The Use and Non-Use of Music in the New Romanian Wave
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This article discusses the musical landscape of Romanian New Wave films, focusing on the implications of specific songs and the generally spare use of music in films such as Child’s Pose, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu, Police, Adjective, and Tales from the Golden Age.
This article aims to discuss the musical landscape of Romanian New Wave films, dealing with the relationship Romanian filmmakers have with music and how this can explain the musical expressions used. The research will focus on some particularities of recent Romanian films, more specifically: the scarce use of music, as well as the predilection to use pre-existing musical pieces. With a great number of recent Romanian films partially or totally lacking music, I will address the implications generated by the absence of this element. Following this, I analyze the effective use of pre-existing pieces for titles that do work with music.
The Absence of Film Music
For most Romanian directors of the New Wave, non-diegetic music does not represent an inviting film element, especially in the context of realist cinematic endeavours. Films belonging to the Romanian New Wave tend to use music only as background for credits or as diegetic sound, having a clear source in the scene. The norm is the absence of music, especially non-diegetic music, and films and filmmakers that employ music on a more extensive basis are exceptions.
This section will discuss the films that do not use music and how this absence signifies. Miguel Mera and David Burnand discuss “the avoidance of non-diegetic music, anempathetic music and music that deliberately underplays musical expression” as some of the distanciation techniques which can be used to subvert mainstream cinema’s use and exploitation of music. “Anempathetic” music could be further clarified as cultivating an indifference or apathy towards a certain emotion, mood, or plot-point. Similar techniques have been employed by directors of the New Wave to invoke nostalgia, irony, or solitude. Many filmmakers of the New Wave see music either as an adjuvant, an unnecessary prop, or plainly an artificial way of influencing spectators’ emotions—or as being a medium too powerful which would distract the viewer’s attention from the film’s visual form and style. If diegetic music is necessary to respect the principle of reality, the directors see no reason to feature non-diegetic soundtracks; it would be against realist cinema and would not benefit for their approaches. Radu Muntean’s interest in realist cinema sees “non-diegetic music as merely a stylistic prop and nothing more, an artificial way of inducing emotion. I do not want this, I make natural films and I prefer to get emotion in a more honest way and—I believe—more authentic,”  while Corneliu Porumboiu considers that “Music is a very strong art, it is stronger than cinema and it does not seem fair to use music. And because I make realistic films, it does not fit.”
If the use of music helps create an emotional space for the spectator’s empathy, nostalgia, and longing, the lack of music also makes room for the spectator’s reactions of a different kind. In the Romanian New Wave, the avoidance of music offers a certain dramatic impact, aside the realist infusion it brings to the films. Omitting music in dramatically charged scenes ensures a “depth of expression,” accentuating a series of states noted by George Burt in The Sound and Function of Silence: When Music Is Absent as defining the narrative and style of a film. Burt lists psychological conflicts or moments of anguish as scenes which benefit from the lack of music. For Romanian films like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), or Child’s Pose (2013), applying this principle does have the effects predicted. The scene of Otilia trying to fit in at the party thrown by her boyfriend’s parents is aided by the absence of music; her inner struggle with what had happened and her concern for her friend are much more stringent due to the lack of music. Her loneliness amongst the others is constructed within a space devoid of music, where her grief and silence are in a stark contrast with the rest of the guests, who are conversing and laughing. It is precisely this merry atmosphere, all too normal, not enhanced by additional music, that helps the film to underline Otilia’s tragedy.
Much the same, the confrontation scene between the mothers at the end of Child’s Pose lacks any music, which accentuates the tragedy of the mother who lost her child and the desperation of the one who is about to lose hers. Devoid of musical sentimentality, the scene is one of the most powerful of the film, and it continues in the car where Cornelia is watching her son asking for forgiveness from the father of the child he killed in the car crash. The camera remains in the car with Cornelia, and the audiences hear her sobbing as she watches in the side window. There is no melancholic score to lower the tension of the scene and to sweeten the spectators’ reception. Instead, the silence and the sound of crying allow the audience to delve into the two mothers’ emotional turmoil and feel their grief.
In a similar manner, Marian Crișan avoids music in important scenes of Morgen (2010). When Nelu manages to get Behran pass the border to Hungary, there is no music, but only the diegetic sounds of cheering audiences at the football game. The lack of music accentuates the solitude of the character and the risks he’s running, especially by contrasting Behran’s flight with the enjoyment of the football fans. In lacking music, the film’s ending remains more ambiguous and open to interpretation. Music might have foregrounded one of the possible readings of the ending—a happy or sad one. Instead, Crișan lets Behran alone, again, trying to find his way on a silent field.
