Cinema of Corneliu Porumboiu: Empty Gestures, Empty Words, and Troubled Transition

In 2001, thirty four year old Romanian Cristi Puiu made his directorial debut feature Stuff and Dough under a shoe-string budget. It was a road movie with distinct political undertones, pertaining to post-Ceausescu dictatorship (between 1965 and 1989) era in Romania. The movie also brims with dead pan comedy. Cristi Puiu mentions how watching Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law (1986) happened to be a key thing in shaping his cinematic language. Stuff and Dough is now widely regarded as the starting point of the fascinating Romanian New Wave. The wave surged with Puiu’s Un Certain Regard winner The Death of Lazarescu and reached higher visibility with Cristian Mungiu’s harrowing abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007), which won the prestigious Palme d’Or award. These Romanian movies took the ‘cinema verite’ style, avoiding forced melodrama, and full of tight composition and masterful long takes. The film-makers drew us to take in the non-event existence of the Romanian public, while gradually diffusing layers of subtleties. Like any other New Waves of cinema, the Romanian one was anticipated to have reached its saturation point at the start of this decade. Yet, Romanian cinema continues to make waves in the international arena. Last year, two masterly, complex dramas – from Cristian Mungiu (The Graduation) and Cristi Puiu (Sieranevada), screened at Cannes Film Festival – received glowing reviews and found a place in many critics’ top film lists of the year.  

Corneliu Porumobiu was a very important film-maker of the Romanian New Wave whose thematic spectrum widened & deepened the sociopolitical perspectives. As Puiu continued to do narrative experiments within the rigid visual style, and Mungiu dealt with ferocious subjects, Porumboiu perfected his visual and thematic reflections. Porumboiu has metamorphosed to be the most philosophical film-maker of the new wave (Radu Muntean was another central figure of the new wave, who followed different styles and explored new themes; Radu Jude, Crisitian Nemescu and Catalin Mitulescu are also my favorite directors of the new wave). Like Puiu and Mungiu, Porumboiu also received coveted awards in the international film festivals (won Camera d’Or at Cannes for best debut feature -- for 12:08 East of Bucharest and Un Certain Regard for Police, Adjective). Porumboiu’s movies offer many surprisingly rich insights, most of which could only be gleaned in re-watches. Cristi Puiu and Cristian Mungiu’s works, despite the subdued visual tone, passes along blistering emotions to create some dramatic impact. Compared to those, Porumboiu films are like hushed-up poetry. So you need certain time to fully assimilate his seemingly simple narrative. And gradually, you could peel off the surface and blithely stroll across the subtle layers of Porumboiu’s visual poetry.

One of the primary themes of Romanian New Wave is to show how the traces of old apathetic, corrupted bureaucratic machinery are still embedded in the nation’s consciousness. So, Porumboiu and other film-makers never approach the 1989 revolution with adoration. They just treat it as a point where a long transition commenced. Amidst the Romanian film-makers, Porumboiu incisively depicts this transitional state. His films mostly capture central character’s physical movements in vivid details (from a distance that isn’t too far or too close). Literally and figuratively, the characters go through transition. However, their movements are blocked at a stage and the individual is forced to stay within the boundaries of faulty system. The characters’ desire for security or better life gets lost in the blandly colored rooms of bureaucratic offices (or even amongst the dictionaries and law books). Immense focus is given to observe the non-events (like characters walking one end of the street to another). The non-events marvelously join together to pass off the feeling of wasted time and absurd, alienated atmosphere.

Corneliu Porumboiu was 14 years old during the 1989 revolution which toppled Ceausescu’s communist dictatorship. In an interview (to Brooklyn magazine, Mr. Porumboiu says that communists came into Romania at a time when the country didn’t pass through consciousness, beliefs, and ideas like in western society. He states that their nation was somewhere between industrialization period and middle ages in the late 1940s. Communism only added more fake layers to the already empty ideals. The director’s filmography repeatedly strips off these natural-looking fake layers. The fascinating quality is that while subtly stripping off this fakery, Mr. Porumboiu never pushes us to take a judgmental stand. The characters remain as humans, cloaked under different flaws. 

