Locarno: Romanian Cinema at a Breaking Point


Corneliu Porumboiu's When Evening Falls On Bucharest or Metabolism

Michael Pattison is a member of the second annual Critics Academy at the Locarno Film Festival. You can follow Michael on Twitter at @m_pattison.

In the climactic scene of writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu’s second feature, Police, Adjective (NYFF '09), two policemen working an otherwise routine case are persistently hounded by their chief. Disobeying a simple order on ethical grounds, one of the two officers is told by his superior to flick back and forth through a dictionary, defining individual words so that the logical disconnect between legal matters and one’s own personal conscience is painstakingly revealed.

This kind of conversational showdown is pushed to its limit in Porumboiu’s latest feature, When Evening Falls On Bucharest or Metabolism, which premiered at Locarno Film Festival last week and will screen at the 51st New York Film Festival this fall. Across 89 minutes of double-digit single-take scenes, filmmaker Paul (Bogdan Dumitrache) directs, advises and contradicts supporting actress and secret lover Alina (Diana Avramut) to such a degree that their world seems suffocated by an ongoing wordy dispute. Intellectual though Paul may be, his pursuit of logic is so relentless that it also appears petty. In making a film such as this, is Porumboiu accusing himself of the same?

After discovering the director of 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) and Police, Adjective was making a self-reflexive film, alarm bells faintly rang inside me. To begin with, a filmmaker as demonstrably talented as Porumboiu doesn’t have to justify his sensibilities to anyone. Whereas East of Bucharest and Police, Adjective were unique and distinct contributions to their respective genres (a network television comedy, a minimalist policier), When Evening Falls unfolds like a navel-gazing thesis. Such an inward turn a mere three films into his career is, by Porumboiu’s standards, a disappointment.

Porumboiu, of course, obviously wanted to make this project. It’s possible, even, that he felt in intellectual terms obliged to—that he needed to get it out of the way, somehow, before moving forward once more. Fair enough, but explaining your approach or drawing attention to what you’re doing is not in itself a profitable intellectual gesture. As it is, a scene in which Porumboiu shows the audience prolonged footage of his protagonist’s endoscopy scan best exemplifies the film’s inward-looking concerns.

What does work in the film is how it begins to mirror Paul’s own jealousy toward Alina when the latter begins to run away both with his film and Porumboiu’s own, thanks largely to her (and actress Avramut’s) distinctive beauty. Even so, as a whole, what is the film saying that others before it haven’t? Put another way, what specifically is this film telling us about the process of filmmaking, or art in general? At any rate, its metafictional dialectic, whereby characters discuss at length the functions of and motivations behind those they are playing, feels like a waste of 35mm—and conversely, as its opening conversation suggests, this is to be a film that laments the death agony of celluloid as a medium!

Though it was never a movement to begin with—Cristian Mungiu drew retroactive attention to his nation’s cinema when his 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days won the Palme d’Or in 2007 (12:08 East of Bucharest won the Camera d’Or the year previously)—the Romanian New Wave seems to have in some way reached its logical end point. Repetition as a structuring principle, the long-take as a kind of necessity, and a tripod-mounted camera that may tilt and pan but may not probe a scene spatially: in implementing these sensibilities to make a film about film, Porumboiu seems to have brought the whole thing full circle. What next?

What made the Romanian New Wave as significant and even as exciting as it was, was that its films were responding to national imperatives—to socio-historic particulars from which we could draw a concrete view of what Romania was like for those living there. In short, they revealed much about the inter-institutional breakdowns and economic failures that defined both the Ceausescu regime and the period of capitalism that followed in its wake, triumphantly proclaiming the end of history and all economic and political alternatives to it.

When a film is as interested in itself as Metabolism is, then, these social specificities are sadly lost. Consequently, the drama too suffers. Ciphers to begin with, these characters take some warming to; they become as quickly annoying as the protagonists that permeate the latter-day (and similarly formalist) films of Kiarostami. A deliberate decision, no doubt, but what might we draw from their social predicament? How do we account for their self-absorption? One hopes that having now made this, Porumboiu has found enough catharsis that he feels able to return in his next film to what are, frankly, more pressing concerns.


Valentin Hotea's Roxanne

In the meantime, though the Romanian New Wave in which Porumboiu played such a significant part may now be discussed in a past tense, there may be room yet for some continuation—as well as departure. Also receiving its world premiere at Locarno was Roxanne, the feature debut by Porumboiu’s fellow Romanian, Valentin Hotea. While it’s easy to overstate the end and the beginning of a new wave, some observations can be made as to how Hotea’s film works within and against recent comparators. And it isn’t the first film to beg this assessment: while Metabolism might be viewed as a more declarative proclamation of a shift in sorts, it’s fair to say this hasn’t been sudden. For merely one example, consider Radu Jude’s 2012 feature Everybody in Our Family, which shares its leading performer Serban Pavlu with Hotea’s debut.

Almost as if to acknowledge the burden of assuming the mantle in a national cinema context, Roxanne’s events take place in 2009, the same year Police, Adjective was released. Complementing that film’s theme of surveillance, moreover, Roxanne’s opening images are from a CCTV recording, in which Tavi Ionescu (Pavlu) visits the National Council for Securitate Archives to read the now-accessible file kept on him there since the end of the Ceausescu period. From information contained therein, Tavi begins to suspect that he has a son to an old flame, Roxana. Realising Roxana (Diana Dumbrava) is married to old acquaintance Sandu (Mihai Calin), Pavlu must seek confirmation that their son Victor (Anghel Damian) is actually his own in a delicate manner.

Whereas in Everybody in Our Family Pavlu played a divorcé whose routine visit to pick up his daughter for a weekend quickly turned into a hysterically embittered custodial battle that played out in real-time, here he plays another man seeking belated responsibility for what he believes is rightfully his. But while the early emphasis here is whether or not Victor is Tavi’s son, a deeper point emerges: even if Victor is Tavi’s son, how does one reveal the truth without also dragging along tatters of hurt with it?

Early on, repetition—a familiar trait of recent Romanian cinema—strains the drama at hand. Just as the film seems to have been named Roxanne just so The Police song of the same name could play out over its credits, characters appear to exist here as plot devices, rather than vice versa. To be sure, Tavi’s increasing obstinacy is difficult to sympathise with; his interest in Victor appears naïve and even selfish, allowing as he does the boy to test-drive his car without a licence. Later, he follows Victor on a date to Sinaia, where the boy tells him it isn’t cool to like every one of his updates on Facebook.

Numerous mentions of that social networking giant, in fact, remind us that the years under Ceausescu, defined as such by suppression and secret police, are a long-ago nightmare. At the same time, however, references to Facebook draw parallels to a surveillance culture: Tavi spies on Victor as a substitute for fathering him, and late in the film, he snitches on the lad to his parents, out of a concern for his safety. This too harks back to the fact that Tavi has been alerted of a son because he himself was placed under surveillance in the late 1980s thanks to an informant—the identity of whom is revealed late in the film.

What makes (or what made) the films of the Romanian New Wave interpretable as a single movement in the first place were their aesthetic continuities. Roxanne by comparison is unassuming in its style. It’s effective, however, precisely because it is a film about the hurt and confusion that still brims beneath a forced normalcy. The film’s literal melodrama gradually digs away at a symbolism, one that comes to suggest finally that present-day Romania is yet to come to terms with the prolonged fallout of Ceausescu’s personality cult. Perhaps tellingly, the film premiered at Locarno two days after news emerged in the Romanian press that Ceausescu’s execution site is to be opened to tourists next month.

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