In the Name of “The Ambiguity of the Real”: Romanian Cinematic Realism after the 2000s
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To the extent that there is a unified aesthetic of the Romanian “New Wave,” it is the realist aesthetic that director Cristi Puiu introduced in Stuff and Dough (2001) and refined in The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu (2005). This essay is an exploration and a critique of the intellectual foundations of this aesthetic, as formulated in Puiu’s many interviews and statements.
Romanian film culture was utterly changed in the 2000s by filmmaker Cristi Puiu’s ideas. The starting point of Puiu’s approach to the cinema could be described as Bazinian. At the time of his 2005 international film-festival sensation, The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu, Puiu himself approvingly quoted André Bazin’s distinction between the type of filmmaker who puts their faith in reality and the type of filmmaker who puts their faith in the image, favoring the former. In other words, the starting point of Puiu’s approach to cinema is firmly anti-expressionist and anti-pictorial, faithful to cinema’s original function of reproducing reality in a more objective manner.
This aesthetic is based on two refusals. One of them is the refusal to ever make visible or audible to the spectator what’s happening “inside” the characters’ minds. There is a whole arsenal of techniques for letting spectators in on the characters’ inner states that filmmakers since the 1920s have explored, be they the German Expressionists or the avant-garde French Impressionists of silent cinema. After World War II, Bazin consistently argued against its use. The terms in which he argued were partly indebted to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology—or, more specifically, to Amédée Ayfre’s adaptation of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology to both Catholicism and film theory. Bazin pleaded for a cinema that would make the viewer confont the events and characters on-screen in the same way in which she has to face the people and the events that she comes across in her own life: that is, trying to read those people and events solely on the basis of their external apperance. Just as in real life, the viewer should be forced to guess at the subjective realities of the people on-screen only from the more or less ambiguous clues provided by their speech and appearance. The “ambiguity of the real” is a key Bazinian phrase.
This rejection of “expressionism” goes hand in hand—for Puiu as for Bazin— with a rejection of editorializing. Thus, viewers should be presented only with the characters, the situations they’re in, and with the characters’ actions—and not with the filmmakers’ cues of how to judge those characters and situations. For example, accompanying a character’s entrances with goofy music to communicate the character’s ludicrousness is only one of the more obvious ways of editorializing in cinema. Such things, of course, are incompatible with Bazin’s respect for the “ambiguity of the real.”
The Bazinian ideal of a cinema that would be free from any “expressionism” or editorializing was rarely fulfilled by the actual films being made in Bazin’s own lifetime. It was a possibility that Bazin only caught glimpses of in scenes from certain films—especially those made by the Italian neorealists, specifically Roberto Rossellini—and that he saw as destined to be fulfilled sometime in the future. One genre of filmmaking that represents a possible fulfillment of the Bazinian ideal is the “observational” or “direct cinema” documentary.
Observational documentaries influenced many directors of fiction films. Most notably among them, Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier and the Belgian team of brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne gained prominence in the second half of the 1990s. While Puiu never mentions these filmmakers as influences, the names of two giants of the observational documentary, Frederick Wiseman and Raymond Depardon, come up repeatedly in Puiu’s interviews. Actually, it was Puiu more than anyone else who made the names of Wiseman and Depardon known to cinephiles and even film critics in Romania, where their films had never been released nor written about. During the last decade, Puiu has been a tireless proselytizer of the principles of “observational” documentary filmmaking, sometimes judging the work of both fiction and non-fiction filmmakers according to them. For instance, he criticizes Andrei Ujică, director of the found-footage film The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu (2010), for his ironic authorial commentary about Ceaușescu, supposedly developed through editing the archival footage. In the same interview, Puiu also takes to task director Corneliu Porumboiu for building his 2009 fiction film Police, Adjective so as to demonstrate a thesis. According to Puiu (still in the same interview), “cinema, or art in general, should stay away” from such demonstrations, because “[w]herever there is a demonstration, there are lies, manipulation, propaganda,” and semantic univocity. A recurring figure of villainy in Puiu’s rants is Michael Moore, who would be “a stranger to the deontology of this kind of work” and fails by Puiu’s standards for investigation and “anthropological research.”  But Moore, of course, is an explicitly partisan filmmaker, a political pamphleteer and lampoonist with no aspirations whatsoever towards the “observational” stance which represents Puiu’s ideal. If it is the very idea of such a commitment that Puiu finds repugnant and attempts to delegitimize (and so it would seem, bearing in mind Puiu’s suggestion that it’s corrupting for a filmmaker to make a film in demonstration of a thesis), then Puiu’s own position is intellectually no longer very defensible. Of course, it’s an understandable position. It can be seen as a reaction of disgust to the indoctrination practiced by the Ceaușescu regime on all its citizens, starting at their tenderest age (Puiu was born in 1967). Such disgust translates into a refusal to understand cinema in political terms. It also leads to a compensatory fetishization of a moral vocabulary of cinema.
Lucian Maier, a young Romanian critic who was strongly influenced by Puiu’s ideas, articulates this ethics in a 2014 essay worth quoting at some length:
“[The documentary] After the Revolution  can be seen as an exercise in which the cinema itself passes an ethical test. In this project, [filmmaker] Laurențiu Calciu uses the camera to document [his emphasis]. Not to comment, not to take sides politically. Scenes flow with no editing cuts, and whithin these scenes the camera does nothing to orient the viewer’s judgement. (...) Calciu doesn’t attempt any dramatic heightening of the events, just as he doesn’t attempt to extract from them his own ideas about their meaning. He just records what’s in front of him—with no artifice, with no interventions in the recorded material, without zeroing in on some aspects and thus deeming those aspects more relevant than others. If he had done otherwise, it would have meant that the material presented to us viewers was pre-judged by him. By cutting or by zooming in on a detail, making it salient, he would have followed his personal interests, building a discourse about the events he’s witnessing and about the people involved in them. There’s no such discourse here. The only discourse is one about the ethics of the documentarian’s gaze. The camera disappears and, as a viewer, you feel that you’re looking directly at the person who’s speaking or acting. This is a film in which the distance between spectator and screen is absorbed by an observational use of the camera (...) The truth here is the truth resulting for each viewer from the encounter with those slices of reality which the camera itself had captured as neutrally as possible.”
