the imported Soviet elites to gain political control over the
country and become relatively autonomous inside the Communist bloc. To
164 Bogdan Ştefă nescu and Sanda Foamete

legitimize his own personality cult, Ceauşescu commissioned epic nationalist

histories of Romania’s past as an unremitting millenary fight for the indepen-
dence and unity of the national state and had himself edited into these tales of
selfless glory as the latest and greatest in a long line of heroes.2

The film-producing companies were run either exclusively or jointly by appa-
ratchiks. They promoted Communist propaganda and closely censored every
inch of film. Scripts that made it past the vigilance of the censors were taken
to be shot and processed at the Buftea Studio, whose roughly two thousand
full-time employees included directors of photography, cameramen, engineers,
craftsmen, and so on. The “film artists” (script writers, directors, actors, sce-
nographers, dress designers, composers) were outside contributors and were
paid separately for each film project. Such contracts were substantially more
rewarding than what the average film industry employee could expect.
These two different forms of payment had a contradictory effect. The “art-
ists” were envied by the technical and auxiliary staff for the impressive lump-sum
money they made for a film, although the trade-off for that was the uncertainty
of not knowing when and if the next contract would arrive, as well as being
deprived of social insurance and a dependable pension. The Communist film
industry was consequently perceived as discriminatory, despite the ideological
refrain of perfect equality among all members of society. Film artists were seen
by the regular employees as the elite of the film industry, both for their access
to financial success and because of art’s privileged status in Ceauşescu’s Roma-
nia, where it was a powerful instrument of official propaganda, and, at the same
time, a subversive form of anti-Communist resistance.

Social Status of the Film Artist

The ambiguity of the film artist’s status is accountable within the larger con-
text of Romanian Communist and post-Communist history. The conclusion
of World War II pushed Romanians into the Soviet sphere of influence. For a
decade after the war, Romanians put up armed resistance to the “red plague”
brought in by the Soviet occupation troops. In the early 1950s, however, anti-
Communist fighters were pushed back into remote mountain areas and were
soon to be finally and gruesomely crushed, down to the last man. In the 1950s,
the Romanian gulags and the dreaded Canal (a Pharaonic project in which the
undesirable were worked to death) killed several hundred thousand, including
most of the personalities of pre-Communist Romania. After what had seemed
to many a relaxation of the Communist regime, Ceauşescu put an end to his
liberal politics in the early 1970s, and, as a result of a fated visit to the Com-
munist Far East, he set out to build one of the most dreaded tyrannical regimes
in contemporary Europe, which he enforced with the support of overbearing
security police.
Narratives of the Emerging Self 165

The half-century experience of Communist repression left the Romanians

hopeless and socially crippled. The anti-Communist front had to be moved
within as a result of an ambiguously successful discovery: “resistance through
culture.” The arts, especially those using a verbal medium, created a parallel
world, a response to the Communist censorship of intellectual freedom. Books
were read; plays and films were watched mainly for their “lizards” (sopîrle),
which was Romanian innuendo for the political. Quality art in those times was,
in many cases, taken to constitute an ability to produce an equivocal discourse
that could fool the “thought police,” feigning compliance with the official posi-
tion, while, in fact, restoring “genuine” values.
In this alternative universe, artists were the counterparts of political leaders
in the real world. Their success, however, was parasocial and was possible only
outside the formal structures of society, and consequently, it never received of-
ficial recognition. Hence, (film) artists played a paradoxical role in Communist
Romania as an outcast elite. In a love-hate relationship with the rest of society,
they were equally envied and despised.3

Problems in Restructuring the Film Industry after 1989

Inadequate Legislation
The 1989 Revolution dismantled the Communist state. Its most immediate and
palpable success was the abolition of censorship. A new institution—the demo-
cratic Ministry of Culture—moved into the offices of the former Council for
Socialist Culture and Education. However, Romanian filmmakers were either
too proud or too scarred by institutional oppression to accept the financial and
administrative supervision of this ministry. They seemed determined to work
together toward the autonomy of Romanian cinematography and meant to
demonstrate that they were strong—that Romanian films could be financially
and artistically independent from the authority of parliament, government, and
other institutions. They wanted separate laws that would define the bounds of
their activity, and they eventually had them. These laws were passed in 1990 by
the interim parliament, which had replaced Communist rule but were hastily
designed and focused more on protecting film artists from ideological restric-
tions than on preparing cinematography for a market economy. The two laws
issued between February and March 1990 stipulated new principles for the or-
ganization of artists’ unions and founded the Cinematography National Centre
(CNC), a state-funded body called to represent film in Romania.4
The texts of the two laws were soon found to be ambiguous and anachro-
nistic because they preceded the post-Communist Constitution and the leg-
islative support of the economic reforms. Authorities in the field were busy
pushing revisions to a legislation that often rendered Romanian cinematogra-
phy dysfunctional. Such was the case of the statute of the Cinematographers’
Union (UCIN), according to which its members chose the president of CNC by
166 Bogdan Ştefă nescu and Sanda Foamete

secret vote every two years. This person was to be selected and confirmed by
the prime minister from the two candidates elected by UCIN, although the law
was ambiguous about whether and how the CNC was subordinated to the gov-
ernment. The fierce battles resulting from the suspicion that the government
was siding with one or the other of the factions inside the film community
discouraged the authorities from making a choice in a domain that was of little
political use as compared to, say, television. As a result of the government’s res-
ervations, the CNC, the main administrative body in the film industry, had no
head executive for a long time and was run by an interim vice president.
Yet in spite of this legal inadequacy, a Western manager or businessman
might find that Romanians are too much concerned with what the law instructs
them to do, when they could simply heed what it prohibits. Such a lack of initia-
tive may be the result of a half century lived as obedient performers of decisions
made by a high and immovable authority. While Romanians soon learned that
political authority after the collapse of Communism could no longer dictate
what they have to do, they continue to project onto the invisible power of the
law a compulsive need to be shown the way. It became a post-1989 stereotype to
say, “We can’t do anything about it. We don’t have a law for it.”
Recently, however, the CNC has managed to push new legislation, such as
Government Ordinance No. 39, dated July 14, 2005, which aims to promote a
framework for medium-sized cinema businesses (typical of the industry in Ro-
mania) and to preclude state monopoly over any section of the industry. It also
makes transparent the conditions for eligibility of funding applications. The
CNC has also developed a website with information about its activities since
the year 2000 and with statistical data about its participation in the industry.

Challenges in Reorganization
Since 1990, the CNC has been functioning as a quasi-governmental authority
in the film industry, although it is not structured as a ministry or state secre-
tariat. Its professed mission has been to reorganize national cinematography.
The four producing units (case de filme) were turned into five “creative studios”
(studiouri de creaţie) and were subordinated to the UCIN in 1990 and then to
the Cinerom Regia5 in 1991, only to become recently the dying sections of the
new Cinerom, which was now a commercial company.
Communist apparatchiks were replaced by film directors, on account of
the special social status of the latter, but the state continued to act as the ex-
clusive financier of film projects. The organization chart was also preserved
together with the working mores: the bureaucracy dictated that wages had to be
the same irrespective of the quality of the work and of the market success of the
productions. When inflation finally overtook Romania by the end of 1990, bu-
reaucratic structures were increasingly felt as deadweight in each film budget.
The financial crisis became a fiercer enemy than Communist censorship
had ever been to the film industry. There was talk of a new form of censor-
ship: the economic one, which threatened not only film industry structures and
Narratives of the Emerging Self 167

processes but also the cinematographers’ newly gained pride of independence.

In the early 1990s, funding could not keep up with the rampant inflation,
which cut down on the pace of filmmaking. With no films being produced and
with the industry on the brink of dissolution, artists were no longer perceived
as leaders, and soon there would be no public left for them to lead. The original
enthusiasm gradually eroded.
Tired of indecision and counterproductive squabbles among the many fac-
tions in the filmmaking community, which delayed film production, employ-
ees remaining at the Buftea Studio (now called Studioul Bucuresti) successfully
fought to turn themselves into a shareholding company in 1991. The main
shareholder was the state, and the scope of the company’s work was primar-
ily to provide services and rent out equipment to film crews. Soon, however,
part of the otherwise outdated equipment (mostly made in the 1960s) was taken
over by the newly founded Cinerom Autonomous Regia. Cinerom also incor-
porated the five UCIN creative studios, whose personnel it reduced over time.
Meanwhile, as a result of the loud and long strife over the presidential posi-
tion, the CNC came to be run by interim vice president Decebal Mitulescu. Un-
like former high executives with a direct stake in the film business, Mitulescu,
an art historian, returned to managing the industry, confessing to an exclusive
interest in preserving the patrimony and adapting the CNC and the industry to
the emerging market economy in Romania.
Vice president Mitulescu faced a difficult task with a 1997 budget of 4 bil-
lion ROL (Romanian lei; about US$570,000), which barely covered the cost of
two moderate productions. Nevertheless, he managed to have the CNC offi-
cially acknowledged as the specialized administrative authority in the field of
cinematography and mentioned as such for the first time in the state budget for
1997. He turned the Cinerom into a regular company whose funds are allotted
by the CNC, with full financial responsibility. In May 1997, the vice president
submitted to Romania’s parliament a legislative proposal for the reorganization
of the industry according to market standards. More laws were passed in 2003
and 2005 with Mitulescu at the head of the CNC. The industry could finally
stop worrying about the laws and take up the real managerial challenges.

