Making Waves: The Short Films of Corneliu Porumboiu

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Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Making Waves Romanian Film Festival, which runs from November 29th to December 3rd. For more information visit FilmLinc.com and follow FilmLinc on Twitter at @FilmLinc.

“And as the priest says, if you take life seriously you can’t fail.”
“But life, as Andreea Marin says, is full of surprises.”

This exchange from the 2002 short Gone with the Wine, between a hopeful young Romanian on his way to a new job on an English oil rig and an old alcoholic emblematic of the country he hopes to leave behind, could hardly offer a more apt attitude on which to begin director Corneliu Porumboiu’s career, which undergoes a complete retrospective as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual Making Waves Romanian Film Festival this weekend. Meeting the straight-faced spiritual sentiment of the youngster with a catchphrase culled from a TV gameshow, this drunkard is a lot like Porumboiu himself, cocking a wry smile as he cuts to the heart of Romanian life with ease.

Film fans will be familiar with his features; the true pleasure of this series is the rare chance to see his shorts, a tightly-woven trio that act equally as a sustained statement of intent and an insight into the early evolution of an essential artist. I’ve argued otherwhere for Porumboiu as the ultimate exemplar of the Romanian New Wave’s discovery of catharsis through comedy: in these early films, we see the seeds of that catharsis sown via a series of stories that grapple with the heavy legacy of the country’s political past. The common thread is Constantin Dita, an affable young actor who stars in Gone with the Wine and A Trip to the City and features prominently in Liviu’s Dream; the fact that he doesn’t play the same character each time is less important than the reality that he easily could, such is the representational quality of the young generation and their lacking prospects as Porumboiu envisages them.

…the true pleasure of this series is the rare chance to see his shorts, a tightly-woven trio that act equally as a sustained statement of intent and an insight into the early evolution of an essential artist.

porumboiu_4The excess of alcohol is telling: Gone with the Wine’s opening shot, steadily framed in a manner that will come to be characteristic of this new director, delights in the sound of drunkards, their nonsensical ramblings unfolding off-screen while we patiently wait for one to gradually wander into our view. “Be a man, come drink with us,” they later tell Dita’s character as he prepares to leave for the oil rig job, betraying the basic role of booze in this back-of-beyond community. “He remembered his old dream only when he was sodden,” bemoans the eponymous protagonist of Liviu’s Dream of his father’s oppressed existence under Ceausescu’s regime, though even here in these early works Porumboiu is keen to shy away from suggesting the new Romania is by default better than its Communist counterpart. Slyly similar stories of drunken mayors pre- and post-revolution across the first and second films of this thematic trilogy point to a permanently pissed patriarchy, regardless of their political perspectives.

It’s a tongue-in-cheek approach with which these comparisons are drawn; quick as he is to reveal the new Romania as in imperfect entity, Porumboiu appreciates the enormity of the scars the nation bears. Indeed, his heroes are hounded by the tension between being the future their forebears deserve and escaping the cycle the past perpetuates. Gone with the Wine and A Trip to the City each conclude on an entertaining note, though as their scores linger on into the credits there’s a bittersweet touch, the characters scarcely better off than when they started. That frustration festers through the films; each released a year after the last, they feel fundamentally fraught with this burden, which manifests itself most prominently in their relationship to their parents. Dita sighs sorely when seeing his mother following him to the bus in Gone with the Wine. By the time of Liviu’s Dream, the young character is throwing money at his father asking why he hasn’t provided it himself. In the first film the youth are embarrassed by their elders; by the third they’ve grown embittered.

Blending political drama and comic absurdity without ever batting an eye, splicing silliness and seriousness as though there were no difference between, these early efforts from Porumboiu lay the foundations for the feature work to follow…

porumboiu_3“When they realise they haven’t really done anything, they blame it on Ceausescu,” quips Liviu as he gazes over his village from the rooftop where he and his friends, who earn money selling stolen goods, spend their days. As emblematic of the new Romania, they seem equally angry and afraid; Porumboiu, himself a teenager at the time of the revolution, explores the emotions he knows, and their impact is enormous. The third film is the finest, perhaps because it is at once both the bleakest and—somehow—the most optimistic too. The dream to which the title refers awakens Liviu in sweat three times in the course of the movie; the fourth time, we’re made privy, and we understand immediately both the horror and the hope.

“If it’s a bad dream, something good will happen to you,” offers Liviu’s mother early on in the drama. It’s tempting to think she might take the New Romanian Cinema as the country’s own reprieve from its historical nightmare. Poromboiu’s shorts, arriving just before that wave broke and offering an apt advance warning, prove equally true the priest and Andreea Marin: if you take life and all its surprises seriously, you can’t fail. Blending political drama and comic absurdity without ever batting an eye, splicing silliness and seriousness as though there were no difference between, these early efforts from Porumboiu lay the foundations for the feature work to follow, and the incredible insights those films would offer into a country grappling with its past and present. To see this trio is to see a talent born before the eyes; if the Romanian New Wave was yet to arrive, movies like this were the rising tide.

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.