In other words, the viewers are free—because that’s how the filmmaker left them – to take from the film the very meanings that they themselves bring. When Maier salutes the fact that Calciu hasn’t attempted to bring viewers in line with his political opinions about the documented events, doesn’t he salute a type of cinema which leaves things exactly as they are, and hence leaves dominant ideas dominant? By heralding a non-interventionist aesthetic as ethical, doesn’t he praise a cinema which leaves the status quo untouched and expects to be congratulated for this “ethical” attitude?
It is worth remarking that, for Bazin—the originator of the aesthetic principles employed by director Puiu and further expounded by critics such as Lucian Maier – belief in the superiority of what Maier calls now “the observational use” of the cinema was part of a religious view of the world and the role of art in it. According to this view, modernity had turned artistic creation into a sin against divine creation. The cult of art as a superior order, created, assembled or synthesized by the artist out of brute reality, sins against a primordial unity. “The artist’s truth,” the “truth” of the artist’s “vision”—in other words, the truth projected on reality by an individual—has been allowed to replace, as an object of general piety, the capital-t Truth already present in things. For Bazin, the film medium—that implacable agent of secularization – could paradoxically work to reveal that original truth, usurped by the assertive subjectivity of the modern artist. It could be an instrument of that original truth if used in a certain way: “observationally,” as we say now. This is also what Maier says: by protecting the unity of the real (through long takes) against its disintegration and reconstruction (the work of montage), the filmmaker avoids contaminating the real’s (ambiguous) truth (which is present in the things themselves) with his or her own truth (i.e., the filmmaker’s own opinions). As Maier puts it, the cinema is the mediator of the encounter between the viewer and that original truth. As Annette Michelson and others have pointed out in the case of Bazin, the basis for this understanding of cinema is religious: the filmmaker as Witness, filmmaking as hierophany. What necessarily supports this understanding of cinema and lends it sense is a belief that, beyond and above the meanings that a filmmaker can give to the things they film, those things have their own—ambiguous, even obscure—truth. An observational use of the camera would put viewers in touch with that transcendental truth. In some interviews, Puiu has seemed to acknowledge the religious grounding of the filmmaking principles he upholds.
This doesn’t seem to be the case with Maier. His praise for the maker of “observational cinema” as a self-effacing intermediary between the viewer and the “truth” of the filmed event comes in his text after a number of observations that sound rather skeptical about the possibility of such encounters. Maier’s starting point is Roland Barthes rather than Bazin. Barthes’s reflections on photography are similar to and probably influenced by Bazin’s reflections from his essay, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.” Still, photography and cinema are different for Barthes in that only photography can transcend cultural codes and conventions to become what Barthes calls a “‘flat’ anthropological fact,” while film is (in Maier’s words) “a temporal flux and not a frozen instant, cannot avoid the cultural codes and conventions which come with exhibition and interpretation.” Maier’s approving quotation of Barthes’s distinction suggests that Maier doesn’t believe that cinema can “reveal” any truth of “the things themselves”; and that’s because truth is not something that simply exists whithin things, waiting to be brought to their surface by an unbiased camera, a camera not guided by preconceptions. In Peter Wollen’s 1972 formulation, “[w]hat the cinema can do is produce meanings, and meanings can only be plotted, not in relation to some abstract yardstick or criterion of truth, but in relation to other meanings.” Maier goes on to write: when the cinema “presents itself as life,” it “hides its true condition” by “making what is absent seem to be present” (the events on-screen don’t truly happen during the screening, so they are absent), and by hiding “the technical arsenal—recording devices, film, editing tables, microphones, projectors, sound installations—deployed for that purpose” (i.e., of making what’s absent seem present). Maier calls this — the cinema's "hiding its true condition" — the "ideology of the cinema"; and he adds that this “ideology” has to be short-circuited for film to come closer to reality. The strange thing is that Maier can write this and also champion—of all genres—the “observational” documentary. This type of filmmaking—with its ideal of the filmmaker-witness, as discreet as a fly on the wall, with its implicit claim that “life” recorded by the camera would have unfolded in exactly the same way if no camera had been present to record it—shouldn’t it rather have served as Maier’s prime example of what he means by “the ideology of the cinema”? There’s a logical fracture there. Maier’s terms carry echoes of a firmly anti-Bazinian theoretical literature abundantly produced in the 1970s, mostly in France, the U.K. and the U.S. Those theorists, too, wrote about an “ideology of transparency,” practiced by a cinema that “hides” its own “process of production”; they also called for the short-circuiting of this “ideology.” The next step for them was to ask, perfectly logically, for a cinema that would no longer work to erase the traces of its own process of fabrication; but, on the contrary, it would make it visible, even foreground it. For Maier, by contrast and less logically, the next step is to praise “observational” filmmaking in the name of ethics, ignoring politics.