The Funding Strategy

As discussed above, film funding was unable to keep abreast of rampant infla-
tion and the growing austerity of the state budget. The film industry plum-
meted from an average of thirty feature films each year before 1989 to a mere
four in 1996. Subsequently, it waveringly worked its way up as the CNC became
the sole or majority sponsor for eleven feature films in 2005, fifteen in 2006,
and nine in 2007.6 In an August 1997 Romanian television interview, popular
actor Mircea Diaconu said, “Romanian cinematography has expired or is, at
best, hibernating.”
Because of a lack of adequate funding, two film productions accepted
for 1995 and 1996 were left unfinished. Budget projections were becoming
168 Bogdan Ştefă nescu and Sanda Foamete

obsolete because of inflation. The budget estimate for one of the films started
at a few hundred million and rose to 7 billion ROL (roughly US$1 million). The
CNC’s new strategy was to require multiple funding sources while it provided
no more than 20 percent of the total funding itself. But the selection process for
the films to be financed was as dubious as the legislation. Vague references were
made to the priority given to “films of national interest” or to “topical films.”
However, no criteria were established to decide which projects might be listed
in this category. There is scarcely any monitoring of feedback from the viewers
to evaluate the success of individual films or film genres. Although the CNC
has access to sales records for each showing nationwide, no interpretation of
the data was being performed. While the raw data is now accessible in a long
row of financial statistic tables, the public’s reactions and desires are still left
untested and nobody knows why particular releases draw particular audiences.
The two unfinished projects are an interesting case in point. One of them
belonged to Sergiu Nicolaescu, a relatively successful historical and action-film
director before 1989. He is said to have enjoyed the sympathy of the Commu-
nist authorities for his filmed versions of Romanian history. He is also believed
to have edited the filmed execution of the Ceauşescu couple for national televi-
sion. After 1989, Nicolaescu became a senator for the governmental party of
former second-rank Communist officials, now turned “democrats,” who held
power until November 1996, and he chaired the particularly inept senate com-
mission, which investigated the crimes committed during the Revolution of
1989. Senator Nicolaescu was also the head of Star Film, one of the five state-
owned “creative studios.”
His project involving the historical film Triunghiul Mortii (The Death Tri-
angle) was selected by the CNC in 1995, although Nicolaescu had not been as
successful after 1989. His last historical film, Oglinda (The Mirror, 1994), dealing
with a very controversial personage in World War II Romania, registered a mere
91,348 tickets sold.7 This performance is well below the average success of a post-
1989 Romanian film and not even within sight of the 1.3 million admissions
registered by The Second Fall of Constantinople, another Romanian film re-
leased that same year. Nicolaescu’s script for The Death Triangle was coauthored
by Corneliu Vadim Tudor, a particularly ill-famed personality. He was known
as the court poet of the Ceauşescus and leader of the viciously chauvinistic and
anti-Semitic extreme nationalist party România Mare (Greater Romania).
The other director among the lucky (very) few to receive funding for their
feature film projects was Dan Piţa, whose different reputation rests, among
other things, on the Silver Lion award won at the Venice Biennial Film Fes-
tival in 1992 and on his history of dissident filmmaking before 1989. He was
the president of the CNC between May 1990 and September 1992 and, at the
same time, headed Solaris, one of the five creative film studios. Despite the sus-
tained respect he enjoys in the filmmaking community, Dan Piţa’s audiences
have been decreasing spectacularly to a mere 62,423 tickets sold by the end of
1997 for his Pepe si Fifi (Pepe and Fifi, 1994).8 Nevertheless, his project Omul
Narratives of the Emerging Self 169

zilei (Man of the Day) was deemed to represent a topical issue and was selected
for CNC funding in 1996.
These two examples suggest that funding was at the time allotted based on
the private prestige and political influence of the film directors, rather than on
their appeal to the general public and the film critics or on professional evalu-
ation of the projects.

The Human Factor: Film Reception after 1989

Statistics show that, since 1990, there has been a steady drop in cinema view-
ers for both foreign and domestic films. Romania’s population at the time was
roughly 23 million. In 1990, some 97 million tickets were sold. In 1996, there
were only 13 million admissions. The România liberă daily newspaper recorded
no more than 3 million tickets sold by July 1997. While the most successful film
in 1994 was Mircea Mureşan’s A doua cădere a Constantinopolului (The Sec-
ond Fall of Constantinople), which sold 1.3 million tickets, seconded by Jurassic
Park with 750,000 admissions, the first box office position in 1997 was held by
101 Dalmatians, with only 533,000 admissions. In 2004, the three most popular
films sold only some 200,000 tickets each. In 2005, the media announced an
additional 40 percent drop in box office sales from the previous year.
The natural enemy of cinematographers is cable television, which came to
Romania soon after 1989. Private broadcasters became increasingly successful,
especially since they could now show Western films and programs, a treat that
Romanian viewers had gone almost entirely without before 1989. In the late
years of the Communist regime, Western imports had practically come to a
halt, and national television was reduced to only two hours of broadcasting ev-
ery day, most of which was Communist propaganda and Ceauşescu’s speeches.
It was jokingly reported in those days that Ceauşescu refused a proposal to in-
crease TV broadcasts to three hours every day: two hours, he protested, is the
longest I can keep on speaking.
The comfort of watching Western films and programs at home could not
be matched by what Romanian film theaters had to offer in the early 1990s.
The quality of the theaters, especially in small towns and villages, was dis-
couraging both for distributors and for spectators, who shunned the insects
and occasional rodents that brushed against their feet. The Romania Film
Regia enjoyed a monopoly of more than 400 of the 600 theater halls extant
in 1989. Since then, their number has diminished for various reasons, and
317 were left as of 2005. Either their designation was changed or the theaters
were reclaimed by their original pre–World War II owners. Some were leased
out to private businesses. They were mostly small theaters, three of them in
downtown Bucharest,9 that were rehabilitated with hi-fi equipment and have
all been making a profit. At the end of 2005, the Regia was operating 39, while
160 had been leased and 118 shut down. The Regia made public its intention
to hold bids for most of the movie houses, while only 20 theaters were handed
over to the local authorities.10
170 Bogdan Ştefă nescu and Sanda Foamete

Recently, a few multiplex theaters were built in Romania’s large malls.

Eurimages granted €107,000 for the rehabilitation of six art cinemas in the
country in 2005.11 In the rest of the country, only about a score of other theaters
were acceptable in terms of comfort. Many sell refreshments, but not all have
air conditioning. For the rest, the projection is faded, the sound barely distin-
guishable, and the old wooden seats are crooked and squeaky. The air is stuffy
in summer, and in winter, the theater halls are little warmer than the outside
The state monopoly on distribution, promotion, and theater screening was
as counterproductive as that on film production. There is no incentive for an
underpaid bureaucracy to improve performance. In the mid-1990s, private dis-
tributors were allowed into the competition. Film importers like Guild Film
Romania (a partner of the British company of the same name) and MediaPro
(a partner of Media Picture International) captured more than half of the au-
diences in 1996, while Romania Film could claim no more than 1.73 percent.
Today, the most important distributors are private. The top four companies are
Ro-Image (for Paramount, Universal, MGM, DreamWorks), Intercom Film (for
20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., Columbia), and Media Pro and Independenţa
Film (for European, Romanian, and independent American films), which dis-
tributed almost 40 percent of the new releases in 2011. In 2004, Romania Film,
the state-owned distributor, slid to second place and a mere 15 percent of the
films released, with the box office showing a grim 3 percent of all admissions,
and in 2011, it ranked as the sixth-largest distributor, with only 4.8 percent of
the new releases.12

Taste Mutations
It is not clear, however, why the popularity of Romanian films has been declin-
ing, because no effort has been made to analyze the new market situation for
customer demand. Tastes and preferences obviously have shifted on the wave
of sweeping changes undergone by Romanian society in its transition from a
closed totalitarian Communist state to an open, if inexperienced, young de-
mocracy. The industry’s authorities insisted for a long time on financing “films
of national interest,” although it is unofficially believed that the public would
rather watch comedies with recognizable characters than historical films and
hermetic metaphors.
Few comedies were produced after 1989, though, which was equally true
of action films and films for children. Elisabeta Bostan, a very popular direc-
tor of films for children before 1989 and a professor at the Theatre and Film
Academy in Bucharest, believed in the need to revive the genre. While this yet-
undocumented need might be real, her recent film about the legendary Roma-
nian women’s gymnastics team, Campioana (The Champ, 1991, filmed in 1989),
sold only 18,771 tickets, while Desene pe asfalt (Drawing on the Asphalt, 1991),
a serene and idyllic story of a little girl trying to participate in an asphalt-drawing
contest, could not attract more than 1,768 viewers. There have been a few popular
Narratives of the Emerging Self 171

films for teenagers, however. Nicolae Corjos made Liceenii rock’n roll (Rock ’n
Roll High School Teens, 1991), a sequel to his High School Teens . . . (the first film
in this series was released in 1984). This local feature film version of the Beverly
Hills soap opera proved the most successful film after 1989, with a box office
record of 2.7 million tickets sold, probably because of its nonconformism and
the refreshing humor of its attractive young cast.13
Mircea Mureşan’s parody of beauty pageants, Miss Litoral (Miss Seaside,
1991), follows closely with 1.3 million viewers, who were probably attracted by
the budding glamour world in Romania, the exposed bodies, and the popu-
lar cast. Two years later, Mureşan used the same recipe in The Second Fall of
Constantinople, which was equally successful, only this time he could no lon-
ger work with state-owned producer Gamma. Instead, his project was taken up
by Disimconpro, a private producer that duplicated the experience in 1995 with
Paradisul în direct (Live Paradise), directed by Cornel Diaconu, with an audience
of 569,639 viewers, according to the figures provided by the CNC at the time.

The Private Producers

The previous example tells the story of film production after 1989. More aware
of the public’s demand, more flexible in fund-raising, and more aggressive
in their promotion and publicity campaigns, private producers have steadily
climbed to the top of the film market. While not necessarily producing Roma-
nian films, companies like Castel Film, media Pro Pictures, and Atlantis ran
successful businesses teaming up with foreign film producers.
When Filmex14 produced Balanţa (The Oak, 1992), a disturbing picture di-
rected by Lucian Pintilie, one of the most respected and world-renowned Ro-
manian directors, it had a solid 600,000 viewers. The first Romanian private
feature film production, debutant director Florin Codre’s Şobolanii roşii (The
Red Rats, 1991), produced by Tracus Film, a chronicle of the disappointment
with post-1989 social and political inertia seen through the eyes of a displaced
artist, came in fourth in the post-1989 Romanian audience tally with 664,195
tickets sold. Of the twenty-one feature films produced in Romania in 2004,
nine were funded exclusively with Romanian capital and two were coproduc-
tions with Romanian majority funding.
Most private film producers in Romania, however, were less interested in
shooting their own feature films in the early post-Communist years. Instead,
they offered cinematographic services to foreign businesses or shot advertising
material. The most successful Romanian private producers found their returns
to be often less than their investment, even when the popularity of their films
kept them at the top of the box office for a long time. The reasons for this were
most likely the low quality of film theater entertainment; the unjustifiably high
cut taken by Romania Film, the state distributor; and the inability to develop an
alternative television market and what was then the videocassette market.
Not even the 1.3 million admissions for The Second Fall of Constantinople
(1994, produced by Disimconpro) could provide a profit, although that was the
172 Bogdan Ştefă nescu and Sanda Foamete

most popular film of the year at a time when Jurassic Park attracted an audi-
ence of only 750,000 and Mrs. Doubtfire 560,000. According to director Mir-
cea Mureşan, the eleven distributed copies of the film wore out during the five
months they toured the country. Romania Film, the sole film distributor and
owner of movie theaters in Romania until the mid-1990s, was taking 70 percent
of the film’s receipts in 1994 without spending a penny to promote it. The film
could barely cover production costs, but Disimconpro coproduced another film
the following year. Diaconu’s Live Paradise came in third at the box office with
570,000 tickets sold.
Cristian Comeagă,15 owner of Domino Film and coproducer of Asphalt
Tango (1996), which was directed by Nae Caranfil, admitted in conversation
that his only reason for embarking on the project in the first place was to gain
a reputation rather than make a profit. In Romania, the film could not even
cover the money spent on publicity; still, the team Caranfil-Comeagă man-
aged to obtain funding for a French/Italian/Belgian coproduction of Dolce
far niente (Pleasant Idleness, 1998). The project initially envisaged a French/
Italian/Romanian coproduction in which the Romanian party could have
used money from Eurimages. Unfortunately, Romania could not keep up with
the regular payment of its membership dues, so a Belgian coproducer had to
be found at the last minute. In later years, Eurimages money started to flow in-
to Romania again to assist art cinemas but also to help coproduce about one
film each year as of 2000, such as Nae Caranfil’s Filantropica (Philanthropy,
2002). In 2005, Catalin Mitulescu’s Cum mi-am petrecut sfirsitul lumii (How
I Spent the End of the World, 2006) received €240,000 from the €500,000
Eurimages funding for coproductions that included Romanian film produc-
ers. The same year, the CNC credited film projects with some 6 million ROL
(about US$2 million).

