The unexpected programming highlight of the fall 2017 slate in Seattle for me has been the fourth edition of the Romanian Film Festival at Seattle, which took place this past weekend at SIFF Uptown. This perhaps isn’t the biggest surprise in the world, as the Romanian New Wave has been one of the most exciting, motivated filmmaking movements of this century, but as far as I can tell, last year’s selection was roughly on the same level as most other country-specific festivals in this city. But with this year, the festival managed to gather, among other movies, three immensely exciting and worthwhile films, all without stateside distribution and from three directors that span the gamut, from Romanian New Wave old guard to venerated festival regular to even semi-subversive newcomer.
The latter filmmaker is Paul Negoescu, who has a small but passionate following on the basis of his extraordinary, incredibly low-key debut A Month in Thailand from 2012. His follow-up is the opening gala selection Two Lottery Tickets, a straightforward and totally hilarious comedy. While the previous film side-stepped much of the conventions that have codified the Romanian New Wave – the crushing nature of bureaucracy and the police, a single-minded pursuit of a goal, the need for money – this one manages to take on many of these DNA strands without sacrificing the wry warmness that suffused his first film, even as it moves from a late Dardennes-esque door-to-door approach to the road movie. Concerning a group of three hapless friends who lose a lottery ticket worth six million euros and embark upon a farcical journey to take it back from two thugs they believe have stolen it, Negoescu’s film manages to interweave in genuine emotional subplots that augment rather than distract from the humor. And there is a great deal of comedy here, including a handful of totally sublime setpieces and even more deadpan one-liners, all pulled off in well-composed static shots.
One of the best jokes in the film bemoans the doom and gloom of the Romanian New Wave, specifically poking at (without specifically naming) Stuff and Dough, told by characters played by the two main actors of that film. The director of that movie is Cristi Puiu, who along with Christian Mungiu is the most well-known of the Romanian New Wave. Puiu is even more rigorous than his filmmaking brethren, utilizing brutal handheld long takes in his stunning 2005 critique of bureaucracy The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, which helped inaugurate the movement. And in his latest film Sieranevada, he uses formal feints even more daring for singularly pleasurable effects. A mammoth three-hour work, it takes place almost entirely within a cramped eight-room apartment, following the thirty-some members of a very extended family as they preside over a wake for one of the patriarchs.
The movie manages to be about nothing – the ending is played deliberately as an absurd joke, a rueful chuckle at the frenetic activities in the apartment overshadowing the purpose of the gathering – and everything, as numerous topics, from communism to fidelity to even 9/11 truthers, are brought up and debated at length. There is a progression, insofar as many people leave and reenter the apartment multiple times and much of the film is about waiting for a priest to give the Romanian Catholic last rites, but its main pleasures lie in the domestic suffocation, moving from one fractious dialogue to another. Puiu conveys this with some of the best choreography I’ve ever seen, using extensive, protracted long takes in conjunction with innumerable tripod pans to focus on many discussions in single shots. Doors open and close, people move from one end of the apartment to another, and the camera follows its chosen subject (there are at least twenty occupants focused upon more than fifteen times) relentlessly, forcing the viewer to keep up with Puiu’s impeccable juggling. And this is really a triumph of all aspects of filmmaking, done in both the most obvious and the most subtle ways imaginable.
Though it couldn’t match the highs of Puiu’s achievement, Scarred Hearts, the final film I watched at the festival, had its own admirable pleasures. I’m not as familiar with Radu Jude, the writer-director (all films, interestingly enough, were written by their directors), and his place in the Romanian New Wave, but his previous film Aferim!, which was released in the US last year, had a certain impressive quality. While that movie was 2.35:1 black and white, his latest is in 4:3 35mm color, and its textures help bring life to the already tactile setting. Based on the writings of Romanian writer Max Blecher, it follows a young man who is taken to a sanatorium on the cusp of World War II to be treated for bone tuberculosis. Moving, unlike the other two films I saw, between drama and comedy, it emphasizes the languor of the day-to-day interactions, as the main character flirts, chats, and fidgets with his constricting chest-strapped cast. At nearly two and a half hours, its concerns don’t quite fill out the running time, but the consistently immaculate frames and ease of the situations pull the movie gently along, though I’m still not entirely convinced by the frequent use of pseudo-poetic intertitles taken from Blecher’s writings, which comment upon events that have or are about to take place in the film.