Contrary to popular belief, the New Romanian Cinema, celebrating success for over two decades now, did not appear in a void space. This phenomenally prolific cinematography would not have come into existence but for the recently deceased film director Lucian Pintilie, practically unknown in Poland.
Today this forgotten master, a victim of communist censorship, is being rediscovered and his retrospective at the Transatlantyk Festival is the first opportunity to see his most important works, surprising from every angle. Pintilie has a particular gift to put together the qualities otherwise difficult to reconcile. In his close look at the Romanian past and present, there is a storytelling vigor, Cioran's pessimism as well as charcoal black humour and grotesque.
Born in 1933 in Taurtyne in southern Bessarabia (in today’s Ukraine), the artist did not have an easy start. He studied at the Caragiale Academy of Theatrical Arts and Cinematography in Bucharest. He was the worthy successor to the patron of the university who was one of the most important Romanian playwrights. Lucian Pintilie successfully staged the plays of Shaw, Frisch, Gogol, and Chekhov, craftily incorporating commentaries on the increasingly depressing reality of the communist regime in his works. He had a conflict with censorship, which was especially suspicious of his first film attempts. The Reenactment was banned from cinemas shortly after its premiere in 1970 by the order of Nicolae Ceauşescu himself.
The authorities could not have possibly liked this biting satire on the effects of the first years of dictatorship in Romania. Here are two citizens receiving an order re-enact the fight they picked after one too many doses of booze. Their performance in the film is a form of punishment for the shameful behaviour and a nationwide warning against disastrous effects of alcohol abuse. One absurdity chases another, driven by more and more confusing decisions of incompetent officials, revealing the tragicomic face of the totalitarian system.
Pintilie quickly realized that Romania was no place for him. He had to leave to return only after the coup d’état and the execution of Ceausescu in 1989. The Oak (1992), which relates to the cruel death of the "father of the nation" is the settlement with the last bleak days of the regime. The film is a love story in the times of disintegration whose signs are stray dogs in the streets of Bucharest, full of garbage and people dying in hospitals due to horrid bureaucracy and indifference. This motif was exposed in the Death of Mr. Lazarescu by Crisici Puiu who likes to emphasize his admiration for Pintilie. Another outstanding young artist, Corneliu Poromboiu, asked who he would like to be when he grows up, he replied: Lucian Pintilie.
The themes of retribution in the New Romanian Cinema grow from Pintilie’s work. All of his movies attempt to find an answer to the question of who we are. The responses are different, often critical and painful, marked by a pessimistic vision of the world. Still, there are lighter tones in them, too; for example, in An Unforgettable Summer (1994) with Kristin Scott Thomas. The film, whose action takes place in between the wars on the Romanian-Bulgarian border, is a melodrama, bitter satire and a comedy in one. While it has space for humour, the film also raises critical ethical points about the base of national identity.
The main theme of all films shown during the festival are difficult, often toxic, love relationships. In the ironically titled Next Stop Paradise (1998), a waitress from the roadside bar Norica has an affair with the pig farmer Mitu. The couple want to experience something great together, but the ordinary life is harsh. One obstacle on their way to happiness is the girl’s marriage with 50-year-old owner of the bar and the boy is forced to do military service. The tragic finale is a summary of aberrations of the political transformation in Romania.
The strength of Pintilie’s cinema is the director's empathy for his film characters. He is quite ruthless when judging their choices but he does try to understand them. Asked about his favourite character, he pointed to the title one from Carnival Scenes (1981), the adaptation of the work of I. L. Caragiale. The film, full of twists and turns, is the story of the pact of betrayed lovers who decide to take revenge on their partners during a masquerade ball. The story gets its carnival pace from plenty of shouting, laughter, dancing and violence.
It is carnival that is a key word in Pintilie's work. As he said, the communist times ‘’stood Romania on its head”. What could better describe the state in which abnormal becomes normal than an idea of „the world upside down”? That is why, the lofty and the low, the serious and the funny, the top and the bottom are intermingled in his works.
After the return from his forced emigration, Lucien Pitilie found himself in a disintegrated world. "My poor country has become permanent residence for evil” he said in an interview, adding elsewhere: "It’s a parody of the normal". Despite such a pessimistic vision of his own country, in his old years he settled in Romania, having moved around in France and the United States. He lived on the Lake Băneasa in Bucharest, the city that witnessed the rise and fall of the brutal regime of Ceauşescu.
Pintilie’s films reflect, as in a mirror, the horror and the comedy of the political theatre which has become the reality of the entire nation. The great value of this cinema is its intransigence and a variety of themes. The younger generation of artists such as Cristian Mungiu, Cristi Puiu and Corneliu Poromboiu are infected with the director’s uncompromising attitude. All of them share Lucian Pintilie’s obsession with settling things right, the need for the truth and the belief in the therapeutic power of cinema.