For Americans, Romanian film has been just a blip on the international cinema radar - until now. But news of ``Romanian Film Now,'' a group of seven current films touring the United States, together with the choice of one of them - ``Jacob'' - to be screened by the prestigious New York Film Festival this fall, suggests the country's cinema suddenly looms larger. The American Film Institute has brought this group of movies, spanning from 1983 to '88, to Washington through Sunday. This is the first stop on an American tour that includes screenings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, Calif., the Cleveland Cinemateque in Ohio, and the University of California at Los Angeles.
For some, foreign films are an acquired taste, like Greek taramasolata or Russian blini. The humor or the politics may lose something in translation or even be unintelligible.
In a Soviet satellite like the Socialist Republic of Romania, a nation firmly in the grip of its strong-man president, Nicolae Ceausescu, making movies about contemporary themes could be a risky business. So it should come as no surprise that the majority of Romanian films are about the past. Many are based on Romanian literature.
One of the best films in this package, ``Ciuleandra,'' is based on Liviu Rebreanu's classic novel. Director Sergiu Nicolaescu's haunting adaptation takes place in the '20s, when they were doing the Charleston in Bucharest but a feudal droit du seigneur was still in force in the countryside. The title of the film is the name of an ardent, climactic Romanian folk dance, during which the film's aristocratic antihero, Puiu Franga, meets his beautiful peasant bride-to-be.
The film, which is like a thriller in reverse, begins with the son's unpremeditated murder of his stunning and faithful wife. No one knows why he killed her. The father, trying to shield him from criminal prosecution, packs him off to a sanitarium, where the reasons for the murder emerge in a series of startling flashbacks. Nicolaescu makes the movie as relevant as today's headlines with his stealthy direction of a tale of human and political tragedy. ``Ciuleandra'' gleams with fine performances by Stefan Iordache, Gheorghe Cozorici, Ion Ritiu, and Naca Nicola.
In another film drawn from the past, ``Gathering Clouds,'' directed by Alexandru Tatos, the atmosphere is post-World War I. Lawyer Radu Comsa is (in the phrase of that era) ``shellshocked'' by the horrors of war and, just before drowning, he recalls his life in flashback. We see his once-comfortable life, the women he has loved and abandoned, his depression over a disfiguring war wound, and his despair that there will never be lasting peace.
This is a poetic, fragmented film, difficult at times to follow even with subtitles, but beautifully shot by Calin Ghibu. Ion Caramitru is superb as its star.
Director Mircea Daneliuc's ``Jacob'' is the gritty and seemingly interminable story of the grim life of a gold miner in Transylvania, based on the works of Geo Bogza. For those who can slog through to the end, it offers a powerful, unforgettable final scene that is a tribute to human tenacity and endurance.
In ``Paso Doble,'' one of the few non-period films, the director, Dan Pita, is clearly accomplished. The film opens brilliantly with the camera gliding down a long corridor, at the end of which the two heroes are seen: a fencer parrying and thrusting, and a boxer whaling the daylights out of a punching bag; the film ends with a dissolve of the same corridor in shades of red. In between, there is the fierce and funny competition over a woman between the two men, who are best friends, working in a factory that makes large truck parts and living in a mini-dorm connected with it. The talented cast includes Claudiu Bleont, Petre Nicolae, Ecaterina Nazre, and Anda Onesa.
The other films in the Romanian package are director Serban Marinescu's ``The Old Maid,'' about a dressmaker of bridal gowns in 1933 Bucharest; Nicolae Marginescu's ``The Return From Hell,'' based on an Ion Agirbiceanu short story and dealing with a husband and the man who cuckolded him being thrown together as soldiers in World War I; and ``The Wasp's Nest,'' a satire directed by Horea Popescu from Alexander Koritescu's play about a nouveau riche family in the '30s.
The films in ``Romanian Film Now'' were shot at the nationallower case Bucuresti Studios, near Bucharest, which turns out 25 movies a year.