Romania's cash-poor but ideas-rich film industry is proving that necessity is the mother of invention with a string of influential titles. What's the secret formula, asks Lee Marshall
What is it about those Romanians' The Eastern European country's cash-strapped film industry manages to squeeze out no more than 10 full-length features annually, yet among these are some of the most influential indie titles of the past three years.
It all began in 2005 with Cristi Puiu's The Death Of Mr Lazarescu, surely the most richly human ode to the miserable end of an unremarkable man's life since Tolstoy's novella The Death Of Ivan Illyich.
Winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes, Mr Lazarescu was loved by critics and mostly ignored by audiences in the several territories that took a chance on it (how odd that a film about a grumpy old man who dies slowly as he is moved from one Bucharest hospital to another took only $80,000 in the US).
In 2006, it was the turn of 12:08 East Of Bucharest, a quirky black comedy about a nation's collective historical amnesia: this Directors' Fortnight entry earned Corneliu Porumboiu that year's Camera d'Or for best first film, and was widely distributed (quite a few real people actually went to see this one).
Finally, proving the trend is no flash in the pan, Four Months, Three Weeks & Two Days - a tight, relentless drama by Cristian Mungiu, revolving around the perils of illegal abortion in Ceausescu's Romania - lifted the 2007 Palme d'Or, in one of those rare years when critics and jury found themselves in almost complete agreement.
It's clearly Romanian cinema's turn for a place in the sun: the buzz right now is as intense as that surrounding Iranian films circa 1997 or South Korean cinemas a few years ago.
But why has the zeitgeist settled just north of the Danube' The Death Of Mr Lazarescu, 12:08 East Of Bucharest and Four Months are very different in tone and genre -butthere are several, perhaps surprising, points of convergence.
(i) The three films dramatise life as it is happening - or not happening. They all pan out in less than 24 hours, with Mr Lazarescu coming closest to real time (around six story hours translate into two-and-a-half audience hours). But this is not contrived, semi-real-time cinema, as in Phone Booth or Run Lola Run. Even in the tongue-in-cheek social satire 12:08 East Of Bucharest, carefully calibrated fragments of the present speak volumes about the historical surround.
(ii) Most scenes are shot in very few takes - in Four Months, almost all are single takes, with the camera remaining fixed or following characters as necessary, while Mr Lazarescu contains a scene that runs for almost seven minutes. And the key TV studio scene in 12:08 East Of Bucharest is essentially one long 40-minute shot - the few cuts are (arguably) those of the incompetent TV cameraman, not the film's DoP. As a result, drama mostly happens within the scene; it doesn't rely on the beat of a flashy cut.
(iii) They play havoc with traditional three-act structure and screenwriting formulae such as 'the hero's journey'. With its thriller core and stake-raising structure, Four Months perhaps comes closest to the paradigm, but Mungiu seems to delight in messing with the rules: he opens and closes the film at (apparently) random moments, and throws in not one but two MacGuffins that end up going nowhere - just like in real life.
(iv) The casting, acting and direction of actors is uniformly brilliant. It's a shock to discover the doctors in Mr Lazarescu are actors rather than real doctors. There is neither the sheen of the star nor the abrasive roughness of the non-professional.
(v) Different genres, same human touch. In the midst of squalor (the real thing, rather than a production design mock-up) basic human values come to the fore in an unsentimental way. In fact, emotional authority is derived from how all three films take place in a weary, grifting world with little room for sentiment.