The (Self-)Marginalizing of Romanian Filmmakers

The New Executives
After 1989, the community of Romanian filmmakers broke up into conflicting
factions with their persistent quarreling serving to undermine their social posi-
tion. One reason the popularity of filmmakers decreased alarmingly in post-
Communist Romania was the appointment of film directors and others with
an immediate stake in the industry as managers of new state administrative
bodies. The selection of these directors and stakeholders was rarely the result
of an evaluation of managerial skills; rather, it was based on their reputations
as artists and as anti-Communist dissidents, as well as on political support. As
a matter of fact, concepts such as “manager” and “market economy” made a
rather tardy and indecisive entrance in post-1989 Romania as a result of a faulty
transition policy, failing to appear until roughly November 1996.16 Conse-
quently, the heads of film studios were called directori (head executives), a posi-
tion more in keeping with the old Communist nomenclature and a small-scale
Narratives of the Emerging Self 173

replica of a dictator. The director made arbitrary decisions in a field where he

was not necessarily a specialist or an experienced head executive.
Apart from Nicolaescu and Piţa, other film directors became directori of
state-owned film studios. Like Piţa, Mircea Danieliuc was chosen to be the
head executive of the Alfa Film Studio for his dissidence under Ceauşescu, as
well as for his artistic merits. Danieliuc was held in high esteem by the public
before 1989 for his bold films, which vacillated between an outspoken and cyn-
ical naturalism and an antitotalitarian criticism disguised under cryptic filmed
metaphors. His Glissando, a parable of dictatorship—its visual and sound con-
notations conflating fascism and Communism—was made in 1983 but could
not be shown until 1985, after having been heavily censored.
By the late 1980s, Danieliuc had become a walking legend for his courage
in challenging Communist authorities. He ostentatiously renounced his Com-
munist Party membership card during an official assembly to protest at the
censorship of his films and the prevention of his making feature films. As a
result of his attitude, he was forced to knit wool sweaters for a living. Daniel-
iuc remained just as vehemently outspoken and uncompromising after 1989,
causing a great deal of commotion in the filmmaking community as one of the
founders of the alternative union Uniunea Autorilor si Realizatorilor de Film
(UARF, the Film Authors and Filmmakers’ Union), created exclusively for film
artists in 1992. Danieliuc’s bluntness earned him a lot of enemies and added to
the fractures in Romanian cinematography.
Gama Film, the fourth creative film studio, was entrusted to Constantin
Vaeni, another film director who was appreciated for his talent before 1989.
His Drumet în calea lupilor (Traveler among the Wolves, 1990) was a moderate
success, selling 95,240 tickets. In 1992, Vaeni was appointed member of the
National Council for the Audio-Visual Media and had to step down from his
executive position with Gama Film, which was soon to be dissolved by Petre
Sălcudeanu, Piţa’s successor as president of the CNC.
The fifth creative film studio, Profilm, was run by Dinu Tănase, a film
director and director of photography of some repute before 1989. He was ap-
pointed head of the Cinerom between 1991 and 1992 but was soon dismissed.
Tănase was accused of unlawful competition for establishing his own private
company, whose name, Profilm, created financial confusion. His documentary
on the Communist experiment in Romania, Condamnati la fericire (Sentenced
to Happiness, 1993), sold 7,929 tickets.

The Debutant Filmmakers

Although both private and state producers have been open to new directors,
Florin Codre was luckier than most of the other young directors who made
their debuts after 1989. Still, neither he nor his producer, Tracus Film, has had
a second chance since the 1991 success of The Red Rats. The new film adminis-
trators and producers could not keep their promise of providing opportunities
for young artists. The young directors were given a break in 1991, when seven
174 Bogdan Ştefă nescu and Sanda Foamete

of them made their debut of the total of twenty-one releases that year. Budgets
for new directors, however, are generally meager and not enough to take care of
publicity campaigns. Other than Codre’s The Red Rats, all of the other six 1991
debut directors together sold only 226,859 tickets.
The next year, in 1992, only one film director made his debut. Radu
Nicoară’s Polul Sud (South Pole) suffered an even worse fate, as the film was
half-sabotaged. The film’s opening night was scheduled for Easter, the one
night of the year when, after a day devoted to painting eggs and making special
cakes, most of the Romanians traditionally attend church service. Not only did
the national event divert film personalities from Nicoară’s first night; he was
not even granted the downtown theater where films are regularly released. Un-
der such unfavorable circumstances, the film passed practically unnoticed and
sold less than 10,000 tickets in Romania, although it was subsequently selected
to be shown by the French television channel TF5.
In the state-owned industry, budgets for young directors were devised with
total disregard for inflation rates and prospective production costs. Eventually,
the impasse would be written off either to the inexperience of the director, who
proved “too young” to manage, or to the “objective” vicissitudes of the econ-
omy. The state producer would attempt to buy the script from the director or
find a new young director who was so desperate to make a film that he or she
would accept an absurdly low budget. In the end, the fiasco would be blamed
on the director’s alleged lack of talent.
One more blow was dealt to young filmmakers when the annual Costinesti
National Film Festival was discontinued in 1997. Since 1979, the festival had
been held every summer holiday at the most popular youth resort on the Black
Sea coast. It was one of the main attractions of the season, partly because of the
nonconformist, holiday atmosphere, partly for the high quality of the selected
films. Ideological censorship tended to be more discreet because Communist
youth organizations liked to pass as more liberal-minded. Consequently, films
that would normally be marginalized were met there with warm acclaim by a
faithful, emancipated public.
The results of the competition were generally based on professional scru-
tiny from the jury and the free choice of the public. More important, the fes-
tival was a haven for film-academy students whose graduation film projects
could thus reach a sympathetic public of the same generation as well as the
professionals. Many new careers began as a result of these presentations. Af-
ter 1989, the festival declined. The last two were taken over by retrospectives
occasioned by the anniversary of one hundred years of cinema. Since the few
Romanian productions could not represent a real competition, the 1997 edi-
tion was intended to be an international event. But lack of funding ultimately
had the festival suspended a few weeks before it was programmed to start. The
press was indignant, but its reaction was inconsequential. The film critic Felicia
Ichim titled her bitter article “With [the] Kind Assistance from the Elders, the
Festival of Junior Filmmakers Is in Demise.”17
Narratives of the Emerging Self 175

Since 1997, when film director Radu Gabrea took up the presidency of
the CNC (briefly called Oficiul National al Cinematografiei), there has been
growing interest in the promotion of new film directors. In 1998, the CNC
organized a film project competition for first-time feature film directors. It
looked at fourteen submissions that included scripts and a few pages in which
young directors outlined their approach. Subsequently, the CNC has contin-
ued to organize contests for film projects, though its results have often been
criticized. According to CNC director general Decebal Mitulescu, in 2005,
two of the eight feature film releases were directed by newcomers (a ratio that
has been kept up since the year 2000), and of the twelve Romanian films be-
ing shot or processed, half were directed by first timers.18 Yet the CNC fund-
ing amounts and procedures have constantly been the subject of scandals, the
most recent of which was caused by the decision of the Ministry of Culture in
2004 to redirect funds for film projects in total disregard of the results pro-
vided by the CNC jury.19

Clashes of Pride and Interests

Financial problems soon engendered conflicts of interests. Film directors run-
ning the studios were striving to monopolize finance resources. A cold war
started between rival executives, the aim of which was to acquire a privileged
executive position that would guarantee discretionary access to film funding.
Centralized organization of film studios reduced the number of executive posi-
tions, and the fight for power became even harsher. In 1994, the press was talk-
ing of a dictatorship of executive film directors who used their popularity and
talent to “negotiate their fee to themselves with the formula: I apply, I accept,
I authorise”20 on a state budget for the whole of cinematography. Films were
being called off under various pretexts, and financing was redirected toward
the loosely defined categories of “films of national interest” or “topical films,”
which more often than not would be directed by the executives themselves.
Many objected to the new film-making oligarchy. In 1993, the newly elected
president of the CNC, Petre Sălcudeanu, investigated the books and found fi-
nancial abuses, consequently replacing some of the executives with his own ap-
The vendetta had led a group of filmmakers to break off from the UCIN
and found an alternative organization, Uniunea Autorilor si Realizatorilor de
Film (UARF, the Film Authors and Filmmakers Union), an exclusive union
of film “artists.” It included many executive film directors who soon had to
struggle for state funds, which targeted the UCIN exclusively. The main issue
in 1994 was the cinematographic stamp, a certain amount of money from ticket
sales explicitly channeled to cinematographic unions. Apart from a share in the
money raised from the cinematographic stamp, UARF also claimed the right
to propose its own candidate as president of the CNC, who in 1994 was Mir-
cea Danieliuc. The UCIN refused to acknowledge the UARF candidate. The
scandal acquired political connotations, as it was felt that the president of the
176 Bogdan Ştefă nescu and Sanda Foamete

CNC was really the equivalent of a secretary of state or ministerial position.

In 1995, Petre Sălcudeanu stepped down as CNC president as a result of the
turmoil and controversy, and the prime minister refrained from arbitrating
the UCIN-UARF dispute. The CNC was run by an interim vice president until
1997, when the highly regarded Romanian German film director Radu Gabrea
was appointed president. Since 2001, the CNC has been run by film historian
Decebal Mitulescu, first as president, then as director general.
But placing respected artists and dissidents in executive positions has
brought very little to Romanian cinematography. Personal pride, vested inter-
ests, and too much focus on political issues also assisted in creating conflict
situations and drained the energies that should have been channeled into re-
forming the film industry. Together with the conflicts in the interpretation of
confusing laws and the frustrations and suspicions caused by the critical finan-
cial situation, the misguided pathos of executive film personalities increased
the widening gulf between different groups of cinematographers. The frequent
and lengthy public scandals in the world of Romanian cinema eroded even the
popularity of the top filmmakers. That is why, by the mid-1990s, media ana-
lysts came to the conclusion that while artists had been the undisputed stars of
pre-1989 Romania, the limelight now shone almost exclusively on politicians
and businessmen. Starting in 2000, the situation changed slightly, with music,
TV, and soccer stars also claiming public attention. Under the circumstances,
filmmakers were left to find ways to recapture their lost popularity. The pro-
cess amounted to a reconstruction of their shaken identity.

