As the Cannes Film Festival wound down last weekend, the festival jury offered a reminder of how large a shadow one small country has cast on this gathering.
The Romanian director Cristian Mungiu took the director's prize (he shared it with the French filmmaker Olivier Assayas) for "Graduation," a story-slash-parable about a father who skirts ethical lines in the name of his family. The trophy became the latest prize for a country that, with apologies to Donald Trump, just seems to win, win, win.
It was fully 11 years ago that Cristi Puiu's "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," about the ways a healthcare system fails a dying man, took the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes, kicking off the so-called Romanian New Wave. Two years later Mungiu won the Palme d'Or for his period abortion drama "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days."
Ever since, the Romanians have turned out complex, interesting and subtle work, reliably, every year, often by using their signature long shots and rigorous minimalism. "California Dreamin'," "12:08 East of Bucharest," "Beyond The Hills" and "Police, Adjective" have all won major prizes at Cannes in recent years. If you've never seen Radu Muntean's infidelity drama "Tuesday, After Christmas," which was at Cannes in 2010, stream it tonight; it will immediately make your life more profound by a factor of three. Other films, such as "Child's Pose," "Tales from the Golden Age" and "Aurora" all have their virtues too. This is less a new wave than a persistent surf-pounding.
But the beach can become a crowded place, to beat up a metaphor (something the Romanians would never do). And even as the Southeastern European nation continues to represent a surprisingly potent cinema movement — Puiu also had a new film at the festival this year, the excellent "Sieranevada" (it's combustible family-reunion drama as you've never seen it) -- the Bucharest gang is at a crossroads of sorts.
How much to continue in a style that's served it well but could grow stale, like all styles, is an open question, as is the challenge of keeping on in a nation where even leaders admit they've failed their filmmakers.
And maybe most uncertain of all is the outcome of a rivalry fraught enough it could have walked in and sat down (for an aptly long period of time) in a Romanian film drama.
You see, because Puiu kick-started the movement but Mungiu took it to the Palme finish line, the former is a little bristly about it all. And because Mungiu knows that Puiu believes that — and because Puiu thinks his style has been aped by others -- well, you see how it could get a little thorny.
And because they're as different as personalities get — Puiu the no-nonsense man and exacting artist; Mungiu the extrovert and polished statesman — there is enough spice to fill a giant plate of jumări.
Both filmmakers are too adult, or savvy, to discuss it openly. But there it is percolating, undeniably, just below the surface.
"I think all in all it's rather a good thing that this festival supports this kind of cinema and people are paying attention to it," Puiu said. "But I think it's obvious. What happened was I got this prize in Cannes, and then lots of directors saw that, and it pushed this style — direct cinema, Romanian realism, neo-realism, black realism, whatever you want to call it. Because I made a movie in 2001 and no one copied that," he said, alluding to "Stuff and Dough," a scruffy little gem of a road movie, and then nodded to Mungiu's "Occident," in 2002, which was not in the Romanian New Wave style.
A few days later, as Mungiu talked to The Times, he offered a slightly more coy acknowledgment of the tension.
"True, we were all being influenced in films that were done in the country that were successful," he said. "But when you take life as an inspiration and not films, and you try to put life on screen, you can end up with certain types of films."
Cinema rivalries are strange. Because directors don't actually get a chance to play each other head-to-head — the placement of both "Graduation" and "Sieranevada" in competition at Cannes this year is as close as it gets — it doesn't manifest in the way of, say, a matchup between Kevin Durant and Steph Curry. But who can claim a leadership mantle, especially in a place as small as Romania, is essential. The U.S. auteur world has room for Spike Lee and Richard Linklater and Steven Soderbergh and other trendsetters. A country like Romania, with less than 1/15th the population of the States, may be less accommodating.
"I believe Puiu is the icebreaker and had the power and the very uncanny personality necessary to be a leading figure. He is the context-creator," said Corina Suteu, Romania's Minister of Culture, in an interview with The Times here, playing it admirably and understandably neutral. "And Mungiu is the force who broke through."
She added, "You have these polar opposites. Puiu is the daring one who made things move and Mungiu established it and put it down."
Born a year apart (Mungiu, in April 1968, came second) and growing up at similar historical moments, they culled from the same influences. Many of the concerns of Romanian cinema, and Mungiu and Puiu in particular, involve a country that is supposed to have repudiated and escaped from the corruption that characterized the Communist period. Yet more than a quarter-century after the execution of Nicolae Ceaușescu, these films make clear that there remain vestiges of the old system, and similar self-justifications.