Spare Use of Communist era Music
Since music is used so sparingly in Romanian New Wave films, when it is used, its function is more specifically purposeful than the Hollywood film’s orchestral score. One of the common elements of the films belonging to the New Romanian cinema is the use of pre-existing music, even more so music from the communist era. If they do use music, Romanian directors opt for a pre-existing score, not original compositions, with very few exceptions which will be discussed later in the paper. The use of popular music has different implications, for using pre-existing pieces means the songs bring their own history into the film. Jerrold Levinson, in his essay “Film Music and Narrative Agency,” notes the “imported associations” brought by the original context of pre-existing compositions into the narrative of the film, and how this has the effect of deepening the “impression of chosenness.” The Romanian films “undermine traditional scoring practices,” similar to what European autobiographical features do, as pointed out by Wendy Everett in her essay on music and memory. By using popular music self-consciously, the pre-existing songs can be read on multiple levels as supportive material at a basic level, for they help placing the narrative, the characters and their descriptions in time; on another level, it brings concepts of nostalgia and memory into discussion, generating a whole process of recognition and remembering for the audiences; but it also becomes a signifier which delimitates the reality of the film to the outside reality, and a mark for the self-irony of the directors.
One can find songs from the communist period in many New Wave films: “Cum e oare?” (How does it feel?) or “În apa mării”(In seawater) in The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu, “Nu te părăsesc, iubire” (I won’t leave you, love) in Police, Adjective, “Hai vino iar în gara noastră mică” (Come again in our little train station) or “Strada Sperantei”(Hope street) in Tales from the Golden Age (2009), “O rola de foc”(A roll of fire) in The Way I Spent the End of the World (2006), and the list can go on. In the case of recent Romanian films, with most of them using songs from communism not only as an augmentation of atmosphere, it is important to expand the normal interpretation of music used for introducing or enhancing the mood. It is a factor that helps the spectator get into the world of the past, but, on the other hand, it serves as a trigger for the spectator’s memories, feelings, or associations. Here, I follow Roger Hillman’s work on memory and music in German cinema. In that context, he argues that pre-existing music “also served as a trigger of cultural memory, as a cultural flashback.” I see these examples from the Romanian New Wave working similarly. Much of Levinson’s theories on how spectators recognize music and locate it in time and space are dealing with the affective and instructional areas involved by pre-existing music since they offer the audience culturally specific information and emotions.
The frequent use of songs from communism, songs both liked by the public and approved by the regime, confer the films not only an authentic note, but progressively convey cultural memory into the discussion. Citing Hillman, again, “Music thus used approaches the film from a different angle, often a skewed one, because beyond the immediate relationship to images established by originally composed music, pre-existing music brings layers of time, relating to the reception of the work. It extends the plan of the film’s narrative into a historical dimension.” In the Romanian context as well, audiences, especially local ones, are subject to a range of sensations and emotions, like nostalgia, melancholy, irony, and joy. But the filmmaker’s intention clearly makes the music as a signifier, bringing it in the register of self-irony; some of the Romanian directors support this interpretation of music, as can be seen in the interviews conducted by Gabriela Filippi on the theme of film music. Cristi Puiu’s use of Margareta Pâslaru’s music for The Death of Mr Lăzărescu entailed “self-irony and melancholy and nostalgia and...” It clearly separated the content of the film from the surroundings: “That’s why I’ve separated them, in this distinct way, especially the final song: to have a moment a silence, and then music, so the statement can be clear.“ It was also a clear marker of where the film’s world was starting, the song being used in the beginning of the film, for the credits. The influence for the use of music was Antonioni’s Eclipse (1962), as Puiu has stated, and the way in which the music is in juxtaposition with the actual film. In the same way, the film’s end is underlined using another popular song by known artist, Madeleine Fortunescu.
This practice of musical recycling done by recent Romanian cinema goes as far as several films are using the same song (as is the case with “În apa mării” or “Și m-am îndrăgostit de tine,” used in two or more films). Alongside with cinematic principles of realism and possible financial reasons, when discussing this recycling, one needs to factor in the directors’ bet that the audiences will automatically engage with their film through the affects triggered by these pieces. This is especially valid for songs that have been used by more than one film, for they bring a whole universe from previous films and situations to a new context. The practice can be hazardous, for it risks becoming a cliché and being interpreted as convenience from the filmmakers, as it happened with Netzer’s Medal of Honour (2009). Another possible drawback is that hearing a song used in another film could mean removing the spectators from the film’s universe and make them relieve the scenes or situations from previous films. Again, Medal of Honour can be offered as example, having a bunch of recycled songs from other directors’ films, including a far-fetched piece from Philip Glass which can prove bothersome. Recycling musical scores is not unique to the Romanian New Wave, but, in the context of a small cinema with a reduced corpus of films, it is easier to recognize the pieces and to draw on the other contexts where they have been heard.