A Typology of Post-totalitarian Film Narratives

Romanian filmmakers adopted several different strategies to compensate for
the insecurity of their new role in the post-totalitarian society—an unsympa-
thetic new world where they had to fight to regain their audiences, their sym-
bolic capital, and the material means to make films. When, after the fall of
Communism, political leaders lost interest in cinematography as a relevant
instrument of power and turned to television and the printed press, the more
pragmatic filmmakers looked for collective support from the broader public
and responded promptly to what they took as market opportunities. The main
target of their realpolitik was to offer what the general public or any important
client wanted at any given moment, with little concern for accomplishment or
Other filmmakers held to an unswerving artistic creed. Their individual
responses were principled, rather than pragmatic, and relied on the ethos of
presenting uncompromising political and professional positions, whatever their
worth under the new social circumstances. They remained faithful to their
own vision of artistic excellence, whatever its cost in terms of popularity.
If the first category of filmmakers reacted spontaneously to the ups and
downs of public fashions and tastes; the second group was more self-reflective
Narratives of the Emerging Self 177

and committed to providing its version of private and collective identity in

an uprooted and unpredictable world. Such filmmakers seemed content with
smaller audiences, which they must have perceived as an elite that could ap-
preciate their effort. Surprisingly, though, they often managed to attract more
significant audiences, despite their tendency to ignore what was fashionable.
It is this second category of films that is the focus of the remainder of this

Nationalistic Histories: Oglinda—Începutul adevărului

( The Mirror—The Beginning of Truth ), by Sergiu Nicolaescu (1994)
Some of these steadfast directors belonged to the older generation of filmmak-
ers, and they simply produced the kind of films they used to make in the Com-
munist days, films that did not necessarily smack of Communist propaganda.
Most of them were, indeed, Communism-free, but in the case of Sergiu Nico-
laescu, the first example provided here, we are dealing with a director who had
helped promote national Communism in Romania. Nicolaescu is one of the
more experienced storytellers in Romanian cinematography. He became very
popular in Ceauşescu’s Romania for action-packed historical films with heavily
populated war scenes, spectacular costumes, and impressive stunts. Such films
were the pillars of Ceauşescu’s national Communist discourse aimed at rewrit-
ing Romania’s history as one long war against invaders and move toward the
unified national state—with himself as the culmination in a lineage of heroes.
The lines of Nicolaescu’s protagonists in such films were in perfect harmony
with the Communist Party’s official version of Romanian history.
After 1989, we find Nicolaescu operating under the same ideological para-
digm and still using his long-practiced techniques with no sign of any attempt
to develop his art. On the contrary, in Oglinda (The Mirror, 1994), Nicolaescu
surprisingly uses old material from his earlier films of the same historical pe-
riod, together with old musical themes from his films, and blends everything in
with the new footage. It is difficult to speculate whether Nicolaescu was short of
money or of time (since he had taken up a serious political career after 1989), or
whether he did it out of some vague mannerism.
The Mirror is a film about Marshal Ion Antonescu, a highly controversial
historical character and the head of Romania during World War II.21 The film
draws an idyllic picture of Marshal Antonescu, who is turned into a hero, an
outstanding fighter for Romania’s freedom and well-being, confronting an in-
imical international context and villainous or inexperienced domestic politi-
cians. This interpretation of Antonescu’s conduct as a wartime head of state
is very common among extreme nationalists in Romania, such as Corneliu
Vadim Tudor, who, together with Nicolaescu, coauthored one of his post-1989
film projects. However, Nicolaescu professes documentary interest in recon-
structing the age and the events: he replicated almost perfectly Antonescu’s ex-
ecution scene from archival footage of the actual event, using two consultants
178 Bogdan Ştefă nescu and Sanda Foamete

for the accuracy of his report, a professional historian, and Corneliu Coposu—
a highly respected politician who had been a first-hand witness of the events
and a seventeen-year political prisoner during Communist rule. Consult-
ing Coposu, who was Nicolaescu’s political adversary in post-1989 Romania,
was probably meant to tell a tall tale of the film’s objectivity and concern with
the facts.
In fact, Nicolaescu offers a highly subjective vision by playing the recon-
structed historical facts mimetically presented in the first part of the film,
called “The Mirror,” against Antonescu’s private statement of his motives and
intentions to a Communist prosecutor in the second part of the film. This sec-
ond section is suggestively titled “The Beginning of the Truth,” which may be
a claim that the truth is to be found in the national conscience and private
experience of Antonescu, the man, rather than in the corrupt official records—
“the truth” of which is distorted by political agendas. Nicolaescu uses all the
stereotypes of textbook ethnic nationalism. The film begins with a motto from
Nicolae Bălcescu, a romantic Romanian historian who was often quoted by
Communist officials: “History is the first book of a nation wherein we can see
past, present, and future.” At the end, an old folk funeral song provides an emo-
tional accompaniment for the death of Marshal Antonescu and of other “good
Romanians.” One of them is Lucretiu Pătrăscanu, an “enlightened” Commu-
nist who opposed the pro-Soviet faction in Romania and was assassinated by
its members. He reportedly proclaimed, “Before being a Communist, I am a
Romanian.” Nicolaescu chose to make this pronouncement the last words of
his film, which seems to say that it matters little whether you are a dictator or a
Communist, as long as you are a “patriot.”
The folk funeral song contains the symbolic scenario of the national Roma-
nian myth par excellence: an allegory that narrates the death of a beloved man,
estranged from his home, and deprived of Christian ritual. The song provides
symbolic reparation by imagining that cosmic elements are what performed
the funeral instead of the family of the deceased. The theme is typical of Ro-
manian tradition and is meant to illustrate the eternal persistence of the tender
Romanian spirit in union with the ancestral native soil, in spite of an adverse
There is, however, nothing exotic about this discursive strategy. Histori-
cally, European nationalism often resorts to a rhetoric of the soil and the family
to construct a fundamental connection between otherwise anonymous and in-
different members of a nation. The native land is a “mother” to its sons/citizens
who will consequently call one another “brother” or “sister.” Quite fittingly,
Antonescu’s final moments are spent with his wife and mother, to whom he
delivers patriotic speeches justifying his deeds and his proud refusal to beg for
clemency from the Communist authorities. He asks for his dead body to be
buried in his native village, just as he had demanded of his judges that they
sentence him to death so that he could be certain to die and be buried on Ro-
manian soil.
Narratives of the Emerging Self 179

Metaphoric Allegories: Hotel de lux ( Luxury Hotel ),

by Dan Piţa (1992)
Dan Piţa is another filmmaker who remains faithful to his pre-1989 principles
and technique, but, unlike Nicolaescu, he had worked against the Communist
grain, and his films were unofficially celebrated by the public as a form of dis-
sent against the authorized (Communist) Party ideology. Dan Piţa looks at his-
tory from the vantage point of metaphysical contemplation, which processes
the determinate events of this world into a universe of archetypes outside time
and space. Many artists living under Communist dictatorship chose the more
discreet mode of allegory and vague symbolism to be able to convey their vision
safe from the persecutions of ideological censorship. But Piţa persisted in using
this manner even after the totalitarian regime in Romania collapsed, which
indicates his reasons, like those of others working in the same vein, may be
more than pragmatic. By showing the evils and imperfections of human nature
and human society to be more than a phase in a local history, these artists cau-
tion their public against the recurrence of such phenomena, even in different
Hotel de lux (Luxury Hotel, 1992) does not merely use allegory; it is an al-
legory. The story is extremely schematic, and it totally disregards the conven-
tions of mimetic realism. The only realistic aspect is the acting technique; the
protagonists have quasi-naturalistic reactions and use a basic recognizable
vocabulary. It is the setting of their actions and the obscurity of their inter-
connectedness that lend the film an outlandish air. The viewing of the film is
very demanding, not just because of the abundance of its dark and grotesque
scenes but because the public has to associate modular events and characters
over large spans of time, when they make very little realistic sense and switch
unpredictably from one identity to another.
The film traces the evolution of an employee in a “luxury hotel,” a sort of a
disoriented Everyman suffering the alienation of a totalitarian, literally closed
society. The building is a stifling prison, where windows are normally nailed
shut and blocked by impenetrable drapes. The hotel guests appear to live off
social assistance. Food and services are donated like charity, and they are de-
nied the exercise of free choice. Alex, the protagonist, who is introduced in a
brief prelude as a crucified Christ in a pagan ritual, is appointed manager of a
dining room, and starts with a set of commonsense changes meant to brighten
up the atmosphere and increase customer satisfaction. He orders the windows
opened, a breach of rules for which he is reprimanded and transferred to an
inferior position as head of a storehouse. There, his initiatives cannot damage
the frozen social order.
Although filmed almost entirely indoors, Piţa’s film uses a spectacular set-
ting, the so-called People’s House in Bucharest, Ceauşescu’s ultimate paranoid
project. This is an opulent and monstrously oversized ziggurat, reportedly the
second-largest building in the world, after the Pentagon. The camera eye seems
180 Bogdan Ştefă nescu and Sanda Foamete

to reflect the protagonist’s exploration of this concentration camp universe.

