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Consider three recognizable constants of Pintilie’s postcommunist work: unexpected violence, casual nudity, and long-take sequences. My favorite films in the series—The Oak (1992), Too Late (1996), and Niki and Flo (2003)—contain liberal doses of all three, but it’s violence that determines the climax of each. In The Oak, the main characters walk into a hostage situation; in Too Late, the hero must seal up a mine to trap a serial killer who’s hiding in it; and Niki and Flo concludes with a retired general bludgeoning his in-law with a hammer. At the screenings I attended, you could hear gasps when these moments occurred; the audiences were unprepared for them, given the films’ generally light tone. This seems to be the point. The grand theme of Pintilie’s late period is that Romania has been forever shaped by the Ceausescu regime. The horror of that period now lies beneath the surface of Romanian life, and it can be detonated at any time.
This theme endures in the work of Pintilie’s followers. It may be most obvious in the films of Corneliu Porumboiu, whose Police, Adjective depicts small-town officers reverting to police state measures because they don’t know how to operate any other way. But the character comedies of Radu Jude (The Happiest Girl in the World) and the chamber dramas of Radu Muntean (Boogie; Tuesday, After Christmas) suggest that callousness and cruelty are inextricable from the Romanian character: the characters in these films deceive each other so casually that it seems part of their nature. And Cristi Puiu’s Aurora feels much less cryptic if considered as part of the Pintilian tradition.
It’s not surprising that the films of the Romanian New Wave aren’t universally admired in their home country. The few Romanians I’ve met have spoken of them skeptically; they seemed to resent that movies so critical of the national character should be so successful abroad. I suspect that those directors working under the shadow of Pintilie—whom the Ceausescu regime barred from filmmaking for 20 years—would greet unpopularity at home as a point of pride. Like Nagisa Oshima, Pier Paolo Pasolini, or Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Pintilie created a cinema at odds with the dominant culture. As I see it, the frequent nudity of his films plays a role in this project. Not only does it challenge the conventional “purpose” of nudity in movies—to provide titillation—but it also makes his human characters seem more like animals, corralled rather than directed (one of the key lines of Pintilie’s 1998 Next Stop Paradise is “the closest brother of man is the pig”).
Such provocations can feel cathartic when they’re staged as comedy rather than tragedy: implicit in this approach is the refusal to be beaten down by events (it’s worth remembering that Romania also gave the world Eugene Ionesco). Of course, there are plenty of beatings in Pintilie’s films—and the extended duration of so many of his shots only adds to the oppressive atmosphere. The remarkable long takes of his 90s work make one feel trapped in the films, and, by implication, Romania. In this context, Pintilie’s humor—sometimes sweet, sometimes sour—seems a healthy psychological response to a life without cheer.