Romanian cinema seizing chance

Cannes wins, recent standouts have biz taking notice

ZAGREB, Croatia -- Mihai Chirilov, director of the Transylvania International Film Festival, last year predicted great things for the Romanian motion picture industry.

"Watch out, big festivals," he said. "You'll certainly hear more from us."

Well, he was right. At Cannes in 2006, Corneliu Porumboiu's "12:08 East of Bucharest" -- which asks the question if the Romanian Revolution happened at all -- won the Camera d'Or for best first film, and countrywoman Doroteea Petre picked up the award for best female performance for her work in Un Certain Regard entry "The Way I Spent the End of the World."

A year later came the country's shining moment: Director Cristian Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," a heartbreaking drama about abortion in communist Romania, won the Palme d'Or at the 60th edition of Cannes last month.

Tudor Giurgiu, honorary president of the Transylvania festival and the director of "Love Sick," which screened at the Berlin International Film Festival last year, disagrees with Chirilov.

"It's nothing that could've been predicted before," he says. "I think it is just a couple of young(ish), talented filmmakers who managed to deliver some good films in a row, both shorts and features.

"I know that from a foreign perspective this looks like a generation thing, a new wave of Romanian filmmakers, but here at home we see it as a couple of good stories picked up by a couple of talented people in a short period of time," he says. "It is not a result of some system, not at all. It could work for some more years, but then it's over if we don't do a different type of cinema."

Whether you saw it coming or not, Romanian cinema has come a long way.

In 2000, Romania, still mired in the post-Ceausescu mess that plagued the nation's film industry throughout the 1990s, produced zero films. But then things began to change.

In 2002, director Nae Caranfil's "Philanthropy" received the jury prize at the GoEast Festival in Wiesbaden, Germany, and Sinisa Dragin's "Every Day God Kisses Us on the Mouth" took the Tiger Award at the Rotterdam Film Festival.

"The film that actually made the breakthrough in the way Romanian cinema was perceived was 'The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,' " Alex Leo Serban, the best known and most influential critic in Romania, says of Cristi Puiu's film, which won the Un Certain Regard honor in Cannes in 2005.

And in addition to the Palme d'Or for "4 Months," Romania picked up another award at Cannes when Cristian Nemescu's "California Dreamin'" won the Un Certain Regard award.

That was Nemescu's first and last film, however; he died last year in a car accident at age 27.

"That was a huge loss for Romanian cinema," Serban says. "He was the youngest of this successful generation, and he had something absolutely original. He had a combination of cinema verite, documentary-like slices-of-life moments with very playful tributes to famous movies. He had a talent of putting together a grim social reality with fairytale-like stories. I think he created his own brand of neorealism. It's a very sad fact that he's gone."

Romania's film industry is also becoming popular as an authentic and inexpensive shooting locale for foreign productions.

But while the country is garnering international awards and production business, moviegoers at home are not queuing up to watch local product.

"I don't think people are not interested in watching Romanian films," Mungiu says, "they are not interested in watching films in theaters in general, including Hollywood movies. People are used to downloading the films or buying burned DVDs and watching at home.

"For the moment, there is a huge interest for my film, but I don't know if this is going to (translate into tickets being sold). Even if that happens, it can't be a big commercial success because we don't have any theaters left. We only have 38 theaters all around the country," he laments.

Still, the most successful Romanian director ever has no plans to ride the wave of success out of the country.

"When you win the Palme d'Or, a lot of people call you, all the biggest agencies from the States are looking for you, but for the moment my plan is not to leave," Mungiu says. "I'd like to stay here, think about my next film and help improve whatever can be improved in Romanian cinema."