The Klassiki Companion: The Romanian New Wave

The Klassiki Companion is our beginners’ guide to the key filmmakers, movements, and concepts in the cinema of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. In this edition, we introduce the Romanian New Wave, which exploded onto the international scene in the early 2000s and continues to challenge the status quo today.

Everybody in Our Family (dir. Radu Jude, 2012)

Pretty much every country with a functioning film industry has had its own “new wave” at some stage – from the young guns of the Soviet Thaw generation to the French renegades of the 1960s and the German cohort of Herzog and Schlöndorff. These waves are always contested phenomena, often acquiring the sense of a coherent “movement” only after the fact and troubled by the question of whether national character can even be captured onscreen.

The Romanian New Wave, though, seemed to emerge onto the European stage fully formed, its arrival heralded by a flurry of Cannes prizes between 2005 and 2007. For several years in the late noughties, the likes of Cristian Mungiu, Cristi Puiu, and Corneliu Porumboiu were ubiquitous on the festival circuit. For western European critics with only a vague sense of Romania and its cinematic heritage, the opportunity to define the country’s onscreen identity proved hard to resist. Romanians themselves were more hesitant about the label, even as they seized on the opportunities offered by critical success. What no one could deny was the explosion of filmmaking talent emerging from the country, which married lo-fi minimalism with a cynical humour and a sharp eye for social dysfunction.

As often happens, the Romanian New Wave began to mutate into something even newer almost as soon as it had been declared. Today, the old guard are ploughing new filmmaking furrows and a raft of fresh talent has come to the fore, armed with an ever-expanding box of formal tricks and political provocations.

Stuff and Dough (dir. Cristi Puiu, 2001)

Origin stories

Romanians themselves have tended to use the label “New Wave” (Noul Val) to describe a raft of films from the late 1960s through to the ‘80s that first honed the eyes of the cinephile world on the then-ostracised communist nation. Renowned stage director-turned-filmmaker Lucian Pintilie (The Re-enactment, 1968), master animator Ion Popescu-Gopo (The White Moor, 1965), and Moscow-based Moldovan Emil Loteanu (The Fiddlers, 1971) were all exhibited and rewarded at international film festivals and have been cited since by their 21st-century counterparts.

These works were chronologically dispersed, and there was little to link their directors stylistically, beyond their efforts to push at the limits of state-sanctioned production. In contrast, Romania’s second New Wave was, at least at first, a much more compact phenomenon. This 21st-century Noul Val centred initially around a group of filmmakers who studied at Bucharest’s Film Institute at the turn of the millennium, including later mainstays Cristi Puiu and Corneliu Porumboiu. Puiu looms large in histories of the New Wave: many see his 2001 feature Stuff and Dough as a founding text, while his victory in the Short Film category at the 2004 Berlinale with Cigarettes and Coffee ­– in conjunction with Cătălin Mitulescu’s Trafic winning the Short Film Palme d’Or at Cannes later that same year – served as definitive proof that something special was in the offing.


Festival success: blessing or curse?

As much as any recent film “movement”, the Romanian New Wave is the product of festival success – a nominally national phenomenon demarcated by international institutions. These contours were established by three films released in consecutive years, each honoured at Cannes, creating an escalating critical consensus: Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lăzărescu (Un Certain Regard, 2005), Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest (Caméra d’Or, 2006), and Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Palme d’Or, 2007). Puiu, Porumboiu, and Mungiu found themselves the standard-bearers for a supposed school that they had never avowed. In the space of a few years, an aesthetic and political ethos had emerged seemingly fully formed: one characterised by minimalist, dialogue-heavy naturalism, often shot on handheld cameras, tackling socio-political issues with a mordant cynicism and quick to draw out the connections between Romania’s communist-era troubles and the dysfunctions of its neoliberal present-day.

In the space of a few years, an aesthetic and political ethos had emerged seemingly fully formed, characterised by minimalist, dialogue-heavy naturalism and tackling socio-political issues with a mordant cynicism

While there were variations on this common theme ­– Mungiu was always more austere, Porumboiu given to genre-hopping formal trickery – this “wave” nonetheless cohered to great effect. For several years in the late noughties and early 2010s, Romania held a special place in the hearts of Europe’s most prestigious festival juries; after a fallow period, recent years have seen a return to the continent’s podia for the more formally disparate “second generation” of New Wave auteurs, spearheaded by the great Radu Jude. The figures are striking: between 2003 and 2021, Romanians took home 11 awards from Cannes, eight from Berlin (including three Golden Bears for best film), three from Locarno, and three from Karlovy Vary.

Of course, there is a flipside to this kind of international recognition. The directors themselves have often expressed discomfort at being lumped together despite differences in their thematic and formal concerns. This kind of “wave by critical consensus” also risks becoming a self-replicating phenomenon detached from the realities of production in Romania itself: funders, critics, and audiences alike are quick to turn on filmmakers when they fail to meet externally imposed expectations, especially when they hail from a poorly understood nation like Romania. The gulf between the acclaim these films receive in France and Germany and the audiences they can attract in Romania itself remains stark.