Piţa managed to acquire dynamism for his shots by using the immense in-
door space to move his camera freely and by filming from the moving elevator,
whereby the public is presented with simultaneous events going on both inside
the spacious, open-ended elevator and on the different levels it passes.
Roaming horizontally and vertically like a tragic pícaro, Alex is projected
by Piţa against a network of archetypes. He can function at once as an Oedipus,
a stranger among his own, and an Orpheus descending into the ever-darker
bowels of a prison-hell that resembles one of Piranesi’s nightmares. The lower
decks of this immobile ship consist of a decayed and dirty industrial setting
that aims to suggest the impersonal roots of modern man’s estrangement in a
manner similar to that of David Lynch’s The Elephant Man.
The world of Luxury Hotel shares with Orwell’s 1984, another dystopia, a
generalized warlike state of emergency, which engenders a sense of an insecure,
meager existence. Also, like 1984, it makes use of the two-way mechanisms of
surveillance and control, such as monitors and megaphones. Big Brother is re-
placed in Piţa’s tale by a communal Father, a chameleonic and capricious, vile
divinity, whose bastard son with Maria, a humble washerwoman, is Alex. Simi-
larly, the ruler-ruled or patron-employee relationship is doubled by a Father-
Son, love-hate connection, the mystical culmination of which is the killing and
replacement of the Father by the Son. Piţa seems to be implying that democracy
and individual freedom are blocked by the persistence of natural family ties as
a primitive organizing principle of human society.
Despite their naturalistic behavior, Piţa’s characters are strangely modular,
suddenly changing roles according to an illegible canon, as if engaged in several
plots at the same time. Their split personality, a typical feature for the totalitar-
ian citizen, it has been said, makes them switch places as oppressors and op-
pressed. A flock of noisy women is made to appear in provocative clothes at one
point. The women change clothes as they walk, putting on gray working coats
and caps as they start to work in earnest. Although at first they seem to con-
stitute a unitary, compact, and depersonalized group, at the end of the scene,
one woman, the protagonist’s lover, starts ordering the others around in a harsh
voice, like a mean boss. The same character sometimes declares tender love to
Alex, only to be seen next through the elevator door making love to a stranger.
Later she saves the protagonist from drowning and encourages him to resist
The most challenging character in the film is a mysterious, powerful male
who turns up everywhere without surprising anyone. He is dressed differently
each time, either as a wealthy owner or a classy waiter, rock fan, or respectable
father. Sometimes it is his voice alone that we hear. This ubiquitous personage
is in turn the hero’s companion and opponent. He is also the ultimate Father-
dictator, whom in the end, Alex kills and replaces in his secret control room,
as he eats fish. Alex takes his chair and food, and the film ends as he stares at a
Narratives of the Emerging Self 181

wall of TV monitors showing an ape, himself, and the cosmos. As he sits in his
Father’s chair and starts eating his food, his own image is replaced by a blank
screen. Throughout, Alex maintains a subjective distance from the way of his
world. The final scene is therefore ambiguous: it may be read as a termination
of the paranoid egocentrism of dictatorship or as the ultimate sign of Alex’s
self-alienating failure, the annihilation of his own personality.
The sound is cacophonic. At times, characters speak or shout all at once,
or else the music and sound effects drown their voices, making their lines in-
distinguishable. The second half of the film is particularly disturbing as it in-
culcates in the viewer a sense of hysterical nightmare. The nervousness on the
screen is hypnotically passed on to the audience through music, spoken dia-
logues, traveling, and lifting. Few viewers stood the test. Despite the reputation
of the director and the film being awarded the prestigious 1992 Silver Lion at
the Venice Film Festival immediately before it was released in Romania, the
film sold only 220,000 tickets. It may be that that Romanians were too tired
of a life of mere fiction under Communism (the lies, the dissimulation, the se-
cret dreams, the highly symbolic resistance) to fully embrace another of Piţa’s
mythical-metaphorical stories.

“Objective” Postmodernism: Piaţa Universităţii

( University Square ), by Stere Gulea (1991)
Unlike Dan Piţa, Stere Gulea, another director of the older generation, dis-
played no interest in the imaginary after 1989. Instead, Gulea stayed focused
on the palpable here and now. His Piaţa Universităţii (University Square, 1991),
a feature documentary film made on the spot, was something of a new genre
in Romania. Stere Gulea was probably one of the best-qualified directors to
undertake such a task, if only for his previous experiment of filming real-life
events as they unfolded in front of the camera eye during the great floods of
1971. Twenty years later, he did it again, only this time he chose a social, rather
than a natural, calamity—something the press called the University Square
An antigovernmental movement was initiated by students in Bucharest
and given prestige by the participation of leading personalities of Romanian
culture. The meetings were directed against an administration that had taken
over from the Communists in 1989 but was acting as if still under the spell
of Communist ideology. The protests went on in the University Square, in the
very center of Bucharest, for three months until they were finally repressed by
the Romanian police and intelligence. The police used miners as a front and a
driving force—an uninformed, easily manipulated social group that was told
a destabilizing coup was taking place and were easily persuaded by their trade
union leaders and the top political administration to storm the capital and
function as a militia.
182 Bogdan Ştefă nescu and Sanda Foamete

The University Square movement had consisted in daily rallies at which

significant individuals would speak against Communism and the regime and
artists would perform for ad hoc audiences of many tens of thousands. After
almost three months, the participants started to dwindle away, repelled by the
dubious individuals who were increasingly attracted by the constant crowds
and served to compromise the civility of the movement. That was the moment
when the police decided to step in one early dawn and forcefully drive away the
few people still left in the square, many of them on hunger strike against the
blatant ineptitude of the government. What followed, although never officially
documented by the police or the law, is generally assumed to have been a staged
Hoodlums were paid or duped by infiltrated secret police to devastate ma-
jor institutions in Bucharest, including the police and the national television,
which aired live coverage of its own siege, inducing a state of panic in the na-
tional audience. President Iliescu publicly declared that the rioters were the
same people who had been involved in the University Square movement and
whom he had called “a bunch of hooligans.” Iliescu then summoned his still-
faithful miners, who once again stormed the capital, vandalizing the opposi-
tion’s headquarters and the private residences of its leaders, randomly picking
up, beating, and loading into police vans anyone on the streets who looked like
they might be associated with the University Square: intellectuals, students,
more fashionably dressed individuals, and bearded men. During the incidents,
hundreds were hospitalized and a few were killed. The police openly cooper-
ated with the miners. Sadly, parts of the population encouraged the miners and
guided their rage.
National television was faithful to Iliescu and misrepresented the whole
thing, as did Iliescu and his administration in many public addresses. Gulea’s
film shocked its audience by presenting footage shot by director of photography
Vivi Drăgan Vasile on the spot. It revealed facts that were in direct conflict with
the official version and had been hitherto kept from the public. This alternative
version of the events made use of voice recordings of commanding police offi-
cers as they ruthlessly directed the retaliations. The recordings had been made
by radio amateurs who stumbled across restricted frequencies. Most astound-
ingly, Iliescu was shown to have been directly involved in the bloody reprisals.
The quality of audio and visual material was substandard. Gulea used vid-
eocassettes filmed in secret by amateurs, which he subsequently transposed on
to film and edited together with his own footage and filmed interviews. Alter-
nating cuts made the officially undesirable stories narrated by interviewees and
testified to by other individuals suddenly come to life and acquire the force of
fact. The rhythm and structure of the sequence had an incendiary impact on
the audience. Like the disgruntled demonstrators, viewers in the theater booed,
stamped their feet, and whistled and shouted. They were reliving, or intensely
experiencing for the first time, their contact with the University Square Phe-
Narratives of the Emerging Self 183

The film obviously did more than document a social event. It was a form
of civic response and political criticism from a concerned individual. Though
expressing opposition to governmental and public actions, its framework was
far from radical. On the contrary, the filmed protest amounted to an exercise
in liberal democracy. Like a plea in a court of law, governed by rational rules
and civilized conventions, the film used a discourse primarily supported by
the logos of corroborated argument and by the ethos of composed testimony.
Its antigovernmental rhetoric only quoted the pathos of the crowds and indi-
viduals during the events but used none. The effect of the alternation of mood
and intensity was, nevertheless, spectacular. Gulea did not confront his audi-
ence with outrage and spite, rather with the steady strength of a belief in demo-
cratic institutions that he sought to restore. In the face of corrupt law and order,
Stere Gulea’s University Square became an alternative tribunal. This was the
deposed, reasoning half of Romanian society’s split personality fighting to re-
gain its ascendancy over an altercating, dark other. It was also the message of
the University Square movement: a peaceful, imaginative, intelligent form of
democratic dissent.
Gulea’s attempt to expose the truth of the University Square phenomenon
is a riddle in itself. In his earlier films, he had been attracted by earthly powers,
whether it was a devastating flood or the strong peasant characters of Moromeţii.
He retained his keen sense of the palpable after 1989 and seemed content to
document the here and now. His approach in University Square, though, is not
easy to classify. In part, Gulea’s civic agenda is a late echo of modernist lucidity,
an offspring of the Enlightenment project in a country that attained modernity
very late and was cut short from its modernization by the Soviets.
However, the University Square movement paradoxically tried to restore the
modernity of Romanian civil society with the weapons of postmodernism, as
does Stere Gulea himself. The rally members militated tongue in cheek—their
protest was detached and ironic. Their stance was self-consciously dramatic—
political action became literally a show. Trying to warn public opinion against
the government’s use of the empty symbols of action, the protesters reacted
through symbols. Aware and weary of mimicked political conventions, they
promoted the convention of unconventionalism. Social barriers were shattered
by the force of spontaneous socializing, and although the movement used a
definite location, it could not be pinned down to a definite social locus as it
freely combined art and politics, information and entertainment. Usually start-
ing after 5:00 p.m., the movement turned private leisure time into serious po-
litical interaction. Gulea’s film of the University Square movement dramatizes
this transgression of genres in making volatile the barrier between art and real-
ity. Its factualist, civically committed manner is somewhat comparable to that
of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and, especially, Norman Mailer’s Armies of
the Night.
The huge impact of the film can also be accounted for by the lack of alter-
native sources of information at a time when private television or cable TV,
184 Bogdan Ştefă nescu and Sanda Foamete

with foreign coverage of news, were not yet in place. Unfortunately, not enough
copies were made of the film that consequently could reach only 230,000 view-
ers and few theaters in the country. Nevertheless, University Square generated
lively comments and caused a great deal of public controversy.

Fantastic Realism: Această lehamite ( This Weariness),

by Mircea Danieliuc (1994)
Danieliuc has always been very popular in Romania, both for his artistic excel-
lence and for his spectacular temperament. Like Piţa, his movies were censored
by Communist authorities for their sneering criticism of Ceauşescu’s Roma-
nia and their dark portrayal of totalitarian societies. His restless personality is
transparent in his art, where he has been experiencing different, at times even
conflicting, approaches. In his latest films, especially Patul conjugal (Conjugal
Bed, 1993) and Această lehamite (This Weariness, 1994), he chooses a shock-
ing formula whereby he juxtaposes the absurd or the surreal against everyday
drudgery, making no attempt at mitigating these opposites. Conjugal Bed is fi-
nally contaminated by the gradual decline of the protagonist’s sanity, caused
by the inscrutable absurdity of life in post-Communist Romania, and presents
a sarcastic dystopian projection of the country’s future as one big slum domi-
nated by sexual promiscuity and nationalist dementia.
This Weariness narrates the aftermath of a car crash in which a pregnant
woman dies while her unborn baby remains alive, trapped in her inanimate
body. The woman’s ubiquitous spirit haunts the movie and becomes one of the
protagonists. Her ghost accompanies the camera as her boyfriend and a young
woman doctor attempt to keep the baby alive. The whole story is more farce
than spooky horror tale. The realistic ghost has a heavy, amusing regional ac-
cent and an unconvincing psychotic desire to kill people, failing to understand
that she is no longer alive. She becomes by turns hysterical and lethargic; she
cannot be heard by anyone and has no power over real life events and people.
Vali, the doctor, is a frigid young woman whose only thrills are a quasi-sexual
desire to electrocute herself and an unstoppable passion to keep the victim’s
unborn baby alive. Bebe, the boyfriend, is a former teacher with a drinking
problem, who owns an unsuccessful car-service business. He falls in love with
the doctor and is as unsuccessful in the act of sex with her as he is in arous-
ing her over the phone, unaware that he is sometimes speaking to the wrong
person. Gradually, everything seems to fall into place amid the many minor ca-
lamities when the two make love in a runaway automobile. The car is driven up
hill by a strange geomagnetic phenomenon, accompanied by an idyllic version
of Romania’s national anthem. Vali experiences a regular orgasm for once and
is convinced that she has been successfully impregnated. Meanwhile, Bebe is
painting his out-of-breath vision of a fair-haired virile boy—a child with whom
he might share his antipathies and for whom he might build a better world,
Narratives of the Emerging Self 185