Carrying Ambiguity to the Limit: Aurora and Beyond the Hills
Both Cristi Puiu and Cristian Mungiu, the most successful of the Romanian filmmakers who emulated Puiu’s ideas about realism, followed their breakthrough films (Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu and Mungiu’s 2007 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) with films that carry to the limit (in two different ways) the Bazinian cult of the “ambiguity of the real.” In Puiu’s 2010 Aurora, the ambiguity of the real has become the obscurity of the real. The film could be described as an imaginary observational documentary following the obscure comings and goings through Bucharest of an obscurely troubled citizen for over 30 hours, during which he kills four people. The character’s behavior, his backstory, and the nature of his relationships with some of the other characters with whom he interacts remain largely enigmatic to the viewer for most of the film’s duration, an obscurity which even by the end of the film has been only partly lifted. Puiu himself presents in interviews this obscurity as a logical consequence of his decision to narrate this character’s murder spree in the manner of an observational documentary. In other words, the film invites us to imagine that we are watching 30 recorded hours—compressed to three hours of projected film—from the life of a man whom we don’t know. Aurora proposes that understanding what’s going on could be surprisingly difficult for us; our experience as observers could be consistently frustrating and, until the very end, unedifying.
Quoting Puiu’s explanation of his film as an imaginary observational documentary, Romanian film theorist Christian Ferencz-Flatz remarks that, “by and large, observational documentaries are not characterized by unintelligible (or intelligible only with great difficulty) events.” Nevertheless, the “logical consequence” extracted by Puiu from his application of a documentary aesthetic to fiction is profoundly Bazinian. It is a cinema presenting only the actions of the characters, not purporting to show their thoughts, and not attempting to represent expressionistically the phenomena of their inner lives but representing such phenomena only through the ways in which they echo and reverberate in behavior; such a cinema can renew the viewer’s apprehension of the ambiguity of the real. In the words used by Annette Michelson to explain Bazin, such a cinema can train the viewer for “the existential situation of being-in-the-world,” where nothing comes to the viewer pre-decoded and pre-judged, and direct access to other people’s interior realities is not a given . Puiu’s project in Aurora—reestablishing the world as a not easily knowable place—is a radical approach to the project that Bazin believed the cinema had been destined to fulfill. And a similar current of religiosity can be detected underneath, a conviction that “the real” manifests a truth demanding to be apprehended in a way that is different from mere comprehension, from mere access to knowledge of what’s at stake in the witnessed interactions, of who are the people involved in them, what are their motives, etc.
As for Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills, it is a fictionalized dramatic reconstruction of a real-life tragedy, guided by a similarly reverential sense of “the ambiguity of the real.” Mungiu’s real-life source of inspiration was the death of a young woman in an isolated Romanian monastery, when a priest and a few nuns attempted to “exorcise” her. Mungiu’s declared intention was simply to present “a situation”—facts only—without implying any privileged interpretation. He told Film Comment that he believes cinema shouldn’t “pre-interpret things for people.” In other interviews with him, this belief is expressed more vehemently: “[Most people are] used to watching films that tell them what to believe. For me, that is a very dishonest and manipulative way of story-telling.” About his own way, he has repeatedly said or implied that it is more “ethical.”
Mungiu’s actual strategy is to simultaneously feed multiple (even contradictory or incompatible) grids of interpretation without feeding any of them too much. This is, of course, combined with the already discussed rejection of any “expressionism” or editorializing. How does all this work? Let’s start with the way in which Mungiu slips into his narration the possibility that the victim—the girl who’s given temporary shelter at the monastery and who’s later killed involuntarily by the priest and the nuns—may be suffering from a mental illness. This is never confirmed and the illness is not even named; the possibility rests entirely on what a doctor seems to suspect, judging from the questions that he asks the girl and from the drugs he prescribes her. Is the girl a wholly helpless victim, or is she also a rebel who recognizes the arbitrariness of the monastery rules while her best friend and the other nuns follow them docilely? By not putting on the character a definite psychiatric diagnosis, Mungiu leaves room for another possible interpretation. Some critics have interpreted Beyond the Hills as a drama about two girls who were once close (the film suggests that their closeness included an erotic liaison), but whose subsequent existential choices, ultimately having to do with love, are irreconcilable and can only collide with tragic consequences: one girl (the victim) loves the other, while the other (the nun) loves God. This interpretation, which allows the characters a certain capacity for self-determination, was opposed by two other interpretations, one of which could be described as socially deterministic and the other as metaphysically deterministic. The latter interpretation stresses the fact that the film is full of well-meaning characters: Mungiu is especially careful to put some distance between the character of the priest and the cliché of the religious fanatic, depicting his “exorcist” as not only well-meaning, but also not unreasonable. This interpretation goes on to point out that these characters are nevertheless active in the construction of the causal chain of events resulting in the girl’s death; this suggests that evil here may be of a metaphysical, non-human nature.
According to the socio-deterministic interpretation, it is mistaken to talk of the two characters’ irreconcilable existential choices (one of the two desires the other, while the other aspires to God) because for two orphans like them it was never a question of “choice.” It was always a question of desperately needing protection, a shelter, a “daddy” (as they call the priest), and a “mommy” (as the call the superior nun): the effect of growing up in an orphanage (an experience which—it’s hinted in the film—included sexual abuse). This interpretation would stress the difficulty of ascertaining that the orphan who became a nun loves God: her behavior is so reserved that all that can be known for sure is that she is dutiful in the exercise of her monastery tasks and devotions. Apart from the social determinism, there is also a hint of genetic determinism: the possibly schizophrenic girl has a brother who may be intellectually disabled. But Mungiu keeps this interpretation from becoming the dominant one; he strategically weakens the grounds for it. Not only that the diagnosis of schizophrenia remains unmade and unconfirmed, but the intimations of sexual abuse in the two orphans’ past are also kept vague. And, while the film makes it impossible to be sure that the orphan turned nun is sincerely and profoundly religious, it also makes it impossible to be sure of the opposite.
