Posted by Susan Doll on April 30, 2012
Working at Facets Multi-Media for over ten years has expanded my understanding of and appreciation for foreign film—from classic Polish films to subversive Czech New Wave features to contemporary Asian action flicks. The best way to learn about the people, cultures, and histories of other countries is to view their films. Watching international films has also influenced my perspective on Hollywood movies and broadened my tastes as well as my understanding of what cinema can be. I love commercial Hollywood films, but I also know that contemporary studio productions are at an all-time creative low point. Comparing Hollywood’s output to the genre cinema of South Korea or China, the social drama of South America, or popular cinema of the Middle East reveals that in the rest of the world, films are made primarily for adults who are not afraid to think—not adolescents who want to be entertained by the same characters in the same genres. And, our home-grown movies suffer as a result.
Despite ever-dwindling budgets and a decreased staff, Charles Coleman, Facets’ intrepid programmer, manages to fill the Facets Cinematheque with interesting movies from around the globe. Among the many features selected so far this year, he has booked three Oscar nominated films, including the American documentary To Hell and Back, the Belgian revenge drama Bullhead, and the harrowing British melodrama We Need to Talk About Kevin. From May 4 to 13, Charles has booked a complete retrospective of one of the world’s most respected filmmakers—Romania’s Lucian Pintilie. That’s right, Romania. While I knew that Romania had a working a film industry, even during the communist era, I’ll admit that I could not name one of Pintilie’s films—at least until now.
To watch the films of an Eastern Europe director is to understand that the work is at least indirectly tied to the history and culture of his/her country, especially those who lived through the communist era and the Velvet Revolution that followed. The cinema provides a means for the directors and their audiences to collectively cope with the painful issues, disruptive traumas, daily ordeals, and even positive values of life under communism. While this is true of Hollywood films and American audiences, Eastern European filmmakers work with a more purposeful content that is less obsessed with spectacle and entertainment. I consider a body of work that reflects or navigates a region’s history as an opportunity for me to learn something, particularly the difficulties of producing films under a dictatorial, authoritative regime. Those directors still around to make movies must feel a measure of satisfaction for outlasting the despots, bureaucrats, and oppressors who silenced their artistic voices back in the day.
Lucian Pintilie was born in 1933 in southern Romania in a region known as Bessarabia, which is now part of the Ukraine. Though his village, Tarutino, was considered German, it was also home to Romanians, Ruthenians, Turks, Jews, Ukrainians, Tartars, and Russians. Pintilie describes Tarutino as a “halcyon polyglot,” where the multicultural nature of the community bred a tolerant and cosmopolitan population. It also made a strong impact on Pintilie’s ideas and beliefs, which were eventually at odds with the ideology and practices of Romania’s communist government.
Pintilie learned his craft at the state-supported Institute of Theater and Cinematographic Art (IATC) in Bucharest. In one of those ironic twists of history, he directed his first film, Sunday at 6, in 1965, the same year that Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s brutal head of state, came to office. Sunday at 6 traces the romance between two Communist revolutionaries who find their relationship to be at cross-purposes with the interests of the Party. The tension between individual vs. national identities is a theme Pintilie would revisit throughout his career and one that later influenced Romania’s New Wave directors. Back in 1965, the intentionally mysterious, nonlinear narrative of Sunday at 6 was too modern, and therefore, too subversive for Romanian censors, who did not allow Pintilie to make another film for four years. This is typical of repressive regimes with state-supported film industries: Filmmakers are generally not punished with imprisonment but with denials for their requests to make their next movies. For artists—no matter the medium—the inability to create their art for an indeterminate amount of time is indeed a punishment.
Pintilie became a leading director of theater and television in Romania while waiting to make his next film, Reenactment, which was finally produced and released in 1969. Later voted the best Romanian film of all time by 40 Romanian film critics, Reenactment tells the story of two friends who injure a waiter while drunk. The police force them to recreate their crime for an educational film—with disastrous results. Bleak and grim, Reenactment did not endear Pintilie to the communist-controlled film industry. He was denounced to Ceausescu by another director for triggering “an unpatriotic feeling in the Romanian cinema.” Two years later, he was deemed subversive and unemployable by the communist government, which had just suspended his stage production of Nikolai Gogol’s The Inspector General, a satire of government bureaucracy. Pintilie left his native country for the West, working in exile for almost 20 years.
