Videograms of a Nation: Self-Representation, Canons, Histories and Politics

A touring retrospective of Romanian cinema casts movie-making during the communist dictatorship in a new and eye-opening light.
Flavia Dima

Above: Porto Franco

One could argue that cinema and ideology are intrinsically linked with each other, even (or, especially, depending on whom you ask) when one regards even the most menial, apparently wholly apolitical films, such as comedies and romantic dramas. But what happens to said cinema when this link is brutally severed by a severely traumatic event, such as a regime change? How does this modulate the understanding of cinema in relation to the two main, and apparently opposite concepts that usually applied to political readings: propaganda and subversion? And how does regime change affect ulterior output and cinematic canons, especially if the fallen regime was actively involved in censorship and oppression of free speech?

The history of various national cinemas across the second half of the 20th century, correlated with the histories of various dictatorships which professed loyalties to both sides of the political spectrum, may shed valuable insights to the above questions. By and large, the causes célèbres of repression, propaganda and subversion in cinema are those of the Latin American states befallen by ruthless right-wing dictatorships in the 60s and 70s. One need only look at Chile, where a vibrant new wave (Nuevo Cine Chileno) with strong political overtones was abruptly cut short by the 1973 far-right coup which claimed the life of leftist leader Salvador Allende, thus forcing many cineastes to flee the country in droves and create films abroad. What was left behind was a small and benign film industry that had a modest output until the 1990s, when military dictator Augusto Pinochet was voted out of office. However, what happens when the dictatorship was on the (seeming) opposite of the political spectrum and also considerably longer in duration, such as was the case of communist Romania?

After the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime in December 1989, the intellectual community in Romania justifiably scrambled to massively re-evaluate the cultural output of the last four decades, which had been largely marred by various state-mandated ideological directions. From the propaganda of the Stalinist fifties to the relative liberalization of the sixties and then back again to the overtly nationalistic and moralistic tone of the seventies and eighties, the very few subversive films (a few of them banned, or given extremely limited releases during the regime) that were created in this period were quickly elevated to cult status. In short, the hermeneutics applied by local film critics no longer strived to search for the films’ healthy moral messages that aimed at the moral education of the communist workers, but rather the complete opposite: from minute, subtle anti-regime dog whistles to unsubtle allegories about abuses of power and lack of (social) perspective, a cinema which had been mostly marginalized and only whispered about was now recovered as a locus of resistance in the midst of an oppressive dictatorship.

Above: Why Are They Ringing the Bells, Mitică?

The most famous case of censorship in the era concerns Lucian Pintilie’s Why Are They Ringing the Bells, Mitică? (1981), a film based on the works of Romanian satirical playwright Ion Luca Caragiale, a highly baroque interpretation which centers on a completely decadent and hedonistic nighttime ball of the provincial petit bourgeoisie. The film lay for the better part of a decade locked away by the communist authorities due to its “ideological impropriety and scandalous obscenity” and which, upon its release in October 1990, attracted massive crowds and became an instant classic; the same had happened to Pintilie’s sophomore feature, The Reenactment (1968), hailed by modern critics as the best Romanian film of all time, which had also been locked away after a very limited release. Pintilie, whose seminal 1992 film, The Oak, is currently being re-released in a 4k restored version, went on to become the leading figure of the new, post-revolutionary canon of Romanian communist-era cinema, amongst peers such as Mircea Daneliuc, Alexandru Tatos, Stere Gulea, and Mircea Săucan. In contrast to the subversive Chilean filmmakers, his was the only case of a filmmaker who left the country (save for Andrei Ujică, who at the time of his departure hadn’t begun his career in cinema). In the scandal ensuing his 1972 theatre adaptation of Gogol’s The Government Inspector, which was banned after only three performances, Pintilie was promptly handed a passport by the authorities and asked to leave; having already achieved a semblance of international fame, the auteur would have been impossible to jail without repercussions to Romania’s external politics.

