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Szolnok Conference 04: Trans-Europa Express
Whom Are We Supposed to Seduce?
By Dana Duma

"Whom are we supposed to seduce?" is a question that often bothers the film makers in the ex-communist countries, in their attempt to re-win the audience at home and to re-win the attention of Western producers and distributors. The box-office results have been quite deceiving for Romanian directors these last years, and everybody agrees we should not only blame the American invasion of our screens. Young authors understand that the allusive and metaphorical language doesn't work anymore, and that new expectations of the public should be satisfied.

The pessimist image of the past-communist reality neither seems to be appealing to the audience, definitely not the way it was represented by most of the Romanian movies during the last decade. Especially the young public is allergic to the obsessive motives of "The Fatal Communist Heritage" or "The Stolen Revolution".

The turn of the millennium brought important changes to our cinema and they can be related to the authors' desire to please the national public, or the juries of the international film festivals. We can observe the two targets are sometimes divergent. We can use a recent example: Maria (2003), the first movie by Peter Calin Netzer, won several prizes in the Locarno Film Festival (Special Jury Award, Best Actress Award for Diana Dumbrava, Best Actor Award for Serban Ionescu) but didn't have bright box-office results. Based on a real fact, it is the story of Maria, a beautiful young woman with seven children and an alcoholic husband who, after his imprisonment, has to prostitute herself in order to survive and to raise her kids. She lives in absolute poverty and her failed attempts to find support become the occasion for a dark picture of the post-communist reality, with social polarity, the desperation of "the silent majority", the sordid aspects of misogyny and the dissolution of family values. While the only female character showing compassion to Maria gets sick, the pressure of cynical people becomes unbearable, culminating with the offer, made by a priest, to sell one of the kids to a rich couple. To Maria prostitution appears to be the only way to feed and keep all her children. The intervention of a tv-reporter has also a cynical touch, because he seems to be more interested in the sensationalist side of the story than in the woman's drama.

There is something pure in this melodrama, which is reminiscent of ancient Danish movies, with some archaic elements that might have been appreciated by the Locarno jurors. On the other hand, we cannot ignore the skilful narrative structure (the script is co-signed by Gordan Mihic) including a comic relief (assured by a male hooker) and sharp social observations.

A new Romanian movie, Damen Tango (2004), distinguishes itself by a new approach to melodrama. The unhappiness of the heroes is not anymore related with poverty or the dreary reality of post-communist Romania. The story of a terrible vengeance (a classical theme of the genre) is set in a rich family, where the husband leaves his wife to marry her younger best friend. After he gets killed in an accident, the young woman tries to re-marry but her access to happiness is obstructed by her ex-friend (portrayed by the international star Maia Morgenstern) who considers her punishment an act of justice. We don't know yet whether this new species of melodrama will seduce the Romanian public, but the director's attempt to tell a universal story might mark a new trend in Romanian cinema.

It is no doubt that an efficient strategy to seduce the Romanian public is based on an ironic and comic approach to transition topics: corruption, poverty, moral crisis, etcetera. The clever director Nae Caranfil is a specialist in making us laugh at the disastrous aspects of our brave new capitalist society as he convinced us with his previous movie, Asphalt Tango, and the most recent one, Philantropy (2002), the major box-office success of the last three years. The movie selected for the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs in Cannes shows us amazing forms of the 'marketisation' of beggary, by telling us the story of a college professor. Humiliated in his attempts to conquer a beautiful girl accustomed with luxury, he tries to make some easy money in association with an inventive crook. The underworld fauna is funny depicted by Caranfil, an author with a vivid sense of juicy fast line and extravagant situations.

A similar strategy is well managed by Cristian Mungiu, whose Occident (2002) was also selected for the Cannes programme Quinzaine des Réalisateurs , and whose film had good box-office results as well. This bittersweet comedy approaches a national obsession: immigration. It tells the story of several heroes whose destinies have in common elements that the author reveals using the puzzle narrative form and the confrontation of different points of view. The social notations are skilfully dissolved in the hilarious situations and dialogues, but the portrayal of the moral confusion is lucid and acid.

Starting with Stuff And Dough (2001) by Cristi Puiu we can notice the tendency of some Romanian movies to update and adapt their language and topics borrowing elements from the American popular genres like the road movie and the Mafiosi thriller. The trip from Constanza to Bucharest of two young friends is the beginning of their involvement with the local Mafia affaires, because "the small package" entrusted by the black market boss was their unconscious participation to drug dealing.

The character of the young man blackmailed by the mobs becomes familiar to the new Romanian cinema. Rage (2002) by Radu Muntean tells the story of two young small crooks who owe a lot of money to the Gipsy Mafia. The street fights and the illegal car chases, under action movies codes, are merely a pretext to inquest a real dangerous environment, with an incredible ramification of the crime organization. Shot in a quasi documentary way, Rage brings on the screen mobsters amazingly portrayed by non professional actors.

Last, but not least, I should signal another attempt to approach topics the young audience is interested in. The single feature film with digital image so far made in Romania, Watch It! (2003), directed by Ovidiu Georgescu, is also a story with young small crooks under influence of big Mafiosi. It develops, in an imaginative way, a real fact signalled by a newspaper: the disappearance of a newborn child from a maternity, the son of a 'rather dubious' underage Moldavian. The movie tries to restore the possible adventures of the girl in a quite dangerous Bucharest. The attraction of the no-budget movie is increased by the participation of Marcel Iures (the most internationally known Romanian actor), portraying a cruel mobster. The young author released his movie in the Romanian Cinémathèque and sized the opportunity to offer the press an interesting Manifesto in the spirit of Dogma 95. I quote from Ovidiu Georgescu: "Aesthetics exist for people who really look for it intently. If you don't have your own, try the above principle and see what comes out. In real life only result matters. Last rule: keep on shooting, folks. Just keep on shooting." Maybe he is right and maybe this is the way to move fast in nowadays cinema and to catch its Trans-Europa Express.

Dana Duma
© FIPRESCI 2004

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Szolnok 04

Hans-Günther Dicks
Danko Jesic
Angel Comas
Thomas Kurelec
Mariola Wiktor
Dana Duma
Daniela Bisogni
Tibor Hirsch
Balázs Varga