In the climax of Cristian Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," the main character, Otilia, frantically paces the dark streets of communist-era Bucharest. The camera tugs at her back, hurrying along as she turns sharp corners and stomps up the stairs of a Soviet-style apartment buildings – all engulfed in menacing darkness.
More than a chilling portrait of 1980s malaise, the scene also serves as a metaphor for Romanian film circa 2000, when not a single local production was finished ("That was rock bottom," says movie critic Andrei Gorzo). Seven years later, it's one of the hottest cinema spots in the world, with "4, 3, 2" the latest in a slew of hits that snapped up nearly every conceivable European award. (Mungiu's flick about ending a pregnancy in a regime that banned abortion is in the race for a Golden Globe and may go on to the Oscars.)
How did the transformation of Romanian cinema come about? "They came out of nowhere," Mr. Gorzo says of the disparate group of young directors – most in their early 30s – who began laying claim to state sponsorships around 2001 by pitching movies about palpable social issues. These directors, most of whom write their scripts as well, are the stars of this revival, which brought realism into theaters. Cristi Puiu kicked things off with "Stuff and Dough," an energetic road movie. Mungiu followed with "Occident," a nostalgic comedy about fleeing communist Romania. Radu Muntean, Catalin Mitulescu, and Corneliu Porumboiu followed close behind.
"Communism created a cinema almost entirely disconnected from reality – all metaphors and allegory and parables," Gorzo says. "It mutilated any sense of the real. Cinema had a lot of catching up to do."
Director Radu Jude, whose "The Tube With a Hat" won the Sundance International Short Film Award in 2007, says Romanian cinema never had a neorealist period; the new wave is recapturing lost time.
While "4, 3, 2" is Romanian cinema's biggest hit, critics hail Puiu's 2005 film, "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," as the country's classic. "Not only is it impeccable cinema," says Jude, who worked as an assistant to Puiu, "but it's a very profound movie which talks honestly and openly about death and the human condition."
"The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" won the Un Certain Regard prize at the 2005 Cannes festival and was selected as the best movie of 2006 by the critics' poll on IndieWire.com.
In 2007, Romanian film splashed into Cannes again, with Mungiu taking the Palme d'Or and Cristian Nemescu's "California Dreamin' " winning Un Certain Regard. (Nemescu, who died in a car crash at 27, was the youngest of the new wave. "California Dreamin,'" his debut, tells the story of a group of American soldiers held up for days in a small Romanian village during the siege of Kosovo.)
A fresh approach to storytelling is one reason for the buzz. Another, Jude says, is that movies with a social bent fare well with international juries and critics. It's something he has experienced himself. That's not to say the movies aren't good, just that they reach a receptive audience.
These directors don't exploit drama with their minimalist approach to win over juries, says critic Iulia Blaga. If they have something in common beside age, she adds, it's honesty. That approach spawned a lot of movies about the communist period. The summer of 2006 alone featured three different takes on the revolution of 1989: Mitulescu's nostalgic "How I Spent the End of the World," Porumboiu's riotous "12:08 East of Bucharest," and Muntean's gloomy "The Paper Will be Blue." The style of the modern Romanian cinema (long takes, documentarylike approach, hand-held camera) is not solely an aesthetic choice – it's also a result of low budgets and poor financing.
Gorzo anticipates a few more hits shot in this style (Puiu, Jude, and Muntean are all working on something), but he says Romanian cinema will eventually need to diversify to remain a force. That will be the challenge – how can it diversify when virtually all other types of films cost more?