To summarize: the girl who dies while being “exorcised” can be seen as a total victim; at the same time, she can also be seen as a woman strong enough to make choices (no matter how self-destructive) or even as a rebel who fights for a forbidden (same-sex) love, and who questions patriarchy and superstition. The drama at whose center she is can be seen as a clash of momentous individual choices (worldly love versus love of God); or it can be seen as a social drama about a pocket of East European poverty and backwardness where, on the contrary, there are no choices (the protagonists being born in circumstances which severely limited their possibilities of development); or it can be seen as a metaphysical drama about how evil can work in tortuous ways, and even through humans whose intentions are good. Very dependent on the ideological orientations of the commentators, these interpretations tended to converge (especially in Romania) in expressions of praise for Mungiu’s refusal to commit what essayist Andrei Pleșu, in his review of the film, called “ideological abuse”: in other words, his refusal to take sides, to join a particular camp, like the antireligious one.
The fewer unfavorable reviews that the film garnered in Romania (among them Lucian Maier’s) converge in the conviction that, on the contrary, Mungiu didn’t refrain from committing “ideological abuse,” from editorializing, and from feeding the viewer predigested interpretations and verdicts instead of just presenting the people and the facts. Among other things, he was accused of stigmatizing his clerical characters even before introducing them by letting the viewer form a first impression of them from a warning note hung at the entrance of the monastery—a note explicitly encouraging blind belief. He was also accused of discrediting the first doctor who sees the heroine/victim by means of some of the objects that the viewer can see in his office: a Christian Orthodox calendar next to a reproduction of the Gioconda. He was accused of giving another of his medical characters—this time a furiously anticlerical woman—the advantage of having the last word, of telling off the murderous nuns vehemently at the end of the film, thus framing the viewer’s experience. But he was also accused of intentionally discrediting the same anticlerical character through the very violence of her outburst. As can be suspected from the juxtaposition of the last two accusations against Mungiu, which contradict each other, the Romanian critics who found him guilty of such “unethical” slips and abuses tended to be themselves guilty of abusively generalizing from assumptions and idiosyncratically subjective reactions which would have needed instead to be questioned. It is not Mungiu but his critics who decided that, in the case of the written exhortation to believe and not try to understand hanging at the entrance of the monastery, the first impression (namely, that the monastery people are completely unreasonable) is meant to be decisive. By contrast, it can be interpreted as a basic feature of competent dramatic construction where the writer introduces first impressions only to subsequently contradict them in ways that call viewers to understand the priest as more reasonable than originally thought. It was not Mungiu but his critics who decided that the anticlerical doctor’s speech at the end of the film, because of its vehemence, has to upset (in one direction or another) the balance that was carefully kept until then. Just as were they decided that the other doctor’s taste in interior decoration weighs more than his professionalism and courtesy, also clearly dramatized by Mungiu.
A more accurate critical observation made by several Romanian commentators was that the directorial flourish with which Mungiu ends the last shot of the film— when the windshield of the police van in which we find ourselves is suddenly splashed with mud by another, passing car—breaks from the style he has maintained until then. That style has consisted in a no-comment presentation of the events, whereas this is a conspicuous intervention. Mud spreading on the glass, obscuring the vista of Romanian provincial urban life outside, both functions as a curtain-closer and comes with a metaphorical whiff. It is true that as a commentary it is ambiguous and, thus, keeps with the rest of Mungiu’s narration. The confidence with which Lucian Maier decodes it as a judgment on the Romanian press and the assurance with which another Romanian journalist, Cristian Tudor Popescu, translates it as Mungiu’s telling his Romanian audience that we’re all dirtied by what happened only speaks to the last scene’s ambiguity. Still, the blatancy and metaphorical portentousness of the effect seem to contradict Mungiu’s often stated distaste for editorializing as well as the use of visual metaphor and symbolism, which he has more than once declared aesthetically obsolete.
What may be worth noting here is that, to the extent that Mungiu was taken to task by Romanian critics, it was nearly always (with rare exceptions, such as the interventions of journalist Costi Rogozanu) for supposedly straying from his own stated ideal of not commenting on the events, of not taking sides, of keeping (in Rogozanu’s words) “total neutrality.” The ideal itself (as opposed to the degree of its fulfillment in the film) was seldom questioned, as if everybody agreed that there was no higher virtue than this neutrality—what Maier called the “honesty of the filmmaker who retires from his own project.”
So Romanian discussion of Beyond the Hills was governed by this sort of neo-Bazinian consensus that few thought of upsetting by asking what exactly is so virtuous about the neutrality professed by Mungiu, regardless of whether or not he departs from it in practice. Couldn’t this neutrality also be suspected of allowing the filmmaker to touch on sensitive controversial themes, without running the risks of a more partisan attitude? Like this, the film can benefit commercially from the controversy, while the filmmaker also earns praise for not being “unilateral” or “simplistic,” but “complex.” For Rogozanu, the film was “complex” in the sense of having been laid out by Mungiu “like a cold buffet from which everybody can take what they want, including perfectly opposed ideas.”
