Historically, the communist era in Romania span over four decades, between 1948 and 1989. During this time, about 550 movies were made, a great number of them being just pure propaganda, and/or simply bad. They were “socialist realist” films, where the most used cliché was the atheist no-nonsense engineer or factory worker who fights the “bad elements” against all odds and who is proven to be right at the end. These “bad elements” were people going against the Party recommendations (by behaving in an “unserious” manner, or just differently) and/or some leaders who lost their connection to the common people and were dangerously close to becoming capitalists (usually portrayed as corrupt, depraved, greedy and power-hungry people). “Seriousness” in movies was very important for the Romanian communists, as it expressed trustworthiness, loyalty, predictability, and most of all, conformity.
The films that got banned were not all anti-establishment (like, for instance, “Reconstruction”). Some were seen as being contrary to the party line or to the recommended “socialist realism” creative norms, by presenting people that were not aligned to the policies. Certain movies managed to pass censorship by making concessions, but still managing to keep ideas that were somewhat subversive to the regime. Others, miraculously, just managed to slip through the cracks, despite being more subversive than some of the movies that got banned. There were some other inexplicable cases where the films were not subversive at all and still got banned. The censors did not have to give a reason for banning a movie.
In regards to the movies on this list, their order is based solely on my personal enjoyment. I tried not to go the usual route, not to choose the usual pictures that are recommended for this time period (e.g. “Reconstruction” or “The Cruise”). I wanted to present other good movies that also deserve some recognition and are less known, even by many Romanians. Some of them are subversive, some are not. They all show a glimpse of the everyday life inside the Romanian communist regime.
- Casa dintre câmpuri / The House between the Fields (Alexandru Tatos, 1980)
Radu (played by Mircea Daneliuc, who was a great writer/director in his own right), an engineer working on a dam in a village, falls in love with newcomer Voica (Tora Vasilescu), the fiancée of Ilarie (Mircea Diaconu). Voica moves in with Radu. Ilarie plots with Axente (Amza Pellea), the president of the local CAP (“Cooperativă Agricolă de Producţie” – Agricultural Production Cooperative, a form of communist collective farming, run by the state) to frame the engineer for embezzling some funds. Radu loses his position there, is discredited, and gets another “lesser” job in another village.
This was one of the few Romanian films to clearly present the underlying hypocrisy and opportunism of most Romanian Communist Party members, in general, and leaders, in particular. Amza Pellea makes a great villain as Axente, who is pretending to be one of the people, to follow the party line, to be a “good communist”, but in reality he is conniving, scheming, essentially doing everything he can to remain in power, no matter the costs. As many others, the movie is trying to show, Axente only feigns adherence to communism for personal gains. There is an overall sense of resignation regarding this state of affairs, even if the film has a relatively happy ending.
- Meandre / Meanders (Mircea Săucan, 1967)
An architect, Constantin (Ernest Maftei), destroys the career of a more talented colleague Petru (Mihai Pălădescu) and marries the woman whom Petru loves. Later, the wife, Anda (Margareta Pogonat), has an affair with Petru, but eventually returns to her husband. Constantin’s son, Gelu (Dan Nuţu), gravitates toward Petru, the latter being a sort of mentor for him, and the father is concerned. However, story, plot, characters, actors don’t really matter in this film. They are all basically an excuse for the director to create tableaux vivants.
This is the most visually exquisite movie on this list, with very beautiful and creative photography by D.P. Gh. Viorel Todan. It is also the most abstract. If you liked Alain Resnais’s “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961), you’re going to love this movie. In fact, a Romanian critic called Mircea Săucan and his film a weird “mix of Resnais, Antonioni, and Tarkovski”. It was banned, maybe because, as the same critic suggested, the censors were afraid of what they didn’t understand. Just to be on the safe side, they chose to forbid a film that was, in the words of a journalist reviewing the movie at that time, “completely removed from the real life of our socialist society.”
- Pădurea spânzuraţilor / Forest of the Hanged (Liviu Ciulei, 1965)
Lieutenant Apostol Bologa (Victor Rebengiuc) is an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army, in World War One, in 1916. He is an ethnic Romanian forced to fight against Romanians, in Transylvania (until December 1, 1918, when it was united with Romania, Transylvania was part of Hungary, then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, until the latter’s defeat and disintegration). At first, he is a dedicated officer, but as time goes by, he begins to question his loyalties, his identity, and his values.
It is considered to be one of the great films of Romanian cinema. It certainly was the first Romanian feature film to gain worldwide critical recognition, Liviu Ciulei winning the Best Director prize at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival.