while he and Vali retire to Greenland as parents. The ghost woman is happy, as
she is reincarnated in the newly conceived child.
As in most of Danieliuc’s films, the characters tend to be hysterical, distem-
pered, unsympathetic. They lack depth and go about repeating the same lines
in slightly different words. But his world is more humorous now, although the
tone is often sarcastic and bitter. Without being terribly disturbing, the para-
normal elements in Danieliuc’s film are a challenge to the interpreter. While
they have an unmistakable comic function in the film, Danieliuc sometimes
seems to take them seriously. One is occasionally tempted to see everything as
a meditation on Romania’s metaphysical flaw, which prevents her from positive
achievements and progress. On the other hand, the metaphysical component
is parodic and may very well be hiding Danieliuc’s jeering face at the pomp-
ous myths of Romania’s national identity. At one point in the film, a paranoid,
homeless woman rolls on the ground shrieking incoherent fragments of a cli-
chéd patriotic speech. This may suggest that unless Romanians resolve their
serious individual problems, there can be no hope of restoring a wholesome
collective identity.

Critical Realism: Balanta ( The Oak), by Lucian Pintilie (1992)

Of all the older Romanian film directors, Lucian Pintilie is probably one of the
best known abroad. Like Danieliuc, he is bitterly critical toward Romanian mo-
res. He spares none of the vices and imperfections of his compatriots, which he
depicts with ruthless sarcasm. Balanta (The Oak, 1992) is a grotesque picture of
a dehumanized Communist Romania, where hatred, immorality, and violence
spoil even family relationships. It does so by means of the shockingly natural-
istic story of a bright psychology major, Ioana, the pet daughter of a Securitate
officer. Her father dies of cancer just as she graduates and is sent to fend for
herself far out in the province in a god-forsaken village—a postlapsarian world.
Ioana cherishes an idyllic picture of her father and is hated by her sister for
being his favorite child. The film begins with the protagonist in bed, next to her
dying father, watching a homemade silent film of herself, her family, and friends
at a Christmas party, with her father dressed as Santa Claus. The child refuses
all presents and snatches daddy’s pistol, aiming it randomly at the guests, who
feign panic and death by imaginary bullets. (Much later in the film, Ioana’s
sister reminds her of the incident in one of her many nasty letters, pointing out
that her father found them playing with his loaded gun and fiercely beat her up
but embraced and kissed Ioana.)
Ioana’s present life is sordid, no longer insulated from hardships by daddy’s
privileged social position. In a few opening scenes, Pintilie manages to portray
his protagonist as a voluntary, outspoken young woman, whose unrestrained
emotional behavior and frustration at the loss of her innocent paradise make
her appear mentally disturbed and place her in dangerous situations. She has
186 Bogdan Ştefă nescu and Sanda Foamete

her father’s body cremated and stores his ashes in an old instant-coffee jar. Io-
ana sets out on an adventurous train ride to her teaching position and is almost
raped by workers on arrival. She is saved by a young doctor, Dumitru, a former
boxer and the best surgeon in the area. Something clicks as they meet. They are
birds of a feather, both outrageously nonconformist, uncompromising, and ri-
otously sarcastic to the slimy immorality around them. Ioana wants to save the
few gifted children in her school from the brainwashing education system but
is thwarted by her jealous, mediocre colleagues. The doctor, a brilliant young
man possessed by a spiritual mission, wants to perform a daring operation on
a terminal patient but is hindered by his jealous, mediocre boss. He fails to save
the patient’s life. His boss calls both the police and a prosecutor, whom the doc-
tor slaps and humiliates in public. Dumitru ends up in jail. He is brought out
to successfully operate on the wife of the highest party official in the region,
who then liberates him. As he walks out, he sarcastically protests against the
abuse of having been illegally released. Meanwhile, Ioana tries to save him by
seducing the prosecutor, taking photos of him naked, and threatening to make
them public.
Upon release, the doctor takes the body of his patient for burial to his native
village—the young man’s dying wish. Ioana and Dumitru are being followed
by a conspicuous Securitate detail. When their improvised hearse is stuck en
route, they talk the Securitate team into giving them and the coffin a lift. In
the dreary, poor village that marks their destination, the mayor and the rather
earthy priest organize a commemoration party with heavy drinking and infor-
mal political debates. The Orthodox priest has unorthodox political opinions
and challenges the mayor’s party line convictions. They diverge fiercely in their
beliefs, but all agree with superior irony that the Americans are the stupidest
people on earth. During the party, a paratrooper drilling with his unit in the
area lands by mistake in the priest’s vegetable garden and is made to join the
Ioana returns to Bucharest briefly to visit her dying mother, occasioning a
sobering realization about her cowardly, beastly father. Still, she returns to the
provincial town with her father’s ashes and buries them under an oak tree, as he
had asked on his deathbed. As she sets out with Dumitru to perform the ritual,
they stumble across a group of terrorists who have kidnapped a school bus full
of young children to blackmail the Communist authorities. The Securitate de-
tail, with, surprisingly, Ioana’s own sister among their ranks, receives orders
from Ceauşescu himself to destroy the school bus, mindless of the innocent
children. They shoot randomly, killing everyone, including the children and a
couple of military personnel trying to stop the slaughter. In a fit, Ioana snatches
a gun from one of the casualties and runs to the oak tree with her lover, where
she threatens to kill him and herself; then she backs down, and they kiss for the
first time. She confesses she wants a child by him, and he observes that, with
parents like themselves, the child could be only an idiot or a genius. “If it turns
out to be a normal person,” he concludes half-jokingly, “I’ll kill him with my
Narratives of the Emerging Self 187

own hands!” Then they both look into the camera with the gun pointed menac-
ingly at the audience. Pintilie must be parodistically quoting Chekhov’s rule ac-
cording to which a gun appearing in the first scene must eventually be used in
the last scene for a catastrophic, dramatic ending, but he reverses the situation,
filling his film with deaths, yet leaving the pistol unused by the fearless heroine,
either as a child or as a painfully mature woman.
Pintilie’s bitter comedy is supported by exceptional acting. The leading
lady, Maia Morgenstern, won the Best Star of Tomorrow award at the Geneva
European Film Festival in 1992 and has had roles in several foreign productions
since, the most notorious of which is Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
Both she and Răzvan Vasilescu, as the young doctor, are outrageously funny
in their casual delivery of biting sarcasm and shatteringly tragic in their mind-
rending solitude. Although their uncompromising resistance to Communist
dehumanization is in fact an attempt at preserving the norms of humaneness
and decency, their cynical opposition is so extraordinarily unlike anything in
their social environment that they occasionally seem abnormal even to a post-
totalitarian public.
The material is edited briskly and the story is jolted relentlessly from one
climax to another. The events are rendered realistically by a handheld cam-
era that moves naturally with the characters. The tragicomic mood of the
film is the result of gruesome accidents and slapstick situations or witty dia-
logue. Pintilie excels in situational irony. A policeman voices a popular myth
about the tenderness of the Romanians just as he runs over a cyclist who breaks
through the windshield with a confused smile and is cursed and yelled at by
the same policeman. Similarly, on the general conclusion by the inebriated vil-
lage debating society that the Americans are the stupidest people on earth, the
misplaced Romanian paratrooper lands in the host’s garden and fails to make
his radio transmitter work.
Despite the many hilarious scenes, Pintilie’s tone is harshly unsympathetic
as he draws an unflattering picture of Communist Romania and is scornful of
the myths spun by Romanians about their own identity. His film remains rel-
evant for post-Communist Romania, still consumed by nationalist fervor and
unable to perform a mature self-scrutiny of its own guilt during the years of
Communist terror.
The unsympathetic, harsh realism of the older Pintilie and Daneliuc has
been carried on by young star-director Cristi Puiu in his Marfa şi banii
(Stuff and Dough, 2001) and Moartea domnului Lăzărescu (The Death of Mr. 
Lăzărescu, 2005).22 In Stuff and Dough, Puiu traces two young men’s road to
perdition as they are drawn into transporting mysterious and definitely illegal
packages for a powerful acquaintance. The businessman seems at first to be
well meaning and gentlemanly. The film traces their eventful van drive from
one city to another and their realization of having entered an inescapable and
highly damaging underground network. The tough-guy pose the foul-mouthed
youngsters want to strike is cleverly played against the elegant and caring
188 Bogdan Ştefă nescu and Sanda Foamete

attitude of the mobster, who looks after them and their families but proves a
ruthless killer who finally has them in his relentless grip.
The funny small talk and candidly witty casual remarks are reminiscent
of Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter and are part of Puiu’s trademark, which is to be
found both in his short film, Un cartuş de Kent şi un pachet de cafea (Ciga-
rettes and Coffee, 2004), winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin International
Film Festival, and in his most recent feature The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu (Prix
Un Certain Regard, Cannes, 2005). The latter is the CAT scan of an indiffer-
ent and inhumane bureaucracy, which is more of a monstrous management of
death than a health administration. Other surgical instruments used by Puiu in
his anatomy of decay are real-time, feet-dragging shots and sequences, a rejec-
tion of symbolic adornments and pleasurable conventions, and the empty stare
whereby social reality is left awkwardly exposed.