A generous interpretation of Mungiu’s strategy would be that it’s not really meant to simultaneously feed all the possible prejudices, all the various schemas for interpreting the world, that viewers could bring with them; such an interpretation would argue that it’s a strategy for making viewers confront their prejudices, their ideological pre-formatting, with those of other viewers. Ideally each viewer would realize that his or her reading of the events represented by Mungiu, though supported by some aspects of those events, doesn’t match with the reading of the next viewer, whose reading is also supported by different aspects of the same events. This confrontation would leave the viewer with one undoubted fact—a girl has died—and with a new or renewed awareness of the existence of multiple rival grids for making sense of the world—which is one way of understanding “the ambiguity of the real.”
But the reception of the film didn’t work in this way. What happened in general was that everyone tended to take from the film—while praising Mungiu for his objectivity—only what matched his or her preexisting way of understanding the world. Of course, this is not necessarily the fault of the film. Still, it may be observed that such reception worked to the film’s commercial advantage and that there may be something strange about a film that touches on so many sensitive subjects, purporting to provoke a debate on them and to not really anger anybody except for a few unusually conservative representatives of the Romanian Orthodox Church. And isn’t the film’s list of sensitive subjects—from lesbianism in a monastery to rites of exorcism conducted by 21th-century priests in a European country—suspect of sensationalism? Once Mungiu has chosen to make a film about a mad lesbian rebel who disturbs the peace of a monastery, isn’t his strategy, his choice of a no-comment, opinionless presentation of the events, a relatively safe one? In this way he can exploit the subject-matter without committing to a particular reading of it. He can have at the same time the sensationalism and the praise for impartial sobriety.
Rejecting the Label of “Social Realism”
I have shown that Cristi Puiu’s thinking, very influential in the mid-2000s among his Romanian peers (the most successful of whom was Mungiu), contains a strong dose of Bazinian piety about “the real.” For a neo-Bazinian filmmaker, the kind of authorial self-assertion that consists in delivering to viewers life which has already been interpreted and reassembled in exactly the form of the filmmaker’s preferred key of interpretation is a kind of sin. What’s to be cultivated is a sort of humility: the good filmmaker should be a good mediator of the encounter between the viewer and the intrinsic “ambiguity” of “the real.”
One of the sources for the neo-Bazinian cast of Puiu’s thinking may have been his discovery of the genre of the “observational” documentary, sometime in the early-to-mid-1990s, when he was a student at the Haute École d’art et de design of Geneva, a school where this type of filmmaking is granted a lot of importance. Another source may have been his encounter with Bazinian ideas about the cinema, an encounter hard to avoid for a student whose BA thesis investigated some of the theoretical issues involved in matters of cinematic realism. To these could be added his hostility towards any notion of militant, activist, politically committed cinema that Puiu (like his generational colleagues) seems to have associated with the Ceaușescu regime and its policies of indoctrination, regimentation etc., through cinema among other means.
The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu was widely understood by the general Romanian public as a film primarily concerned with social criticism: a film about the Romanian public health system. But “social criticism,” like “social realism”—with its associations of political activism, or at least particular sensitivity to social injustice—are labels that Puiu rejects. Again and again he has explained that his concerns in Lăzărescu had been more universal. Director Radu Muntean, whose 2006 The Paper Will Be Blue was the first film to follow in the aesthetic footsteps of Lăzărescu, also resents being labeled a social realist. After The Paper Will Be Blue—a film set during the bloody 1989 revolution which had overthrown Ceaușescu’s regime—he announced that, as an artist, he intended to move his focus “away from the social.” What this meant in practice was that he started to make films—the 2008 Boogie, but especially the 2010 Tuesday, After Christmas as well as the 2015 One Floor Below—about characters who live increasingly more comfortable middle-class lives in contemporary Romania. Mungiu, in Beyond the Hills, hasn’t moved “away from the social” in the same way. Instead, building on his “observational” depiction of an abortion in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, he has carried very far the ambition of keeping his personal opinions out of the story he is telling. Like Muntean, Puiu himself, in Aurora, moved his characters up the social ladder, thus making it more difficult for Romanian viewers to disparage his realism as “miserabilism,” a label which Puiu, like the Romanian filmmakers influenced by him, resented even more than that of “social realism.” At the same time, in Aurora, his realism became more self-critical. Aurora was partly an act of criticism directed at the aesthetic formula derived by Puiu’s followers from the Lăzărescu model: through the willed obscurity of its events, the film implies that the other fictions affecting an observational documentary stance usually make things too easy for their viewers. They make observation lead too easily to comprehension. This self-reflexive tendency was noticeable in other films besides Aurora. The ethics of filmmaking and the possibility of realism continued to be the object of criticism, for example in Corneliu Porumboiu’s When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (2013), or in Radu Jude’s The Happiest Girl in the World (2009). Still, Romanian directors did not question filmmaking from a particularly political angle. Not all of those who followed in Puiu’s footsteps shared Radu Muntean’s eagerness to distance himself from any suspicion that he may be dealing in social criticism; sensitivity to social injustice is strong, for example, in The Happiest Girl in the World, and also in Călin Peter Netzer’s 2013 Child Pose. Nevertheless, few of these filmmakers have strayed far from Puiu’s principle that a filmmaker should humbly abstain from the kind of self-assertion which consists in imposing a political agenda on the reality she observes.
“With Blood and Raw Flesh and Everything”
There is another major strand to Cristi Puiu’s thinking about the cinema, besides the neo-Bazinian one—and somewhat at odds with it, though joining it in shared hostility towards those ways of artistically representing the world that aim to be politically explanatory.