12:08 East of Bucharest (dir. Corneliu Porumboiu, 2006)

Communism and capitalism

One common thread running through the films of the New Wave’s boom years was their concern with the social effects of Romania’s transition from communism to capitalism. Filmmakers who came of age in the 1980s turned to that recent-but-receding history to both caution against its abuses and to draw out the connections between then and now; alternatively, they mapped out the ways in which the failure to transform society after 1989 had produced a new set of equally destructive attitudes and behaviours.

Of the films set in the dog days of the Ceaușescu regime, Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is the most well-known thanks to its Palme d’Or triumph. Mungiu tracks the human consequences of Ceaușescu’s infamous abortion ban, his alternately roving and claustrophobic camera following two female students as they attempt to procure an illegal termination. Cătălin Mitulescu’s The Way I Spent the End of the World (2006) adopts a more whimsical tone it its depiction of the inner lives of schoolchildren dreaming of escaping to Italy. Mungiu himself turned to comedy when he wrote and helmed the omnibus feature Tales from the Golden Age (2009), a more directly satirical takedown of communist daily life.

Filmmakers who came of age in the 1980s turned to that recent-but-receding history to both caution against its abuses and to draw out the connections between then and now

Cristi Puiu’s 2001 debut Stuff and Dough arguably set the tone for New Wave films set in present-day Romania; its concern for the marginalised and the dysfunctional was taken up brilliantly in the director’s breakout The Death of Mr Lăzărescu, which depicts the petty tragicomedy of the final hours in the life of a lonely old man. Later New Wave titles, such as Radu Jude’s Everybody in Our Family (2012) and Mungiu’s Graduation (2016) directed their ire at the country’s 21st-century bourgeoisie, whose corrupt individualism is framed as both reaction against and sordid capitalisation on the privations of the Ceaușescu era.

A handful of films focus in on the moment of political transition itself – the revolution of Christmas 1989, when Ceaușescu was deposed and executed. Radu Muntean’s The Paper Will Be Blue (2006) unfolds during the uprising, as a squad of policemen are tasked with locating one of their number who has thrown his lot in with the protestors. Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest, on the other hand, is about the contested legacy of those fateful events as seen from the present, as a local TV station in provincial Vaslui attempts to determine whether their small town can lay claim to revolutionary glory over the course of a single, increasingly farcical evening.

I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians (dir. Radu Jude, 2018)

New New Wave?

Since around the middle of the 2010s, critics and filmmakers have frequently declared the end of the New Wave. It is perhaps more accurate to say that the movement has transformed into something (even) newer. In the process, it has departed from the classic New Wave formula – but it has also widened its historical perspective and been injected with some much-needed urgency. Some of the old guard are still going strong, as evidenced by recent forays like Puiu’s cerebral period piece Malmkrog (2020) and Porumboiu’s crime drama oddity The Whistlers (2019). But vibrant new voices have also emerged, their more radical experimentation an assault on a resurgent right-wing consensus and a challenge to Romania’s troubling historical amnesia – as well as the somewhat stale arthouse machinations of their New Wave forebears.

vibrant new voices have also emerged, their more radical experimentation an assault on a resurgent right-wing consensus and a challenge to Romania’s troubling historical amnesia

For one, Romanian cinema is growing more inclusive. Where New Wave masterpieces like Puiu’s Aurora (2010) and Radu Muntean’s Tuesday, After Christmas (2010) delved into the neuroses of the middle-aged man, recent titles have approached questions of gender and sexuality with a broader mind. Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not (2018) is key here. This daringly empathetic account of a woman’s difficult journey towards physical intimacy was the shock winner of the Golden Bear in Berlin – an award that sparked controversy among indignant critics and set off a conservative backlash in Romania. A small but growing canon of LGBTQ cinema, including Bogdan Theodor Olteanu’s lesbian drama Several Conversations About a Very Tall Girl (2018), has prompted vital conversations about representation in the face of often ugly right-wing rhetoric. The relationship between cinema and society here can be fraught: negative reviews of Pintilie’s film were deployed by conservative pressure groups to back up their support for a referendum aimed at a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

In this context, perhaps the most consequential Romanian director working today is Radu Jude, whose increasingly vituperative assaults on both the neoliberal present and the myths of national history have catapulted him to the kind of international fame previously enjoyed by the first generation of New Wave auteurs. After a string of satirical domestic dramas, Jude struck out on his singular path with Aferim! (2015) – a black-and-white period piece that was both an homage to John Ford westerns and a shocking account of the still largely unacknowledged era in Romanian history when the Roma people were kept as slaves. From there, Jude has gone from strength to strength. His work is distinguished by a much broader historical perspective than the original New Wave could muster and a much more unruly formal temperament: from a comedy of manners about the rise of fascism in the 1930s (Scarred Hearts, 2016) to an archival documentary about the nation’s role in the Holocaust (The Dead Letter, 2017) and a Covid-era sexual farce lampooning middle-class moral hypocrisy (Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, 2021). Perhaps his masterpiece is the remarkable 2018 treatise I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, a meta-fictional account of the Romanian role in the massacre of tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews in 1941. Jude’s work speaks to the vitality of the New Wave legacy, and the thrilling potential of the roads not yet taken in Romanian film.

Explore our collection of Romanian New Wave titles, featuring Radu Jude, Cristi Puiu, and more.