Cold Mountain was shot there. So was Borat, in part. But most of us don't think of Romania as having a film life of its own. Our mistake, because this former Warsaw Pact country, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, has crawled its way to cinematic respectability, even greatness. Some of you may have seen 12:08 East of Bucharest at last year's Wisconsin Film Festival. Or maybe you saw The Death of Mr. Lazarescu the year before that. Or you've heard of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the teen-pregnancy film that should put Juno in its place when it comes to Madison in April. These three films have turned Romania into an international hot spot on the film-festival circuit, and deservedly so, given the two I've seen.
If you want to bone up on this suddenly vital nationalist cinema, you could do a lot worse than attend the Romanian Film Festival being held this weekend at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Organized by the Romanian Cultural Institute and the UW's Center for Russia, East Europe and Central Asia, the three-day event features a variety of films, each of them providing a lens onto a country that most of us associate with Dracula and little else. But it turns out to be a fascinating place, still reeling from centuries under the Ottomans and decades under the Soviets. Romanian films tend to take a neo-realist tack as a way of facing the harsh realities of life in this economically strapped country. But the ones in the festival are as likely to drown Romania's sorrows in laughter - life as a practical joke we play on one another.
Take California Dreamin', Christian Nemescu's 2007 film about a Romanian village that intercepts a NATO military transport during the conflict in Kosovo, tying the train up in so much red tape it's unable to move. It's a classic culture-clash story in which the American soldiers, though armed and presumably dangerous, don't stand a chance against the villagers' peasant cunning. And then there's Nae Caranfil's The Rest Is Silence, which offers a delightfully humorous account of the making of Romania's first feature film, back when movies were still considered cheap and vulgar. A period piece that looks like a hundred million bucks, this ostensible comedy also has important things to say about how hard it's always been to get anything done in Romania.
But that appears to be changing....