Romania might seem like an unlikely home for one of Europe’s most exciting cinematic “new waves.” On the other hand, “unlikely” is a word that applies to much of the country’s history.
This thought occurs on the occasion of the eighth annual presentation of “Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema,” which opens Nov. 29. Appropriately, the opening night film for this year’s festival recalls one of the most bizarre incidents in the Cold War era.
“Closer to the Moon,” written and directed by Nae Caranfil, is based on a true story that is guaranteed to test anyone’s credulity. In 1959, an armored car carrying 1.6 million Romanian lei (approximately $250,000 in 1959 U.S. dollars) was held up in front of the Romanian National Bank in Bucharest. Within weeks, the police announced the arrest of six individuals, five men and one woman. All six were prominent members of the Romanian Communist Party. All six were Jewish. Given that the lei was worthless outside Romanian and the swag was instantly traceable, it is hard to imagine what they had in mind. But the heist itself was ingenious: the thieves masqueraded as a camera crew and cast ostensibly shooting … a heist picture.
The story, which Caranfil apparently follows closely, starts to get weirder as the criminals are apprehended. They are told that if they want to avoid the death penalty, they must agree to play themselves in a film that recreates the crime. The resulting film, “Reconstruction,” is a scurrilous piece of work that was released in Romania in 1960, after which the five men were executed. The woman, a wife of one of the five, received a life sentence.
In 2004 Romanian documentarian Alexandru Solomon made a fascinating non-fiction film about these events, “The Great Communist Bank Robbery,” which played the New York Jewish Film Festival. Caranfil’s film, the official Romanian entry for the foreign-language Oscar, takes us back to fiction and features a cast that includes several familiar American and British actors, including Vera Farmiga, Mark Strong, Allan Corduner and Harry Lloyd. The film was unavailable at press time, but the story is so insane that it would be hard to make an uninteresting film from it.
To my mind, the real highlight of the festival this year is a mini-retrospective of the films of Corneliu Porumboiu. The director announced himself with a stunning debut film “12:08 East of Bucharest” (2006), a brilliant deadpan satire on the manufactured heroism of the fall of Ceausescu. He followed that with an even darker, more rigorous film, “Police, Adjective.” The festival’s program of his films includes both of these excellent works as well as a program of his shorts and his most recent feature, “When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism,” the festival’s closing night film.
“Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema” will be presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Romanian Film Institute, Nov. 29-Dec. 3 at the Walter Reade Theater and the Eleanor Bunin Munroe Film Center (both at Lincoln Center, 65th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway). For information, go to www.filmlinc.com. In addition, the series will continue at the Jacob Burns Film Center (364 Manville Road, Pleasantville, in Westchester County) Dec. 5-10. For information, go to www.burnsfilmcenter.org.