It was based on a 1922 novel by Liviu Rebreanu, who, in turn, based his story on the real case of his brother. It’s interesting to observe the filmmakers’ compromise to the Party line: to turn what it was a very spiritual novel (essentially a quest for God, Bologa finding his faith again) into a very human story, God playing no part in it. This doesn’t make the film better or worse than the book, just different.
The movie shows what it considers to be the ultimate reality of any war: that there are no real heroes – everyone’s either a coward, or delusional, or just trying to survive.
- Faleze de nisip / Sand Cliffs (Dan Piţa, 1983)
A highly respected middle-aged surgeon, Theo (Victor Rebengiuc), and his friends get their valuables stolen while they are on the beach. The wrong man, a young carpenter in his early twenties, Vasile (Gheorghe Visu), is wrongly identified and accused.
The doctor is freely allowed by the police to interrogate the young man, whereas his word is never questioned, suggesting that power and influence get a free pass anywhere, anytime. Theo, a man in power, is never wrong and never questions himself. Even after Vasile serves time in prison, Theo goes after him, still obsessed with the fact that he never got his confession. The doctor’s ego and sense of entitlement are supported and fueled by the authorities, who treat him as a superior being.
The film was banned, as it showed the lack of rights and the oppression in a supposedly equal rights society. There are some great lines exchanged between the doctor and the young man:
Theo: “I’m a simple citizen, just like you.”
Vasile: “That’s not true! You’re an important man, and I’m just a carpenter.”
Theo: “Why don’t you admit you did it, and tonight you’re back in your bed?”
Vasile: “See, how can you tell me we’re equals, when I have to do what you say?”
- O lacrimă de fată / A Maiden’s Tear (Iosif Demian, 1980)
A girl is found drowned in a remote village. The two policemen on the case (Dorel Vişan and George Negoescu) find that it is a homicide. Step by step, they uncover a wide conspiracy of which the entire village is guilty. A camera crew is filming the investigation for a TV documentary.
Half of the movie is shot in documentary-style, and this plays a part in the story. There’s a way in which people act in front of the camera and another way they act when nobody’s filming them.
The film was based on actual events, and that adds a bit to the movie’s subversiveness. The police and the party resolve everything, but the underlying truth still remains: the crime has been covered by everyone this whole time. The film subtly presents the true face of Communism – everybody’s a collaborator. Horrible crimes could not have been committed without the complicity of every person. Nobody knows anything, nobody has seen anything, everybody profits, everyone’s a hypocrite, everyone lies. While “The House between the Fields” (which had opened only three weeks earlier, on October 13, 1980) contained only one clear villain, representing the communist leaders, Iosif Demian’s movie shows a bleaker reality: the people themselves are guilty. Guilty of silence, of complacency, and in the end, of murder.
- Un film cu o fată fermecătoare / A Film with a Charming Girl (Lucian Bratu, 1967)
Ruxandra “Ruxi” Vancu (Margareta Pâslaru) is an aspiring actress. She tries to get into acting school, but they reject her on the basis that she has “too much charm.” She doesn’t give up, however, trying to be a star, even if only in traffic police PSAs. She picks up engineer Şerban Rotaru (Emmerich Schäffer) on a whim, from the phone book. Through her demeanor, she’s making fun of every man’s seriousness, especially of her on-and-off boyfriend’s, Paul Manu (Ştefan Iordache), a PSAs director and a wannabe sculptor.
Despite the whimsical nature of the main character, this is not a straight-up comedy. This is one of the few Romanian films that take a jab at the actual Romanian cinema, at the usual fare of “engineer movies,” and this is probably what got it banned. The clue is in the title, “A film with a charming girl” not just “A charming girl.” There’s a sarcastic line at one point, when Ruxi discovers that Şerban is not as stuck-up and dramatic as she expected him to be, and he says to her, “You’ve seen too many Romanian movies with engineers.”
This movie has probably the most charming and happy-go-lucky female character in Romanian cinema, a ray of sunshine in the bleak world of Romanian dramas, the only person that seems to be truly alive in this grave world, and apparently the most free-spirited one. The contrast between the character’s “unserious” personality and the seriousness of the others, within the realism of the movie, makes the satire all the more biting.
- Ilustrate cu flori de câmp / Postcards with Wild Flowers (Andrei Blaier, 1975)
Before Cristian Mungiu’s 2007 Palme d’Or winner “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” there was “Postcards with Wild Flowers.” Young Laura (Carmen Galin) comes to a small town to get an abortion (a word that is never mentioned in the movie). Irina (Elena Albu), the daughter of one of the two abortionists, tries to make the girl change her mind, unsuccessfully. The women who perform the procedure (played by Draga Olteanu Matei and Eliza Petrăchescu) don’t really know what they’re doing, and the girl dies. The film doesn’t stop there, continuing to show the aftermath of the tragedy.