Psychological Realism: Polul Sud ( The South Pole),

by Radu Nicoară (1992)
Alongside the daunting competition from older filmmakers like Pintilie, Piţa,
Danieliuc, and Gulea, young Radu Nicoară—originally a director of photog-
raphy—made one of the most interesting debuts in the 1990s, with his Polul
Sud (South Pole, 1992). It remains to this day his only feature film. However,
Nicoară is one of the three young directors (together with Cristi Puiu and Nae
Caranfil) whose work has been commended by Radu Mihăileanu, an older film
director.23 Mihăileanu’s French and international success—with films such as
Trahir (Betrayal, 1993), Train de vie (Train of Life, 1998), Va, vis et deviens (Live
and Become, 2005), and Le concert (The Concert, 2009)—has earned him great
respect in the Romanian film community.
The narrative structure of The South Pole is realistic and simple. It is the
story of Ştefan, a young writer undergoing a crisis of alienation both from his
family and from his nation, which is not cured by the revolutionary overthrow
of Ceauşescu’s Communist dictatorship. The young artist is equally dissatisfied
with himself and with everyone else around him, and like a idealistic adoles-
cent, he suffers from a sort of disenchantment with the imperfections of the
world. The revolution should have been the solution to his endemic pessimism,
but as with most genuine romantics, he sees revolution bringing about the sad
realization that social change is always toward a different world order, not nec-
essarily a better one.
Ştefan is a novelist who has trouble working as an editor with one of the
Communist publications, which is run by servile and tyrannical apparatchiks.
He is indifferent to his wife and moderately fond of his infant daughter, both
of whom typically disturb his creative hours. Ştefan has an illicit affair with
his old love, Irina, who is now conveniently married to a powerful member
of the Communist ruling elite. They have frequent escapades, usually in a
restricted forest, where they make love and quarrel over the same topic, their
Narratives of the Emerging Self 189

future together, which Irina sees as a continuation of the present, while the
more radical Ştefan wants her to marry him. As a result of the revolution, Iri-
na’s husband spends a brief interval in jail but is soon released to resume his
privileged lifestyle in his stately villa—a rather courageous statement from film
director Nicoară about Romania’s post-1989 restoration government. (The ab-
sence of real change in post-totalitarian Romania amounted to an obsession
shared by several other film artists, including new directors.) Meanwhile, the
husband asks Ştefan, whom he treats as Irina’s old friend, to look after a myste-
rious suitcase for him while he is in prison. Ştefan performs the favor without
ever wanting to know what is inside the suitcase. Turned down by Irina, hav-
ing broken off his marriage, and estranged from his friends and the new life in
his country, Ştefan ultimately repudiates his own work and the film ends as he
declares to the camera that he has lied to everybody. He undresses and walks
naked across a field, throwing away a white stream of manuscript pages.
The focus of the film is on the psychological probing of the protagonist’s
inner life. Nicoară employs the introspective acting technique of the popular
young artist Claudiu Bleonţ in the role of Ştefan. Faithful to his original creative
field, Nicoară also relies on abundant camera movements handled by director
of photography Relu Moraru. The versatile handheld camera is the sole instru-
ment dramatizing the protagonist’s emotional experience. Nicoară constructs
a number of interesting scenes in which the camera leaves the protagonist in
one corner of the room, travels uninterruptedly around the room, only to find
him working on his typewriter or engaged in a different activity at a different
moment in time. This belated modernist technique (“stream of consciousness”)
has its own redeeming qualities in Nicoară’s narrative discourse. It creates a
cloud of ambiguity around the significance of Ştefan’s behavior and feelings.
We are equally tempted to see his writing compulsion and the rest of his actions
as mere role-playing, a disingenuous refusal of the responsibilities of real life
(hence the final confession of having lied to everyone), a split personality, or a
superior self-reflexive gesture. The interpretative ambiguity echoes the indeci-
sion of Ştefan’s own life style. He is neither a Communist nor a dissident, and he
remains equally undecided after the revolution. His bottom-line dissatisfaction
may be that he is after all indistinguishable from the moral and intellectual
indifference of the spineless society he despises.
The mood is relatively glum; the atmosphere is stark and dry. Characters
are tense and serious, in ceaseless anguish; their relationships are rigid. The
scanty humorous scenes are stiff and grating. This may be the effect of an in-
novation introduced to Romanian cinematography by Nicoară’s film: the total
absence of background music. Unfortunately, one feels many scenes to be su-
perfluous, the length of the film (112 minutes) drowns the intensity of the in-
trospection and spoils the overall effect. It seems as if the young director lacked
the heart to edit out much of his material and became uncritically involved
with his first feature film. Still, the circumstances of The South Pole’s release
were unfair (see the previous section, “The Debutant Filmmakers”), and with
190 Bogdan Ştefă nescu and Sanda Foamete

a better promotional strategy, it might have met with a larger and more sym-
pathetic public. The decision of French television channel 5 to broadcast Radu
Nicoară’s debut film definitely says more about its worth than the mere ten
thousand tickets it sold in Romania.

“Subjective” Postmodernism: È Pericoloso Sporgesi

( It Is Dangerous to Lean Out ), by Nae Caranfil (1993)
È pericoloso sporgesi (It Is Dangerous to Lean Out/Sundays on Leave, 1993) by
young Nae Caranfil (born in 1960) is yet another example of the creative drive
of young filmmakers in the 1990s, and, fortunately, its more efficient promo-
tion campaign made it one of the most successful debuts in post-1989 Roma-
nian cinema. Placed at the other end of the postmodernist spectrum from
Gulea’s objectivist University Square, Caranfil is explicitly self-conscious about
his storytelling conventions and seems concerned with the subtle mechanisms
of subjectivity and the imperfect overlap between the world and its perception
by the individual mind. At first sight, Caranfil’s film is a realistic comedy of
sordid life in Ceauşescu’s Romania. Unlike Communist comedies, though, the
characters are, for once, highly convincing. Their colloquial lines are spiced up
with colorful, but tolerable sexual innuendo. By contrast, most Romanian films
made after 1989 are excessively hysterical and vulgar as a loose reaction to fifty
years of puritanical, Communist decorum.
Caranfil’s self-reflective postmodern narrative manner was such a novelty
in Romanian filmmaking that it tended to usurp its subject. The story in itself
is simple and was written by Caranfil in the 1980s. A provincial high school
girl falls in love with a handsome young actor from a touring theater company.
Although she ends up in his bed, it really looks as if the teenage girl does not
really fall for the man himself. Instead, she uses him to satisfy her fascination
with the virile power of acting (an art she intends to study in Bucharest). She
incites him to defect, which he ultimately does as a result of a scandal provoked
by his disrespectful attitude toward the Communist Party. A young man do-
ing military service in the town is in love with the rather dispassionate girl.
He desperately tries to make her his first sexual experience by helping her with
her math studies. But the girl has fallen under the spell of the acting world and
rashly jumps on a train to find the young actor, whom, she believes, has left for
Bucharest. The soldier’s army mates are moved by his misfortune, and, on the
night before their liberation, they offer him a sordid prostitute, aiming to turn
his bunk into a sexual initiation temple. The soldier, however, is not up to the
The story may be simple, but Caranfil’s manner is constantly destabiliz-
ing. He uses multiple selective omniscience to narrate the same story from
three different perspectives in the three sections of the film: “The Schoolgirl,”
“The Actor,” and “The Soldier.” In the end, we have three different tales result-
ing from different cuts in the sequence of events, different camera angles, and
Narratives of the Emerging Self 191

different comic moods. The outcome is so surprisingly different each time that
Caranfil has no qualms about using the same lines and events in all three ac-
counts without fear of boring his audience.
The tale is not a unitary whole, the end-product of a reconstructed event.
Caranfil, like all postmodern artists, is more concerned with the narrative pro-
cess. He offers a work in progress, an endless process of retextualizing events;
vehicular symbols recur throughout the film, suggesting a story on the move.
The film’s title, It Is Dangerous to Lean Out, borrows the standard warning
notice on all Romanian train windows to indicate a narrative in motion, as well
as ironically suggesting that the accidents of life cannot be confined to the rigid
conventions of a Communist society. Although the last episode (“The Soldier”)
takes us to a new level of understanding, the story is still under way as the film
ends. The last frames show all three characters journeying toward a new stage
in the story of their lives. The actor has swum across the bordering Danube to
what was, at the time, a more liberal Yugoslavia; the schoolgirl has reached the
railway station in Bucharest, where she seeks a freer, more emancipated life as
an actor; and the soldier leaves the military unit, which has been more a place
of detention, to return to civilian (and civilized) life.
The resulting picture of life is fragmentary and the understanding partial.
Like John Barth’s metaphor, Caranfil’s narrative of life is a “floating opera,”
where the viewers see the showboat going by and catch only a fragment of what
is going on. They are left wondering, striving to reconstruct the elusive whole
meaning of the show from the part they witnessed. Similarly, the film begins
with soldiers training in a field, next to the railroad tracks, catching a glimpse
of the schoolgirl as she passes them by in a train. She is looking outside the win-
dow and seeing the fleeting image of a beautiful world. They can only dream
of what that other universe might be like—a form of freedom in captivity and a
symbol of the human condition.
Caranfil proves a master of comedy in this debut film by dramatizing many
hilarious incidents from school, the army, and theater life. His mode is ironic as
he undermines all serious notions and constructions, even the authority of his
protagonists, especially the soldier who looks remarkably like young Caranfil
himself: slender, fragile, bespectacled, at times almost effeminate. The unre-
markable and insecure young lover is made to encounter his grotesque double,
the school idiot, who also wears thick spectacles and is coaxed by his school-
mates into believing that the girl likes him. The soldier is confronted by the
stooge as they make a lame attempt to engage in a scuffle for which they are
equally unprepared. All they manage to do is curse and threaten each other in
squealing voices, and the soldier proves no better than his ridiculous, “wimpy”
The callous actor is hardly more successful, despite his debonair appear-
ance. He is a blasé, mediocre artist, the pathetic victim of his good looks and
his compulsive chasing after women. The practical jokes he plays on his stage
fellows suddenly get out of hand. He substitutes, in the middle of a propaganda
192 Bogdan Ştefă nescu and Sanda Foamete

play, a freshly printed Communist pamphlet with the poster of a nude pinup
beauty that one unsuspecting actor must unroll on stage in front of his col-
league, who guffaws his line: “This is precisely what we needed, comrade!”
Later on, however, through a slip of the tongue, the protagonist unwittingly
associates the bad guys in the play with the Communist Securitate, rather than
the prewar secret police. To make things worse, an unknown hand replaces the
tape of a historic radio announcement with the musical signal of the banned
anti-Communist Radio Free Europe. Finally, everybody in the company turns
against the joker, who has gone too far this time and is threatening to compro-
mise everyone. The last night in town, he receives a phone call from an un-
known voice warning him to stay away from the schoolgirl. He can also hear
other voices in the receiver exchanging military codes and assumes that the Se-
curitate is after him. (In the last part, “The Soldier,” the voice on the telephone
proves to be the jealous soldier calling from his military unit’s switchboard
room, where army transmissions are in progress.) Desperate, the actor crosses
the border illegally by swimming across the Danube, like many Romanians in
Ceauşescu’s time, and turns out to be a victim of destiny’s irony and of his inca-
pacity to interpret the events in his own life.
Not even the schoolgirl, though seemingly more self-possessed than the
other two protagonists, whose lives she determines, is safe from accidents and
delusions. A charming and somewhat sensitive young woman, she is not really
cut out for the acting profession for which she neglects the rest of her education.
Her relationship with the actor evolves unexpectedly, leaving her stranded in
the Bucharest railway station with no promising prospect, while the actor de-
parts on a journey of no return.
Caranfil attempts to disorient his audience by showing them that life is not
necessarily what it seems. His irony stems from the postmodern belief in the
ambiguity and indecision of life experience. Unlike most experienced Roma-
nian film directors, whose excellence rarely lies in storytelling, he handles the
story and its postmodern elements with remarkable virtuosity. It is Dangerous
to Lean Out, a coproduction of Filmex (Romania) and Compagnie des Images
(France), with the participation of the Centre National de la Cinématographie
(France) and the Romanian Ministry of Culture, won several awards, including
the Grand Prize at the Bratislava Festival of Debut Films, the critics’ prize at
the Montpellier Film Festival, and the special jury prize at the European Film
Festival in La Baule, France.
Another award-winning debut, Cristian Mungiu’s Occident (West, 2002),
was presented at the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs at Cannes and won the Grand
Prix at the Transylvania International Film Festival and the Golden Owl at the
Leeds International Film Festival. Interestingly, it adopts a similar narrative
perspectivism in constructing the story from the different viewpoints of its
characters. Mungiu also shares Caranfil’s sense of humor both in the dialogue
and in the unexpected twists of his storytelling. But he is more interested in the
Narratives of the Emerging Self 193

zest of the stories that make up his plot than in the clever manner of narration.
Behind the irony, he is also slightly more compassionate toward the past than
Caranfil, and there is an ambiguous nostalgia for the lost innocence of those
who lived as unsuspecting children in Communist Romania, naive in their rep-
resentations both of their own country and of the fabulous West.