"Graduation" focuses on a man, Romeo, who basically just wants his daughter, a graduating high school senior, to get the chances he didn't — and is willing to wheel and deal in ways that are decidedly below board to ensure that happens.
"We live in a world and society that is not very moral but is made up of people who believe they are moral," Mungiu said. "I come from a country where everyone talks about corruption but they blame someone else. You can create a lot of problems this way — what is compromise and what is just laziness?"
Puiu, meanwhile, in examining the ways various family tensions play out in his "Sieranevada," also offers a critique about personal accountability, as relatives at a wake (while waiting to eat a meal that, Godot-like, continually seems out of reach) hash out competing views on everything from old grievances to 9/11 truther theories.
"I think it's very serious what's happening. We need to rely on some kind of truth. And you look around and it's impossible to find," Puiu said. "We keep saying this is truth, and we keep on forgetting and letting ourselves choose the comfortable way, and don't ask ourselves questions that put our own decisions in the discussion and not the decisions of others."
He continued, "We tend to believe 'this is what happened on 9/11/2001 in the United States' but know nothing about what's happening next door. This is a kind of illusion, a way of escaping real responsibilities."
If those sound like similar sets of concerns, well, the irony of the Mungiu-Puiu rivalry is, some small stylistic and other differences aside, their films would not read as fundamentally different to most viewers. (Which, of course, also underscores the rivalry — if the heap is so specific, is there room for more than one at the top?)
That they're even making these films is remarkable in its own right. A tax-incentive program, so critical to film production in many nations, is nonexistent in Romania. Film culture in general has been shrinking. Since the fall of Communism, the number of movie theaters has actually gone down — drastically, from nearly 450 theaters in 1990 to about 130 today. The situation inside the country, in other words, is much more depressed than the noise on the film-festival circuit would suggest.
Suteu, who was installed less than a month ago with a mandate to revamp how government funds the arts, says earlier regimes did not sufficiently support film.
"I think people like Puiu and Mungiu have been doing it despite the system," said the minister, who in a previous job as head of a Romanian cultural institute in New York helped establish a Romanian New Wave film festival. "Our job is to make sure they have the support, which they have not had. It's to support people who are making films, not old [sweetheart] deals from the days when people just got money without producing anything."
Suteu is pressing a piece of legislation that would create a rebate system and also hopes to incentivize the building of art-house theaters. (Of course, as any U.S. indie filmmaker could tell you, sometimes the best creativity comes out of the tightest constraints.)
As to why the country has turned out such compelling stuff, Suteu has an interesting theory. Instead of the standard social explanations of a post-Communist need to understand the past and/or critique the alleged improvements since, she chalks it up to media in the 1970s and 1980s when many of these filmmakers were growing up.
"There wasn't much Romanian film on TV. So we were seeing French, German, British, Russian film. It was an indirect education through cinema, and even though Communism later banned a lot of these films, we were nourished in this universe.... The world's history became our history," she said.
She added, in an Eastern European flourish, "It's like living in Venice and having a sense of beauty."
The number of films from Romania at Cannes this year, across all sections, was, remarkably, the third-highest of any country, behind only the cinematic powerhouses of the U.S. and France. The effect of the New Wave has been so complete that the critical breakout of the festival — the German film "Toni Erdmann," which fits firmly in a Western European tradition of human seriocomedy — actually set much of the action in Bucharest, a result of its director, Maren Ade, taking an interest in Romania as cinematic backdrop.
Historically, waves don't last long; audiences grow tired and filmmakers become restless, leaving all that energy to dissipate.
Some have quietly begun to question the New Wave style, which, as well-executed as it is, can verge into cliche. (If more people knew about Romanian cinema, it would be ripe for a great "Saturday Night Live" parody.) Mungiu himself said he debated not shooting "Graduation" with the same long takes and naturalism, whether to opt for an approach a little slicker and modern, before deciding the New Wave style suited the story he wanted to tell.
And after five features apiece, it wouldn't be hard to imagine that Mungiu and Puiu decide to work outside the country or change their styles in a way that makes their work seem like less a part of a wave.
Then again, a little rivalry tends to go a long way.