 Director Corneliu Porumboiu studied management before pursuing film-studies at Bucharest’s I.L. Carnegie University. In 2002, he made his first short film titled Gone with the Wine. The film tracks down the lives of alcoholic bittersweet characters, living in demoralizing, decrepit surroundings. He followed it with couple more short films – A Trip to the City and Liviu’s Dream. These early works received international acclaim in the short film festivals. Particularly, Liviu’s Dream gathered lot of attention and it happens to be the darkest work of the director, till date.  Starting from 2006, Mr. Corneliu Porumboiu has made four meditative feature films and one spectacular documentary The Second Game.


12:08 East of Bucharest (2006)

12:08 east of Bucharest opens with the image of a glistening Christmas tree amidst the concrete jungle in an empty Stalinist town square. It is early morning on 22 Dec. 2005. It’s the 16th anniversary of the Romanian revolution that’s supposed to have fully shattered the devious communist regime. A local TV host comes up with an idea for a talk show: "Did the people of the small town participated in the revolution?" What ensues a superb dry comedy that establishes how nothing has changed. It shows how a society with feeble societal values will forever be caught in the devious cycle of history, repeating the mistakes of past. Beneath the funny layers, Mr. Porumboiu questions the relevance of a alleged glorious time-stamp when people are rendered impassive by the oppressive system. 

Police, Adjective (2009)

 The word ‘police’ is used in adjective form to either denote police procedural where mysteries are solved through detective’s ingenuity or to address a police state. In that manner, Porumboiu’s film is a procedural, but not the regular gun-pulling, adrenaline-pumping kind. What we see is a policeman following a quotidian surveillance ‘procedure’ to report back to emotionless officers in drab buildings. While a usual climatic showdown in a procedural is marked by gunfights, in Police, Adjective a superior officer uses a intimidating dictionary as the weapon; and the scene, unfurls in a static camera shot is more intense than a gunfight. The film is about the manipulative language, used to oppress and keep the people inline. The movies have offered me new, rich insights in the re-watches. Police, Adjective is my favorite among Corneliu Porumboiu’s filmography. 

When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (2013)

Despite a long title, the movie has a deceptively simple plot-line: a director negotiates with his lead actress to persuade her to do nude scene. The only visible complicated knot is that the director is romantically involved with the actress. But as expected there are more layers to it and Porumboiu’s wry sense of humor stops the meta-exercise from becoming an academic lecture. The film also becomes meta-literal with a lengthy scene of an endoscopy; may be to reflect the experience of viewers who would hate the pedantic tone of narrative. Unlike the previous two films, Metabolism totally neglects a narrative form to be a clever, experimental exercise. 

The Second Game (2014)

In this documentary, director Corneliu and his father Adrian Porumboiu bond over a recorded football game which happened in Dec. 3, 1988. Adrian served as a referee for that match (played in a astounding snow-drenched field). This seemingly boring, obscure sports footage watching documentary does reveals the complex implications. The Second Game is the most experimental work among the director’s works, which could a majority of viewers to declare it tedious experience. But, I felt that this is yet another intelligent work, reviewing different things from father-son relationship to sports under communism to antique video technology.   

The Treasure aka Comoara (2015)

 The Treasure is the tale of two men searching for a supposed buried treasure in the ancestor’s abandoned house – pre-communist era loot. Corneliu Porumboiu was involved with a friend to shoot a documentary about the people who had buried their precious things when communists took over the power (communists nationalized all the properties). The story of family treasure is common urban legend in Romania. But, the documentary stopped at half-stage, the director used the subject matter for fiction.  As usual the droll humor is derived from the dry functionality of the nation’s bureaucratic and legalistic system. Simple elements like a Robin Hood story and the visual composition of a garden (where the treasure is supposed to be buried) contemplates on the unsolved problems between individual and state. 

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