T he typology we propose in this overview indicates that, despite the im-

poverished state of the industry, the art of Romanian filmmakers became
richer and more diverse in the 1990s. Having had to dance a careful minuet
around the officially imposed Socialist realism and historical nationalism, di-
rectors were now free to experience new and more genuine forms of realism,
such as the psychological and the fantastic, and to exercise uncensored criticism
of contemporary society. All in all, film realists have become more connected to
contemporary life and issues, although they have sometimes fallen prey to bit-
terness, as is the case of Danieliuc, Pintilie, or the younger Cristi Puiu.
Besides the more familiar pre-1989 approaches, which included realism, al-
legory, and historical nationalism, Romanian directors both old and young dis-
covered the variegated virtues of postmodernism. We take this to be a sign of
artistic maturity, an expressive means for a lucid, reflexive intellectual stance.
But whatever their stylistic options, Romanian film directors are all intensely
engaged in reconstructing their individual and collective identities, a process
made all the more spectacular by the dramatic transformations Romania has
undergone during its recent history.
It can hardly be disputed that the artistic vision of the young Romanian
film directors is more spectacularly liberated from the old Communist world
than is the managerial vision of Romania’s administrators. However, the im-
portance of creating films within a sound and efficient industry shaped by a
clear and sensible managerial philosophy and operating with adequate, up-to-
date facilities cannot be overemphasized. Like world cinema columnist An-
thony Kaufman, we have to agree with cultural policy specialist Corina Suteu’s
opinion that the new generation of filmmakers who have been selected for and
have won awards at the top international festivals (Nae Caranfil, Cristi Puiu,
Cristian Mungiu, Catalin Mitulescu, Corneliu Porumboiu, Cristian Nemescu,
and others like them) can be accounted for by a more liberal administration of
the country that prompted the decentralization of the industry, the externaliza-
tion of funds, and the loosening of the financial legislation.

Acknowledgments: Bogdan Ştefănescu’s contribution to this chapter was partially sup-
ported by the strategic grant POSDRU/89/1.5/S/62259 (Project “Applied social, human
and political sciences. Postdoctoral training and postdoctoral fellowships in social,
human and political sciences”), cofinanced by the European Social Fund within the
Sectorial Operational Program Human Resources Development 2007–2013.
194 Bogdan Ştefă nescu and Sanda Foamete

1. Anthony Kaufman singled out Romania as one of the “hotbeds of world cinema”
at the 2006 edition of the Cannes Film Festival (alongside Italy and Australia), with
the following three films selected: Catalin Mitulescu’s Cum mi-am petrecut sfîrşitul
lumii (The Way I Spent the End of the World), Corneliu Porumboiu’s A fost sau n-a
fost (Did It Happen or Not?), and Cristian Nemescu’s featurette Marilena de la P7
(Marilena in P7). Anthony Kaufman, “Cannes’s Surprising Currents: Italy, Australia,
and Romania May Make Strongest Waves at ‘06 Fest,” indieWIRE, May 9, 2006, available
at http://www.indiewire.com/article/canness_surprising_currents_italy_australia_and_
2. Ceauşescu cleverly constructed his own image as a national hero by giving a
famed public speech against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and by estab-
lishing economic and political ties with the West that at times outshone those with the
USSR and its satellites. It soon became clear that this had been a “liberal” front behind
which he was aiming to secure his dictatorial rule.
3. It is no surprise that the Romanian Revolution of December 1989 was brought
into the public conscience and made respectable by two artists (actor Ion Caramitru and
dissident poet Mircea Dinescu, who were eventually appointed minister of culture and
president of the Writers’ Union, respectively, in post-1989 Romania) and that for a while
the political stage was crowded with cultural personalities. After the fall of Communism,
both art companies and artists’ unions were being run by personalities credited not for
their managerial skills but for their artistic and ideological status.
4. Law No. 27 of 1990 authorized a new type of artists’ union, including the cinema-
tographers, based on the democratic principles of freedom of expression and association,
while Law No. 80 of 1990 created the Cinematography National Centre using a French
5. Regia is the Romanian term for self-supported, state-owned companies.
6. Comparative annual statistics for 2003–2007 provided by the CNC, available at
7. Box office figures for Romanian films of the period were made accessible by the
CNC only for productions between 1990 and 1994, and they reflect the situation by the
end of 1994. Currently, public CNC statistics go only as far back as 2007.
8. CNC statistics available at http://www.cncinema.abt.ro/Files/Documents/fls-
9. Bucharest is the capital of Romania and has a population of some 2 million.
10. Adrian Hamzescu, “Nationwide cinema network up for sale,” Bucharest Daily
News, May 12, 2006.
11. Iulia Blaga, “Anul acesta ar trebui sa vedem 12 filme romanesti noi,” România
liberă, March 14, 2006.
12. CNC statistics available at http://www.cncinema.abt.ro/Files/Documents/fls-
13. Another High School Teens . . . film directed by M. Plîngău was released in 1993
but drew slightly less than 500,000 viewers.
14. Filmex collaborated with the Ministry of Culture and with foreign partners to
produce two other films directed by Lucian Pintilie—O vară de neuitat (An Unforgettable
Summer, 1995) and Prea Tîrziu (Too Late, 1996)—as well as films by debutant directors
Radu Mihăileanu (Trahir [Betrayal, 1994]) and Nae Caranfil (È pericoloso sporgesi [It Is
Dangerous to Lean Out, 1993]).
15. Cristian Comeagă is a director of photography and has worked with director
Nicolae Caranfil on Caranfil’s first three feature films.
Narratives of the Emerging Self 195

16. In late December 1989, when the anger of the population toppled Ceauşescu’s dic-
tatorship, with the possible assistance of the security police and second-rank Communist
officials, Ion Iliescu assumed the leadership of the ad-hoc National Salvation Front.
Rumors and Radio Free Europe had been presenting him as the Gorbachev of Romania,
so he was immediately accepted by the masses. They were seduced by his benign appear-
ance and charismatic smile. He ruled the country with the help of hardliners, opportun-
ists, and extreme nationalists, and he drove away the more liberal-minded faction of his
party, which separated and sided with the democratic opposition. Unable to break with
Communist ideology, Iliescu obstructed privatization and liberalization while feign-
ing a democratic zeal, and he tolerated corruption. He was defeated in the presidential
elections of November 1996 by his democratic opponent, Emil Constantinescu, who
had been unsuccessful in 1992, and his party also lost in the parliamentary elections.
The new democratic coalition immediately started pushing for integration in Western
political, economic, and military bodies, while embarking on a program of reforms and
a campaign against corruption.
17. Felicia Ichim, “Prin bunăvoinţa vîrstnicilor festivalul tinerilor cineaşti a murit”
[With (the) Kind Assistance from the Elders, the Festival of Junior Filmmakers Is in
Demise], România liberă, August 5, 1997, p. 20.
18. Iulia Blaga, “Anul acesta ar trebui sa vedem 12 filme romanesti noi.”
19. Tudor Giurgiu (young feature film, video, and media director and producer,
currently director general of Romanian National Television), Vlad Păunescu (direc-
tor of Castel Film, one of the most successful Romanian film producers), and young
film director Cristian Mungiu rallied against the political decision to direct additional
funds to film projects written by “the brontosaurs of Romanian cinema,” as film critic
Valerian Sava called Communist court writers Corneliu Vadim Tudor and Dinu Săraru.
“Brontozaurii filmului romanesc se tin cu dintii de CNC,” Softpedia, August 3, 2005,
available at http://news.softpedia.com/news/Brontozarii-filmului-romanesc-se-tin-cu-
dintii-de-CNC-ro-5808.shtml. In a recent interview, Cristi Puiu declared he was left with
no choice but to redirect his attempts to gather funding for his recent films away from
the CNC. Cristi Puiu, “Urăsc Şcoala şi instituţiile” [I Hate School and All Institutions],
Dilema veche, no. 118, April 28, 2006–May 4, 2006, pp. 20–21.
20. Ileana Petre and Carmen Bărbulescu, “UCIN versus UARF: The schism in film
world,” Ora, July 19, 1994.
21. Antonescu was presented by official Communist historiography as an evil
leader who sided with Nazi Germany against “brotherly” Communist Russia and led the
country to destruction. After the insurrection of August 1944, Romania turned against
Germany and joined the allied forces, who were unfortunately represented in the area
by Soviet Russia, the harbinger of a Communist government. As a result, the Romanian
king Michael I was deposed and Antonescu was subjected to a staged Communist trial
and executed as a traitor. The international situation during Antonescu’s rule was admit-
tedly not so simple, with Romania caught between the territorial appetites of Russia,
Hungary, Bulgaria, and Germany, yet Antonescu ran a military dictatorship in total dis-
regard of the opinions of political parties or of Romania’s monarch, Michael I, and he was
dubiously close to Hitler. The conflicting evidence seems to indicate that Antonescu may
have been relatively well meaning, but was an extremely stiff and stubborn politician.
His discretionary methods are highly questionable from the perspective of a democracy.
Antonescu may have been forced by the Soviet and Hungarian threat into an alliance
with Hitler, while remaining unsympathetic to fascist ideology, but he nonetheless made
strategic mistakes and chose to rule the country with a ruthless, iron fist.
196 Bogdan Ştefă nescu and Sanda Foamete

22. Puiu has declared on more than one occasion that he is indebted to Pintilie for
saving Stuff and Daough at a time when it could not get funding and it may be that the
veteran’s help is the result of some sort of artistic affinity.
23. Radu Mihăileanu, interview by Elena Vlădăreanu, in Suplimentul de cultură,
April 22–28, 2006, pp. 8–9.