Other Functions of Music
In Police, Adjective, a film where the ingenuity of the director uses the music as a signifier for the absurd situation in which Cristi, the main character, finds himself, for the illogicality of the judicial system, and as counterpoint to the analytic function of Porumboiu’s movie. When Cristi’s wife listens to the 1980s song, “What a Wonderful Night,” Cristi engages in a discussion about the meaning of words and how it lacks logic in his own interpretation— just like the system in which he works. Against the realist and analytical character of the movie, the musical piece of this scene offers an interesting counterpoint, as noted by the director: “I was drawn by this song by the lyrics, for there were many metaphors used and it was a completely different area from the type of cinema I make and the type of approach I was taking.” The simplistic approach of the song towards words and the easiness of defining the abstract concept of “love” is opposed to the complex interpretation of words and legal system offered by the film.
The music trope goes further, as the song used for the end credits of Police, Adjective—“What a Wonderful Night”—serves as a counterpoint to the whole final scene of the film about the meaning of words and concepts like “law,” “conscience,” “morale,” and “justice”; yet another 1980s song, the piece makes extensive use of figures of speech in order to make trite points about words, meaning, and concepts. The song is drawing on a parallel between love, words, and silence, with the lyrics pointing to the importance of words and messages in a superfluous way. What the song manages to do is emphasize the analytical aspect of the film and its aim to get past a basic level of communication and interpretation: “I love words, you know / They are my sisters.” In the same way (Porumboiu loves concepts and is proposing a new way of decoding messages and human interactions), it scrapes the first layers over concepts and digs deeper with his realist cinema.
Another example of how music is inserted in the film’s narrative as a counterpoint and balances this mode of realist filmmaking comes from the last film made by Porumboiu, The Treasure (2015). While the film still goes in the established minimalist realistic tone of Romanian cinema for most of its length, the exceptional and grand ending which moves away from this type of filmmaking adds material to interpret the film as a modern fairy tale. Even more so, the spectacular ending features some non-diegetic music, this being an exceptional fact for Porumboiu whose last film, which had music without a source, is a short he made while at the university. The ending and the song (a “Life is Life” reinterpretation of Opus’s “Live is Life”), done by a Slovenian band Laibach, do add ambiguity to the story and the possible interpretations of the picture, even making some film critics to use the song as a key for deciphering the movie. For Lucian Maier, this musical piece is the reading grid, just as the song is a re-interpretation of an original text; the film represents an “intervention in the discourse of the original real(ity).” The song offers valid points for the narrative and for the cinematic strive proposed by the director; the Laibach song is deemed as a subversive piece with ironical insertions, and, to a certain level, so is the ending. Subversive and ironical towards the film and the characters’ drive, the film’s finale is a mixture of sarcasm and happy-ending through the use of this specific song; this reading is much more similar to what Christian Ferencz-Flatz states in his analysis of the film, which I deem as more appropriate. Here, the music helps detonate the narrative by adding ambiguity to the ways in which the film might be interpreted. A happy-ending and most peculiar song might make for a moment of comic relief, but also confuse the audiences, especially considering the type of minimalist filmmaking practiced by Porumboiu, which can be seen in The Treasure as well. What the director manages to do, not least with the help of this musical piece, is to attach a parody to a risky ending with a double meaning. In The Treasure, like in Police, Adjective, Porumboiu uses very precise musical insertions that cover a range of functions, making points as different as ironical reports or statements about cinema. Even though the use of music is scarce in his films, the director places songs in order to focus the audience’s attention to the process of filmmaking and the intricate stages it has.
More Romanian popular music from the 1990s or 2000s can be heard in other films. Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation (2016) makes use of pop music for its ending. The final scene, the daughter’s graduation ceremony, is an artificial moment for this realist drama, and Mungiu does not miss the chance to express this through music. Using a well-known song, “High School Years” from a 1987 movie (High Schoolers), as the backdrop of the ceremony, Mungiu manages to stage a recognition moment for the local audiences. The song (as well as the ceremony) is easy to recognize for many in Romania, so a minimal engagement with the characters is achieved through the music. Furthermore, the background of the end credits is a familiar 90s song called “School Years,” a mix between pop and gypsy music. This is part of a larger mechanism used by Mungiu in his last feature, to ensure the audience recognizes characters, typologies, situations, and fully engages with them.
Cătălin Mitulescu’s second film, Loverboy (2011), features some original music composed by Pablo Malaurie and Sebastian Zsemlye. However, the movie also uses pre-existing songs, having popular pieces belonging to a musical style with Roma and oriental influences called manele or pop songs from recent years. Like Mitulescu’s previous feature, there is some non-diegetic music, but most songs are part of the diegesis of the film. The use of manele helps the construction of the characters and social groups in which they revolve, for the genre is mainly associated with Roma population and working classes. This sets a social landscape for the events in Loverboy to unfold, with the main characters being a part of these social groups. The rise in popularity of the style would add to the popular nature of the story, at least for the above-mentioned listeners. Furthermore, the use of manele ensures a minimal representation, albeit musical, of one of the important ethnicities in Romania. The other dance pop songs found in the film are a specific melodic background for a certain landscape: young people out having fun in the summer. Music sets the atmosphere, establishes the rhythm of the film, and creates a mood for both the characters and the audiences.
