An antidote to Hollywood comic-book films

Why I Love Romanian Movies

In 2007, Romanian director Cristi Mungiu’s film, '4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days' became an international smash. Set in Ceauşescu-era Romania in the 1980s, the film exposed the regime’s hypocrisy for espousing family values while at the same time pushing vulnerable, pregnant women into highly risky backstreet abortions. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for best film.
Maybe Mungiu's most accomplished film. 'Graduation' is the story of a father's overriding desire for his daughter to study abroad and all of the problems that brings with it. Mix in a little bit of corruption and you’ve got a very good story. Mungiu's films rarely have easy answers. Here he asks the philosophical question of what matters most: where you get to in life or how you got there?

In past decades, Central and Eastern Europe had often served as fertile ground for brilliant cinema. In the 1960s, Czech and Polish directors like Miloš Forman, Krzysztof Kieślowski and many others drew on pathos and humor to reveal the larger human truths about life behind the Iron Curtain. After the 1989 fall of communism, though, filmmakers in these countries sometimes struggled to find a coherent voice to articulate the new political and economic realities.

Starting in the early 2000s, ground-breaking Romanian directors like Cristi Puiu and Cristian Mungiu stepped in to fill the void and began making films that consciously embraced the bleak physical and moral landscapes left over from the brutal, communist-era Ceauşescu dictatorship. They crafted deceptively simple yet intricate stories involving everyday Romanians who somehow found themselves caught up in the country’s rapid, inconsistent post-communist transformation process. The films tell not just highly entertaining yarns, filled with drama and comedic moments, but reveal a shady overlap between the new realities and the surviving structures and attitudes of the old regime.

Director Radu Jude made his debut in 2009 with a classic, bittersweet comedy, 'The Happiest Girl in the World.' In that film, a small-town girl wins a car in a contest run by a soft-drink company and things don’t exactly follow according to plan.
A still from Cristi Puiu's claustrophobic family drama, 'Sieranevada.' The film shows the hallmarks of the Romanian New Wave: intense dialogue, a focus on interpersonal relations, and how the complexities of the modern world weigh on day-to-day lives. That's actress Judith State on the right, one of my favorites.
A still from Cristi Mungiu’s most recent-film, 'R.M.N.,' which confronts the thorny issue of immigration and the rise of populism as residents of a small Transylvanian town protest plans by a local bread company to bring in guest-workers from Sri Lanka.
A still from Puiu's 'Aurora,' which goes darker than most new wave films. It's essentially a crime drama, after a man is driven by passion to commit murder. I confess I've not seen the film yet, but it's on my list.

Director Cristi Puiu is considered the father of the “New Wave.” His early film “Stuff and Dough” (2001), a road-trip movie where three likable young people find themselves working for an organized crime ring, set a low-key, gritty visual aesthetic that survives to this day. Puiu’s “Death of Mr Lăzărescu,” in 2005, tenderly revealed the inequities of the country’s dysfunctional health-care system. Puiu went on to win a prize at Cannes for young and upcoming directors.

In 2007, Mungiu’s film, “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” became an international smash. Set in Ceauşescu-era Romania in the 1980s, the film exposed the regime’s hypocrisy for espousing family values while at the same time pushing vulnerable, pregnant women into the highly risky world of backstreet abortions. What elevated the film into art was its deft focus on the fraying friendship between the two women, portrayed with sensitivity and humor. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes that year for best film.

Mungiu has since followed up with a series of excellent, unsparing movies, including “Beyond the Hills” (2012), “Graduation” (2016) and “R.M.N” (2022). Graduation may be Mungiu’s most accomplished work -- the story of a father’s overriding desire for his daughter to study abroad and the problems this inevitably causes. Here, Mungiu grapples with a bigger philosophical question of what constitutes success in life: what you achieve or how you got there in the first place?

Other highly accomplished directors working in this style include Corneliu Porumboiu, Radu Muntean, Radu Jude, Ana Lungu, Adina Pintilie and Călin Peter Netzer, among many more. While these filmmakers would certainly push back on any notion they’re part of some cohesive group, they all employ similar techniques to achieve a feeling of objectivity or authenticity in their movies. These techniques include using long camera takes and unhurried dialogue to engender a sense of voyeurism in the viewer. The settings are often uncommonly bleak to heighten the feeling of realism or to maintain focus on the characters and their stories.