His peers however stayed behind, their work hampered by local censors, cultural authorities, and propaganda committees. Infamously, Mircea Daneliuc was under the surveillance of the Romanian Secret Police (Securitate) throughout the eighties, being was spied upon by several individuals, including undercover film critics (!), as the official State Propaganda committees constantly pressured him into cutting away sequences from his films and even banned him from directing for three years, mid-decade. Stories such as his and Pintilie’s (along with countless other anecdotes), while doubled down by their arthouse aesthetics and the undoubtable quality of their films, helped not only cement their status as legendary subversive directors in the wake of the Revolution, but also propelled them to the forefront in an era which now spotlighted what the former regime had shunned. Conversely, however, there remains a very large number of films that now are almost completely neglected: either too overtly leftist in tone, too benign to qualify for political readings, or, as in the case of some literary adaptations and historical films, too unrelated to local tenets of culture, these films remain mostly relegated to late night reruns on the national television station.

However, in the thirty years that have passed since the revolution and the massive upheaval of artistic canons, these views on communist cinema have remained largely unchallenged. They have, in effect, become the new status quo of historical views on Romanian cinema, preserved alongside a small number of historical films, literary adaptations, and popular comedies, such as A Bomb Was Stolen (Ion-Popescu Gopo, 1961) and Uncle Mărin, The Billionaire (Sergiu Nicolaescu, 1979). However,working on the fringes throughout the past decade, small groups of film scholars, historians, and critics (of course, those older cinema workers deemed to have been too friendly to the defunct regime had been virtually blacklisted in the days following the Revolution, such as Ecaterina Oproiu) have exhaustively searched for new narratives on the history of Romanian cinema. Simultaneously, the National Cinematheque—Cinema Eforie—has sporadically screened many lesser-known communist-era films, but, as a barely-functional cultural institution (outside festivals and special screenings, the audience very rarely surpasses 15 people) and often lackadaisical programming (hear ye, millionth retrospective of Tarkovsky!), it unfortunately doesn’t generate much attention towards the hidden gems of Romanian cinema. Not to mention that its sister-institution, the National Film Archive, is critically underfunded and, as a direct consequence, is a very untransparent institution.

It finally seems that all of the hard curatorial work of the past decade or so is about to start paying off massively, which also seems to come at a moment of conjecture, in tandem with the massive international interest that Romanian cinema has garnered in the wake of the New Romanian Cinema, as the movement is now seemingly heading into its secondary phase, as was the case with similar currents in Taiwan or Iran. Enter “Videograms of a Nation,” a potentially revolutionary retrospective which aims straight at the heart of contemporary Romanian cinematic paradigms.


Above: The Eruption

Hosted within the milieu of Europalia Brussels, a massive, multi-month and interdisciplinary festival which showcases the artistic output of one country at a time, "Videograms of a Nation" was the brainchild of Romanian-Canadian curator Andrei Tănăsescu. Its stated mission is to unveil an entire century of cinema that lies hidden behind the Romanian New Wave—which is also set aside, in contrast to many other international retrospectives of Romanian cinema (no offence, Filmland Rumaenien). But whereas most local curators and critics painstakingly draw even the finest of paralells between subversive cinema and the "big three" of the Wave (Mungiu, Puiu, and Porumboiu), an easy task as most profess being inspired by Pintilie and company, Tănăsescu used the opportunity of his platform to perform a massive re-evaluation of canonical approaches of pre-1989 cinema. Essentially, he co-opted for his team many of the critics, academics, and curators who have been relentlessly working towards this end in recent years: Gabriela Filippi, Irina Trocan, Oana Ghera, and Adina Brădeanu amongst them. (Worth mentioning is also the fact that second-wave directors such as Radu Jude, Adina Pintilie, Ivana Mladenovic, Ana Lungu, and Marius Olteanu are featured in the contemporary sections.)