Another acknowledged model for Puiu, apart from the masters of the “observational” documentary, is the American actor-director John Cassavetes, whose filmmaking he praises in an interview “as a total putting of himself out there, a total giving of himself to the viewer, an all-out confession—with blood and raw flesh and everything.” In the same interview, Puiu goes on to connect Cassavetes’s confessional cinema with the “observational” documentary:
“[With my discovery of Cassavetes’s films] I developed an interest in cinema as confession—and nothing else. After which the center of my interest moved towards direct cinema, observational cinema—filmmakers who tell us about this world, while never losing the assumption that they don’t know it fully. Their stance is something like this: ‘I know how much I don’t know, I look at this and I wonder and I tell you what I witnessed’. Their attitude is nothing like ‘let me explain to you how things are, how the world works’. [...] Making a film is looking into the world and wondering about it. And I said yes, that’s the answer. The good films are those by directors who wonder about things and invite you to wonder with them, while the bad films are those of directors who explain to you how things are.”
Leaving aside for the moment the conclusions derived by Puiu from the example of Cassavetes and that of observational cinema about what “good films” are (as opposed to “bad films”), what needs to be pointed out is that the type of artist represented by the “observational” documentarist and the type of artist represented by Cassavetes are not one and the same: they don’t do exactly the same kind of thing. The observational filmmaker positions herself as a witness and is reluctant to assert her subjective self, while the latter type of artist is making a confession, is expressing herself, is pushing that self—lacerated and bloodied, as Puiu describes it—under the viewer’s nose. We surely talk about two different ways of understanding art. Puiu’s slippage between them is encouraged by the closeness of the Romanian words for “witness” and “confession”—martor and mărturisire. In broad lines, the idea of the director as witness/ martor fits Bazin’s ideal of observational art, while the model of film as confession/ mărturisire echoes ideas of Bazin’s younger 1950s colleagues from Cahiers du Cinéma: François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer etc. These are future directors and critics who championed what was called la politique des auteurs, a romantic cult of a series of directorial personalities understood in terms of genius.
Although legend tends to present Bazin’s younger Cahiers colleagues as his children, deeply influenced by his theoretical views, the truth is that, as critics, they took a certain distance from the theoretical positions formulated by him. Although Bazin proposes a pantheon of directors (Murnau, Flaherty, von Stroheim, Renoir, Welles, Rossellini and others), mostly accepted by his younger colleagues, the Bazinian conception of film history is not one in which the course of history is dictated by the personalities of these filmmakers. It’s not their titanic wills that write history. In Bazin’s Hegelian teleological conception, the history of the cinema is the road towards the fulfillment of its destiny of merging with “the real.” That this will eventually happen is inevitable, and the force that drives the medium in that direction is above the wills of indiduals, whose merit would be that of intuiting the correct direction in which cinema is evolving rather than fulfilling any romantic duty of “confessing.” On the contrary, for Bazin’s younger colleagues the history of the cinema is a procession of titans of self-expression. As David Bordwell noted, Bazinian realism is at odds with more traditional ideas, both classical and romantic, of the supposedly necessary unity of the work of art, made necessary either by the classical ideals of equilibrium, harmonious proportions etc., or by romantic appeals to “life,” to the artwork’s ideal likeness to a living organism. Bazin’s notion of “ambiguity” entails, in Bordwell’s words, “an openness to accident, contingency, and the sheer otherness of phenomenal reality.” It is a willingness to let these things take control and drown the romantic self’s attempts at expression, at assertion. Bazin’s younger colleagues go back to the more traditional individualist model of the artist, seen as a person endowed with the faculty of expressiveness. They imagine the cultural product as an expression of this remarkable individual’s thoughts and feelings. These two discourses coexisted in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma, without too many collisions, all through the 1950s. And it can be argued that their echoes mingle in the contemporary discourse of a filmmaker like Cristi Puiu.
One of the points on which the two types of discourse tend to converge is that of a shared hostility towards those filmmakers who neither “look at the world and wonder” (that Bazinian piety about “the real”) nor “confess” their experiences (the romantic imperative of confessional subjectivity), but start teaching us “how the world works” and “how things are.” The classic example of such a filmmaker used to be Sergei Eisenstein, whose theoretical ideas used to be explained as being the opposite of Bazin’s. The filmmaker of this type refuses to retrench himself in the position of neutral witness to an always ambiguous “real,” just as he refuses to hold on tightly to the first-person singular, to wrap himself in the subjectivity of the experiences he “confesses.” Such a filmmaker reserves a right to reconstruct the “real,” possibly in the (intentionally) simplificatory form of a schema or a model, after having decoded it, possibly with instruments that pretend to scientific precision, as were for Eisenstein the instruments of Marxism-Leninism. As Peter Wollen wrote polemically in 1972, in defense of the Eisenstein type of filmmaker, “[d]ifferent people may experience the fact of poverty, but can attribute it to all kinds of different causes: the will of God, bad luck, natural dearth, capitalism. They all have a genuine experience of poverty, but what they know about it is completely different.” What Wollen means is that, in the face of a matter as serious as poverty is, the great romantic value of “authentic experience” is not enough; it is not enough to give yourself to the viewer (as Puiu put it) “with blood and raw flesh and everything.” Just as there is nothing “ethically superior” in the eyes of an Eisenstein-type filmmaker about a representation that, in the name of the “ambiguity of the real,” leaves a little space (Mungiu-style) for each interpretation—for both capitalism and the will of God.