One of the older 'new wave' films is still immensely popular but already feels like something of a throwback. The Bucharest the characters inhabit has changed so much the past decade that the clubs restaurants, streets and dogs feel very much of a piece of the early 2000s -- a decade before Bucharest filled up wall-to-wall with hipster coffeehouses and co-office work spaces.
The story of a chronically ill man who's shuffled from hospital to hospital is filled with pathos and dark humor. It was groundbreaking at the time for its brutal honesty and bleak settings.
The 'Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu' tells the story of Romania‘s communist-era dictator through film footage throughout the decades of his reign. The movie begins in the mid-1960s when he assumes power. It's visually stunning and the accompanying music is hypnotic.
Călin Peter Netzer's gripping story of an overbearing mother who will go to any length (including bribery and corruption) to help her son, who's involved in a tragic hit-and-run car accident.

It would be impossible to list all the best films, but some to look for on streaming services or to download include: “Police, Adjective” (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2009), "Sieranevada" (Cristi Puiu, 2016), “Tuesday, after Christmas” (Radu Muntean, 2010), “California Dreaming” (Cristian Nemescu, 2007), “Child’s Pose” (Călin Peter Netzer, 2013), “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn” (Radu Jude, 2021) and “Touch Me Not” (Adina Pintilie, 2018).

As the new wave has as evolved, filmmakers have embraced a wider range of themes and topics. Director Radu Jude made his debut in 2009 with a classic, bittersweet comedy, “The Happiest Girl in the World.” In that film, a small-town girl wins a car in a contest run by a soft-drink company and things don’t exactly follow according to plan. In more recent years, he’s branched out to more serious subjects, including his controversial, “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians,” in 2018. That film touched on a third rail of Romanian public discourse, focusing on the country’s role in the Holocaust – as an enthusiastic ally of Nazi Germany – during the 1941 massacre in Odessa. Tens of thousands of people, mostly Jews, died in the massacre.

Mungiu’s most recent-film, “R.M.N.” deftly confronts the thorny issue of immigration and the rise of populism as residents of a small Transylvanian town protest plans by a local bread company to bring in guest-workers from Sri Lanka. Mungiu chose to set the film in a part of country with significant populations of ethnic Hungarians, and touches on another taboo subject: the often-fragile, fraught relationship between ethnic Romanians and Hungarians.

Romanian films don't hold anything back when it comes to examining the dynamics within couples. I was shocked by 'Boogie,' Radu Muntean's incredible 2008 film about a couple on the rocks who spend what they hope will be a quiet holiday at the seashore.
Another Muntean movie about love gone wrong (or at least gone cold). 'Tuesday, After Christmas' is a meticulous study of the dissolution of a marriage after the husband finds a new lover. There are no bad guys in this story, just victims -- and no false notes.
The tragic 2015 nightclub fire in Bucharest is merely the starting point for this hard-look documentary at the role of corruption at all levels of Romanian society. Some 27 people lost their lives in the Collectiv nightclub fire, but this movie focuses more on the 37 people who died after the fire. One of the most engaging documentary films of recent years.
'Collective' begins at the nightclub itself with horrific scenes of the fire and how incredibly fast it spread. Thinking about this scene always makes me think twice anytime I find myself in a crowded room where fire safety may not be the top priority.

Romania’s best-known film in recent years, the documentary “Collective” (2019), is not strictly part of the new wave but nevertheless shares much in common thematically with those films – including a fierce examination of official corruption that traces its roots back to the Ceauşescu era. Collective uses a tragic 2015 Bucharest nightclub fire that led to the deaths of more than 60 people as the starting point to expose corrupt practices at all levels. A crack group of investigative journalists look into the fact that 38 survivors of the fire went on to die in the hospital and uncovers a high-level, mob-run scheme to supply hospitals with diluted disinfectants.

The film garnered two Academy Award nominations – for best documentary and best international feature – but didn’t win for either category. Whatever, it’s arguably one of the most engaging documentary films of recent years.

This essay was written to be part of the newly revised 'Lonely Planet Guide to Romania & Bulgaria,' which due out later this year. To order a copy or find out more information, click here.

Add a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


+ 2 = nine

Photo of Mark Baker
About the author

Mark Baker

I’m an independent journalist, travel writer and author who’s lived in Central Europe for nearly three decades. I love the history, literature, culture and mystery of this often-overlooked corner of Europe, and I make my living writing articles and guidebooks about the region. Much of what I write eventually finds its way into commercial print or digital outlets, but a lot of it does not.

And that’s my aim with this website: to find a space for stories and experiences that fall outside the publishing mainstream.

My Book: ‘Čas Proměn’

In 2021, I published “Čas Proměn” (“Time of Changes”), my first book of historical nonfiction. The book, written in Czech, is a collection of stories about Central and Eastern Europe in the 1980s and early ‘90s, including memories of the thrilling anti-communist revolutions of 1989. The idea for the book and many of the tales I tell there were directly inspired by this blog. Czech readers, find a link to purchase the book here. I hope you enjoy.

Tales of Travel & Adventure in Central Europe
Mark Baker