The approach is two-fold: first, legendary directors are largely featured in the retrospective with some of their lesser-known opuses, as is the case of Liviu Ciulei, for example: his 1964 magnum opus, The Forest of the Hanged, is left aside in favor of his almost obscure debut feature, The Eruption (1951), which sees a young female engineer sent to work in a town deserted after the collapse of its oil mining industry. Secondly, directors who are now largely unknown to modern audiences are prominently showcased. Also notable from the get-go is that many of these films have a very strong feminist undercurrent, showcasing a wide variety of female characters facing gender-related issues. This comes across as an important curatorial decision once it is put into context: it offers a stark contrast to the oft-grotesque cinema of the 1990s, abundant in objectification and even rape scenes (as critic Iulia Popovici explains in Female Sexuality and Male Power in the Cinema of the Transition Period), or the first phase of New Wave itself, which has oftentimes been criticized as a largely male-centric current.

The Mona Lisa without a Smile

Above: The Mona Lisa without a Smile

Along with the suggestively-titled I Don’t Want to Get Married (Manole Marcus, 1960), "Videograms of a Nation" showcases many examples of female characters rebelling against gender norms while still struggling with traditional lifestyle choices. One of the most overlooked female directors of the period, Malvina Ursianu, is featured here with her unique debut feature: The Mona Lisa without a Smile (1968), in which naïve influences of Antonioni’s La notte are to be noticed. The plot centers on an encounter between former lovers across the span of a day: Irina, a successful scientist, and Caius, a failed writer. Beyond its evident tropes (the inevitable reminiscing of an impossible youth, the interchangeable cat-and-mouse game), Ursianu introduces a strikingly modern subtheme regarding privilege: facing the double challenge of being a woman and of a modest background, Irina has achieved an incredible career, while Caius, who ostensibly left her in the past for a bourgeois girl, couldn’t transform his aristocratic upbringing into a successful adult life. (To be quite fair, it must be said that the brutal social upheavals of Stalinist fifties must have contributed decisively to this state of affairs.)

Another story subtly centering around the notion of privilege comes to fore in Lucian Bratu’s very hip and self-reflexive 1967 feature, A Movie with a Charming Girl, starring yé-yé girl Margareta Pâslaru as Ruxi, an aspiring young actress in the search of her big break. As she twirls men around her fingers while proclaiming that she “doesn’t want to be anyone’s property,” Ruxi is a fluid character which evades any simplistic categorization—although Bratu was forced by the authorities to give the film an unsatisfying, moralistic ending, in which she fails to qualify for a role on a big television production, so as to “discourage” socialist youth to act in similar ways.  (The director did manage to weave in a plethora of meta-cinematic moments, from cameos of other real-life directors and film critics, to films-within-the-film.) While this narrative concerns a cosmopolitan and bourgeois young woman, the other Lucian Bratu film featured in the retrospective plays out at the opposite side of the social spectrum. In Angela Moves On (1974) the titular protagonist breaks all the rules of traditional femininity: she’s an unrepentant, snarky taxi driver who’s also a divorcee, leaving behind an abusive, alcoholic husband. Angela’s feminism is as grassroots as it gets: from deflecting the advances of her male customers and their condescending attitude at her “unwomanly” profession, to showing solidarity to other women (be they co-workers or clients), while keeping in line with the tropes of the taxi-film, as an entire diorama of society passes through her back seat. Here, too, we see some normative attempts at play: initially portrayed as a loner, a romance soon begins to shape up between Angela and one of her male clients. He quickly emerges as being abusive and manipulative—although Angela remains smitten with him after he seemingly repents, she instantly resumes her previous life as he leaves on an overseas work assignment, retaining her independence.