This film was also based on actual events. In the seventies, the remains of twenty-year-old Maria Goran were discovered buried in the backyard of Trandafira Popescu, a woman who was found to be an amateur illegal abortionist.
Decree 770 of 1966, the Romanian anti-abortion law, has led, according to Communist statistics, to over two million children being born in the 23 years up to December 25, 1989, but also to at least 10,000 women dying officially as a result of illegal induced miscarriages. Unofficially, the number was reportedly much higher. There were no condoms and no birth control pills on the market.
The movie is quite bold for that time, showing the destructive nature of such a law. There are some concessions to the party line – the two older women are portrayed as greedy and heartless capitalists, but probably that is what saved the film from being banned.
- Directorul nostru / Our Manager (Jean Georgescu, 1955)
In this comedy, the manager (Alexandru Giugaru) of an institution is challenged, during a meeting where he hands out bonuses to everyone, by a worker who says he doesn’t deserve that bonus. Encouraged by another worker, Maria Popescu (Angela Chiuaru), he manages to convince everyone to give the money back. Everyone except for the lazy clerk Ciubuc (Grigore Vasiliu-Birlic), who sneaks out quickly with his bonus. Later, the manager is haunted in his dreams by the image of Maria Popescu, telling him he has gotten further away from the common people, becoming almost a bourgeois. The manager and Ciubuc’s paths intertwine and hilarity ensues as one tries to get closer to his employees, while the other tries to get by without being seen by the boss, neither of them succeeding in their endeavors.
This is the first Romanian movie to satirize the communist regime, making fun of, for example, the habits of the Party officials, who report accomplishments “over 100%” and criticize the ones who accomplished “only 100%.” It escaped banning probably because it was written under a pseudonym (Gh. Dorin) by a high ranking official in the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Eduard Mezincescu. He was reportedly close to Ana Pauker, the Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time, whom Time magazine in 1948 described as being “the most powerful woman alive,” featuring her portrait on the cover.
- Secvenţe / Sequences (Alexandru Tatos, 1982)
This is a meta-movie, a movie about making a movie, being also another, more direct commentary on the Romanian cinema. Surprisingly, it wasn’t banned.
The picture is divided into three independent parts/sequences, the only link tying them together being the making of a film. The first part contains a scene filmed with actors and common people, with a hidden camera, without the knowledge of the amateurs. In the second part, the film crew is trying to get to a remote filming location. As evening comes, they get hungry and stop at a restaurant, where they meet the manager, played by Mircea Diaconu, who manages to be funny, awkward, sad, and pathetic, all at the same time. The third part takes place on the set of a historical movie about the illegal days of communism, in the nineteen-forties (until December 30, 1947, when the last king of Romania abdicated and the communists took over, communism was illegal in Romania). This sequence focuses on two elderly extras who are supposed to sit at a table in the background, pretending to talk, while the main actors are playing their scene. The extras turn out to be old and unexpected acquaintances – a former 1943 victim (Ion Vâlcu) who was imprisoned for being a communist, and his former torturer, who used to be a right-wing policeman (Geo Barton). The writer/director (Alexandru Tatos) is playing himself, and so is most of the film crew, throughout the movie.
A realistic tone is kept throughout the film, with touches of dark, deadpan humor. The movie plays around with the idea of manipulating the reality through fiction. It suggests that the truth can be rearranged and retold, according to the people in charge that tell the story (i.e. the communist regime), fiction becoming fact and fact becoming fiction.
- Probă de microfon / Microphone Test (Mircea Daneliuc, 1980)
The young TV cameraman Nelu Stroe (Mircea Daneliuc) falls in love with a young woman, Anişoara “Ani” Covete (Tora Vasilescu), whom he meets during a lineup for a Romanian communist version of 60 minutes (a reporter-centered investigation Romanian TV show that exposed the “bad elements of the socialist society” for insignificant “crimes,” such as traveling on a train without a ticket, as was the case with Ani). Ani “is not a serious person” – she doesn’t have a job, she’s more or less a hustler, and she has dealings with the black market. The relationship is very passionate, the two leads have great chemistry (perhaps because Mircea Daneliuc and Tora Vasilescu were married at the time), and everything progresses naturally, with a grounded ending that makes perfect sense.
The realism of the “Romanian New Wave” can be traced back to this film. “Microphone Test” was quite a game changer, with its naturalistic performances and dialog, sometimes improvised (which was unheard of at that time in Romanian cinema). This film doesn’t have any “big speeches,” just real talk between real people. From a movie history viewpoint, Ani can be considered a more realistic successor of Ruxi, the “charming girl.” She is equally free-spirited and quick-witted but in a more down-to-earth kind of way.
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