From his romantic-individualistic perspective on art, Puiu more than once bristled at critical and promotional efforts of grouping him together with Mungiu, Porumboiu, Radu Muntean, and other Romanian filmmakers in a “new wave” or “new Romanian cinema.” “There is no such thing,” he declared. “Each of our cases is a happy individual accident [...]. But the human brain needs comfort, and so it needs to group things in categories. Hence our being lumped together.” To which, of course, it can be replied that there is also comfort to be derived from differentiating oneself, from insisting on one’s singularity. In the eyes of many ordinary Romanian viewers, but also in those of some sophisticated commentators, what Puiu offered in The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu was a vision of the Romanian public health system that, far from being uniquely personal, was the dominant one in Romanian society : severely underfunded after 1989, that system had attracted a lot of hostility from citizens, with many seeing it as a remnant of the ruined, hated communist order, and calling for its dismantling to be completed. Expressing regret that the Romanian reception of the film was stuck at the level of talk about the local health system, Puiu repeated again and again that the film dramatized a larger, eternal issue: namely, the fact that everyone dies alone, deserted by all the other humans whose hearts keep selfishly pounding, whose lives keep racing towards goals, whose minds keep spinning plans or thoughts of pleasure.
But seeing it as a film about loneliness as the natural, insurmountable condition of the human animal, revealed in the encounter with death, is not necessarily less political. It is political inasmuch as it can lead to pitting human solidarity—the fundamental principle of a system purporting to offer universal healthcare for free—against nature. It can very well serve as right-wing grounds for demanding the privatization of a healthcare system constructed on “unnatural” or “nature-defying” principles. In the Romania of 2005, making this particular film was—inescapably—a political act, no matter how big the amount of sincere Bazinian piety in Puiu’s approach to the real, and notwithstanding the film’s confessional value as an artist’s public confrontation with his personal fear of dying. Puiu’s championing of a realism which wonders at our world’s being what it is, his high-minded distaste for all art that casts judgment on that world, or pretends to explain it politically, or aims to intervene in it and change it, had the markings of a political conservatism that was scarcely recognized at the time.
Andrei Gorzo studied film history and film theory at Bucharest’s National University of Theatre and Film (UNATC) and at New York University. He is currently a lecturer in Film Studies at the UNATC. His study of the New Romanian Cinema, Lucruri care nu pot fi spuse altfel: Un mod de a gândi cinemaul, de la Andreì Bazin la Cristi Puiu, was published by Humanitas Press (2012). At Tact Press he has recently coedited (with Andrei State) a collection of essays entitled Politicile filmului: Contribuții la interpretarea cinemaului românesc contemporan (2014).
Amédée Ayfre was a Catholic priest who was also interested in the cinema. Bazin’s debt to him was indicated by, among others, Annette Michelson, first in her review of Hugh Gray’s translation of What Is Cinema? (Artforum, no. 10, 1968, 67-71), and later in her introduction to the American edition of Noël Burch’s Theory of Film Practice (New York: Praeger, 1973, ix).
For instance, in “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema” he refers to “the ambiguity of reality” (Bazin, What Is Cinema?, volume one, 37); in the essay “De Sica: Metteur en Scène,” the phrase is “the ontological ambiguity of reality” (What Is Cinema?, volume two, 68); while in the essay “William Wyler, the Jansenist of Directing” it’s “the ambiguity inherent in reality” (Bazin at Work: Major Essays & Reviews from the Forties and Fifties, translated from the French by Alain Piette și Bert Cardullo, New York: London, Routledge, 1997, 8).
The Dardenne brothers stated their affinity for the type of cinema being made in Romania by people like Puiu and Cristian Mungiu—for example, on the occasion of a 2012 visit to Romania, covered by journalist Iulia Blaga for Hotnews.ro http://www.hotnews.ro/stiri-film-11672955-cineastii-jean-pierre-luc-dardenne-bucuresti-avem-multa-admiratie-pentru-filmul-romanesc-dar-nivelul-salilor-cinema-aveti-mult-lucru.htm/ accessed June 19, 2016. The Dardennes also coproduced the latter’s films Beyond the Hills, in 2012, and Graduation, in 2016.
Granted to Konstanty Kuzma and Moritz Pfeifer, and published in East European Film Bulletin, July 2011, https://eefb.org/archive/july-2011/interview-with-cristi-puiu/puiu-about-art-cinema-and-acting/ and https://eefb.org/archive/july-2011/interview-with-cristi-puiu/puiu-about-romania-and-romanian-cinema/ accessed June 17, 2016.
For instance, in an interview granted to Grig Bute and published in Cațavencii, on September 25, 2012, http://www.catavencii.ro/cristi-puiu-nu-mi-place-michael-moore-il-dau-ca-exemplu-pentru-ca-asta-se-intimpla-cu-documentarul-in-romania/ accessed June 15, 2016.
Lucian Maier, “Direcții în documentarul românesc actual” (“Directions in Contemporary Romanian Documentaries”), in Andrei Gorzo, Andrei State (eds.), Politicile filmului: Contribuții la interpretarea cinemaului românesc contemporan (The Politics of Film: Contributions to the Interpretation of Contemporary Romanian Cinema), Cluj: Tact, 2014, 232-233.
Especially an interview granted to Mihnea Măruță in 2013 and published by Măruță on his blog under the title “Nu tu descoperi ușa! Ușa te descoperă pe tine. Tu poți doar să te rogi” (“It is not you who discover the door! The door discovers you. You can only pray”): http://mihneamaruta.ro/2013/06/11/interviu-cristi-puiu-nu-tu-descoperi-usa-usa-te-descopera-pe-tine-tu-poti-doar-sa-te-rogi/ accessed June 17, 2016.
Although, as pointed out by Dudley Andrew in his book What Cinema Is! (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, 26), Barthes only quotes Bazin once—and, even then, not on a central point—in the pages of Camera Lucida.
Some of the theorists associated in the late 1960s and early 1970s with Cahiers du Cinéma (like Jean-Louis Comolli) or the British journal Screen (Peter Wollen, Colin McCabe, Stephen Heath) were among the most representative for this stance.