Above: Manasse

What is equally fascinating in the retrospective’s roster is its capacity to unearth films from otherwise completely forgotten periods of Romanian cinema and to discover in them the time-capsule visage of a nation that is multiethnic and cosmopolitan, both in narrative and in aesthetics. “Videograms of a Nation” began its run with one of the earliest, still-surviving feature fiction films of the first half of the century, as much of the era’s output has been lost, either in devastating fires or by improper archiving: Jean Mihail’s 1925 opus, Manasse. As was the case with many Romanian silent films, his was an adaptation of a theatre play, penned by Jewish playwright Ronetti Roman in 1900, which had been at one point been banned in the 1910s due to a rise in antisemitism. The titular Manasseis an elderly Orthodox Jew who has lost his wife just around the time his granddaughter, Lelia, is blossoming into a young woman and, thus, is to be quickly married off; she is in love with a Romanian Orthodox young man, Matei. Manasse’s primary significance lies in its unwitting documentary value: not only does it show unique images of belle époque Bucharest and of a Jewish quarter in a small, pre-industrial provincial town, it also shows the inner workings of a community that, less than twenty years after the shooting, was all but annihilated by the Holocaust. The resulting portrait is that of a society that is clearly torn between antiquated, conservatory concerns (the gravitas revolving around the lifestyle choices of women and religious purity) and emerging liberal and modern tendencies, as embodied by the young couple. Nonetheless, it is a unique portrait of a society that, at the time, was taking pride in its multiculturalism and striving for westernization. In an inversion of Romeo and Juliet, the grieving Manasse tragically dies in the end after unsuccessfully preventing Lelia’s marriage to Matei through various comical shenanigans – the change in tone signaled by his death xxx

Yet another fascinating deep cut of Romanian cinema is Porto Franco (1961), a flawed, yet fascinating social fresco of the port town of Sulina, populated by a colorful multiethnic community of international seafarers, ethnic Greeks and Turks, convivially sharing the town with their Romanian counterparts. (It is also a time capsule of a city whose architecture was yet untouched by the sweeping, aggressive urban modernization of the late sixties.) It is ostensibly a period piece set in interwar Romania, dancing the fine line between satire and tragedy, as the modest community braces for the return of ex-pat Nică (now ostensibly styling himself Nick), believing him to come home as a millionaire from the United States, the storyline drawing upon the aftermath of massive local migration across the Atlantic that took place in the first decade of the 20th century. (Of course, he return penniless and with a mixed-raced daughter, who immediately draws the attraction of local men, and the ire of local white women.) Paul Calinescu’s second-to-last feature might strike viewers as being a tad anachronistic if one is to look at its contemporaries—after all, across the Iron Curtain, Pasolini’s Accatone was coming out, and the French New Wave was entering full swing—yet it is precisely this seeming delay that gives the film its indelible charm, since it recovers a type of narrative filmmaking that was impossible in wartime (and post-bellum) Romania. In its aesthetics and narrative, the feature could easily pass as a film made in the late forties to early fifties, as it melds together hyper-romantic subplots in the vein of Renoir’s A Day in the Country, a postal workers’ strike juxtaposed with loan sharks, along with intricate ballroom scenes recalling La dolce vita. Albeit messy in its attempt at cramming in an entire novel’s worth across various genres in just over 70 minutes, Porto Franco is still charming in its naiveté.

Although it might be a bit too early to sound the death knell for the enduring mythos of the subversive anticommunist film director as the singular saving grace of the first century of Romanian cinema, “Videograms of a Nation” is a notable change of paradigm,both in its film selection and its adjacent conferences and side-events (masterclasses, a book launch, an installation, a showcase of video essays). Not only because it fulfills the mammoth task of unearthing films that are otherwise largely-forgotten, but also because shows a model of patrimonial curatorship that stands in contrast to the structural problems of the National Film Archives and National Cinematheque, offering a an alternative. Hopefully, the international dimension of this retrospective, which screened across several locations in Brussels and Ghent, as well as at the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, will have a continued legacy even beyond its closure, and beyond its own cultural sphere—as a model in practicing canonical reevaluation, in opposing hegemonic and overtly ideological readings of film history, and an inspiration for constant curatorial innovation, in tandem with critics and academics.

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Lucian PintilieIon-Popescu GopoSergiu NicolaescuLiviu CiuleiManole MarcusMalvina UrsianuLucian BratuJean MihailPaul CalinescuLong Reads
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