The number of films using original pieces, especially non-diegetic, is rather scarce in the Romanian New Wave—the absence of music being a characteristic for the first generation of the directors belonging to the New Wave. There are a few exceptions of filmmakers who have consistently used original and even non-diegetic music, such as Radu Muntean or Adrian Sitaru, but the norm tended towards reduced music. However, recent changes have been visible in the Romanian cinema, with newly arrived directors, such as Paul Negoescu or Bogdan Mirică, being more open to the usage of music employed by mainstream cinema.
The use and non-use of music have different implications and generate associations, alterations, and conflicts; all these effects can be noted in the Romanian New Wave. On the level of stylistic elements and narrative techniques, Romanian cinema is rather different from mainstream cinema, and music bears no exception. The search for realism of the filmmakers has welcomed a subtle, unadorned, and even bleak style, with little use of music or none at all. The frequent absence of non-diegetic music and the reduced use of music in general ensure a realist perspective, and also serve to make several points in the stories of these films.
The lack of music filters the ways in which a film can generate emotions in its audiences. The absence of musical pieces aimed at enhancing the mood or advancing the narrative creates a space where the spectators can focus more on the characters’ drama, their conflicts and psychologically charged scenes, and their juxtaposition with the outside world. The absence of music allows a certain “distanciation” and encourages observation. At the same time, the use of pre-existing music for diegesis renders certain effects. The use of pre-existing scores works on at least two levels: the use of pre-existing songs, especially from the communist time, allows for a certain characterization of the period, the narrative, and the characters (since most films draw on this piece of recent history), but also ensures the establishment of connections and associations from audiences.
Anca Caramelea has a degree in Sociology from the University of Bucharest and holds an MA in Film Studies from the University of East Anglia. She is currently working for various film festivals. Her areas of interests are East European cinema, history and film, and gender and media.
“Regizorii români despre muzica de film IV,” interviews by Gabriela Filippi, Liternet, Oct. 2009, http://agenda.liternet.ro/articol/10273/Gabriela-Filippi-Catalin-Mitulescu-Corneliu-Porumboiu/Regizorii-romani-despre-muzica-de-film-IV.html
Radu Muntean, “Regizorii români despre muzica de film III,” interview by Gabriela Filippi, Liternet, Oct. 2009, http://agenda.liternet.ro/articol/10272/Gabriela-Filippi-Cristi-Puiu-Adrian-Sitaru-Radu-Muntean/Regizorii-romani-despre-muzica-de-film-III.html
Corneliu Porumboiu, “Regizorii români despre muzica de film III,” interview by Gabriela Filippi, Liternet, Oct. 2009,http://agenda.liternet.ro/articol/10273/Gabriela-Filippi-Catalin-Mitulescu-Corneliu-Porumboiu/Regizorii-romani-despre-muzica-de-film-IV.html
Wendy Everett, “Singing our Song: Music, Memory and Myth in Contemporary European Cinema” in 100 Years of European Cinema: Entertainment or Ideology?, eds. Diana Holmes and Alison Smith (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), 172.
Cristi Puiu, “Regizorii români despre muzica de film III,” interview by Gabriela Filippi, Liternet, Oct. 2009, http://agenda.liternet.ro/articol/10272/Gabriela-Filippi-Cristi-Puiu-Adrian-Sitaru-Radu-Muntean/Regizorii-romani-despre-muzica-de-film-III.html
In his review of the film, the critic Andrei Rus suggests this practice has been done by so many films before that it’s already a cliché to use communist pop songs. Furthermore, reusing some of the songs from Puiu’s or Mungiu’s films is interpreted as premeditation and lack of originality, https://filmmenu.wordpress.com/2011/01/12/exclusiv-pe-blog-medalia-de-onoare/
Corneliu Porumboiu, “Regizorii români despre muzica de film IV,” interview by Gabriela Filippi, Liternet, Oct. 2009,http://agenda.liternet.ro/articol/10273/Gabriela-Filippi-Catalin-Mitulescu-Corneliu-Porumboiu/Regizorii-romani-despre-muzica-de-film-IV.html
Lucian Maier, Auto-contemplare—Comoara in FilmSense, 6 Jun. 2015,http://www.filmsense.eu/auto-contemplare-comoara/
Christian Ferencz-Flatz, Virați la stânga, apoi virați la dreapta in Dilema Veche, 21 Jul. 2015, http://dilemaveche.ro/sectiune/dileme-line/articol/vira-i-stinga-apoi-vira-i-dreapta