Christian Ferencz-Flatz, “O lume nepermeată de conștiință: Colaj de idei cu Benjamin și Porumboiu” (“A World Unpermeated by Consciousness: A Collage of Ideas with Beanjamin and Porumboiu”), in Gorzo, State (eds.), Politicile filmului, 272.
“Brief Encounter: Cristian Mungiu,” interview with Harlan Jacobson, Film Comment, vol. 48, no. 6, 2012, http://filmcomment.com/article/cristian-mungiu-interview-beyond-the-hills/ accessed June 18, 2016.
In interview with Michael Zelenko from The Fader; posted on March 11, 2013, on the website of the magazine, http://www.thefader.com/2013/03/11/interview-christian-mungiu-director-of-beyond-the-hills/ accessed June 17, 2016.
Mungiu himself commented that the film is, among other things, “about love and what people do in its name, and about free will and our responsibility for the choices we make...” (Quoted by Alexandra Olivotto in Evenimentul zilei, May 29, 2012,http://www.evz.ro/mungiu-filmul-nu-este-o-ancheta-983767.html/ accessed June 10, 2016.)
This interpretation was put forth by prominent Romanian essayist Andrei Pleșu, who wrote: “But, beyond matters of confused circumstances, of provincial mediocrities, of irresponsible and derailed acting, a larger theme can be glimpsed. A ‘cosmic’ theme, I daresay: the inevident, but irreducible ubiquity of evil.” (Andrei Pleșu, “Există ceva după dealuri?” [“Is There Something Beyond the Hills?”], in Dilema veche, no. 475, March 21-27, 2013,http://dilemaveche.ro/sectiune/situa-iunea/articol/exista-ceva-dealuri/ accessed March 30, 2013; emphasis his).
For a Romanian review describing the film in these terms, see, for example, Mihaela Miroiu, “Oamenii nimănui” (“Nobody’s People”), Revista 22, November 6, 2012, http://revista22online.ro/18999/.html/ accessed March 11, 2017.
Mungiu allows enough room for maneuvering to a Romanian commentator like Marian Rădulescu, who typically analyzes films from a Christian Orthodox perspective and who saw Beyond the Hills as a “cinematic testimonial” to “the need for absolution and holiness”: Marian Rădulescu, “Gânduri pe marginea unui a numit tip de film (4) —După dealuri” (“Thoughts about a Certain Kind of Film —Beyond the Hills), LiterNet, April 2013, http://agenda.liternet.ro/articol/16508/Marian-Radulescu/Ganduri-pe-marginea-unui-anumit-tip-de-film-4-Dupa-dealuri.html/ accessed June 18, 2016.
Such a reading was suggested by prominent essayist Alina Mungiu-Pippidi (the filmmaker’s sister), in her article “De ce nu are femeia voie în altar?” (“Why aren’t women allowed to enter the altar?”), România liberă, November 19, 2012, http://www.romanialibera.ro/opinii/comentarii/de-ce-nu-are-femeia-voie-in-altar—284577/ accessed March 11, 2017.
Priest Constantin Sturzu, “Ne ascundem după dealuri?” (“Are We Hiding Ourselves Beyond the Hills?”), Ziarul de Iași, November 2, 2012, http://www.ziaruldeiasi.ro/opinii/ne-ascundem-dupa-dealuri~ni92g3/ accessed March 11, 2017.
Lucian Maier, review of Beyond the Hills, LiterNet, October 2012, http://agenda.liternet.ro/articol/15701/Lucian-Maier/Distant-Dupa-dealuri.html/ accessed June 15, 2016.
Cristian Tudor Popescu, review of Beyond the Hills, Gândul, October 28, 2012, http://www.gandul.info/puterea-gandului/sfanta-doime-10261517/ accessed on June 20, 2016.
For instance, interviewed by Ramona Mitrică in 2006 (when, under the impact of Puiu’s 2005 The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu, Mungiu was preparing his own aesthetic coup of 2007, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), he declared: “What I want to avoid, to get rid of—and this is something that has driven me from the beginning—is the use of metaphors, of stuff which is not direct, which stands in for something else. I think this kind of cinema is over in Romania.” ( http://www.romanianculturalcentre.org.uk/post.php?id=75&v=1/ accessed June 19, 2016.) More recently, on October 28, 2012, in an online interview with readers of the Romanian web platform Hotnews, Mungiu wrote: “When I make films I try as much as possible not to generalize, not to use metaphors and symbols, always to refer to concrete things.” (http://m.hotnews.ro/stire/13502905/ accessed June 19, 2016).
Costi Rogozanu, VoxPublica, January 18, 2013, http://voxpublica.realitatea.net/politica-societate/filmele-lui-2012-cu-tot-cu-indiferentele-prostiile-si-dezamagirile-anului-86595.html/ accessed June 11, 2016.
Costi Rogozanu, VoxPublica, January 11, 2013, http://voxpublica.realitatea.net/politica-societate/and-the-oscar-goes-toooooo-cia-niste-vorbe-cu-dupa-dealuri-89050.html/ accessed June 11, 2016.
Puiu mentions this BA thesis in an interview with Doru Iftime, published under the title “Regizorii români trebuie să-și poarte numele” (“Romanian Filmmakers Should Start to Wear Their Own Names”) in Gândul, September 9, 2010, http://www.gandul.info/blog/cristi-puiu-regizorii-romani-trebuie-sa-si-poarte-numele-7163868/ accessed June 20, 2016. The title of his BA thesis was “Notes on realist cinema.”