During his two decades in exile, Pintilie mounted and directed a series of innovative, critically acclaimed stage productions of classic plays throughout the West: The Magic Flute in Italy; Turandot in France; Carmen in Wales; The Cherry Orchard in Washington; D.C., and many more. In 1979, he was offered the chance to return to Romania to make a film adaptation of Ion Luca Caragiate’s Carnival Scenes, which he had already directed as a stage production. But, when authorities saw the final cut, they shelved it. Carnival Scenes was not exhibited for a decade. He did not make another film until he returned to Romania in 1990, after Ceausescu had been ousted and executed by a firing squad. At that time, Pintilie was asked to return as the head of national film production within the new Ministry of Culture.
Once in Romania, Pintilie hit the ground running, averaging a new film every two years until age slowed him down in the mid-2000s. Unlike the film industries of other Eastern European countries, which were severely weakened by attempts at capitalist-driven production systems and Hollywood’s relentless pursuit of Eastern European distribution and exhibition outlets, the Romanian cinema touted home-grown films. By the millennium, a Romanian New Wave influenced by Pintilie and including the work of Cristi Puiu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) and Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest), began attracting international acclaim and attention.
Not surprising, the films of the Romanian New Wave are obsessed with the end of the brutal regime of Ceausescu. Typically austere and minimalist, many explore the struggles and resilience of life under dictatorship. Others are set later and are more concerned with the transition to free-market capitalism and democracy and the consequences of those changes on Romanian society. A satirical tone marks the work of the Pintilie and the Romanian New Wave, which has been described as “black humor,” but the films are certainly not funny—they are darkly ironic or sardonic.
Two films by Pintilie both prefigured the Romanian New Wave and influenced its themes and tone–The Oak and An Unforgettable Summer. The Oak marked the exiled filmmaker’s return to the cinema and garnered an Oscar nomination for best foreign film. Though released in 1992, The Oak is set in 1988 and offers a tour through the ruins of Romania at the hands of Ceausescu, revealing the country’s pent-up rage over the corruption and terror that marked his era. The film opens on a schoolteacher and her elderly father in a dilapidated, filthy apartment watching home movies of a happier time. When he dies, she is so ingrained in her surroundings that she refuses to let anyone in to take the body away, actually lighting a fire at the front door to keep people at bay. In other words, present-day Romania is in stasis while its past is little more than a romanticized memory. She tries to donate her father’s body to medical science as per his wishes, but the university does not want him. She cremates his remains, storing them in a Nescafe jar until she can return to his village to scatter his ashes. On the journey to the countryside, she encounters one misfortune after another, from gang-rape to arrest to torture, until she falls in with a rebellious surgeon who fights against the system. Representing the people of Romania, the couple attempts to salvage a future from the decay and corruption of the past. The film concludes with the couple on a hill embracing beneath an oak tree as one holds a loaded gun. Most critics considered the image a hopeful one compared to the bleak events in the rest of the film, but I am not so sure.
For me, Pintilie’s most interesting film is 1995’s Unforgettable Summer, starring English actress Kristin Scott-Thomas as Marie-Therese, a Hungarian aristocrat married to a Romanian military officer. Set in 1925, the film opens at a glamorous jazz-age ball where Marie-Therese is propositioned by her husband’s superior officer. She rebuffs his advances, resulting in the couple’s reposting to the remote border area of southern Romania as retaliation. The frontier outpost is inhospitable and dangerous. In the 1920s, the borders of Romania were in dispute, contributing to the escalating ethnic conflicts. And, border bandits took advantage of the hostilities to prey upon the vulnerable. I always find it interesting when a political director uses a well-known film star in a key role. Here, Pintilie uses Scott-Thomas’s star image as the cool, sophisticated beauty to portray the enigmatic Marie-Therese as perpetually elegant and enduring no matter the circumstance. Was she really that way, or is this portrayal influenced by the storyteller, who is her grown son, and he remembers her that way? After all, the son refers to the family’s time at this remote outpost as “an unforgettable summer,” as though it were little more than adventure, despite the horrible event in which his father was ordered to kill a group of innocent Bulgarian villagers to avenge the massacre of Romanian guards by Macedonian bandits. Is Marie-Therese symbolic of Romania’s romanticized version of itself—a nice memory of the distant past to overshadow the ethnic tensions that plagued the country?
The Cinema of Lucian Pintilie, which plays at Facets from May 4 to 13, features all ten and a half of his films, from Sunday at 6 to his latest, the 39-minute Tertium non Detur. The retrospective, which is detailed here, provides a rare opportunity to see the work of a director who uses cinema as a medium of personal expression and social responsibility. As we being the descent into summer blockbuster season, it is a reminder that the movies should be more than just grown men prancing around in ridiculous costumes in front of endless CGI effects.
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