Andrei Ujica, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu, 2010, still from a black-and-white and color film, 180 minutes.


FIVE YEARS after Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) began the revival of a national cinema that had been moribund for forty years, at least half a dozen Romanian directors have made their mark on international film history. Now in its fifth season, the Romanian Film Festival (December 3–5) takes over the two screens of the TriBeCa Cinemas and the lounge bar to present a dozen fiction and documentary features, a group of shorts, and two one-man live shows.

The festival opens with Andrei Ujica’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu (2010), a tour de force of found-footage moviemaking that’s sustained through its three-hour running time by a single brilliant conceit. Ujica documents Ceauşescu’s 1965–89 dictatorship by chronologically assembling official video and television recordings—and nothing else. “Autobiography” is the operative word. This is the story of Ceauşescu as he would have written it in moving images if he could have. Romanians, of course, will write a mirror-opposite story as they watch, and the ironies will be rich—a black enough comedy to make one weep. But even for those with only the barest knowledge of this particular history, the movie is fascinating. A wild card among the leaders of the Iron Curtain countries, Ceauşescu first tacked west (there are scenes of him hosting Nixon in Bucharest and being feted by Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace) before he tacked further east than Moscow (receiving a spectacular reception in China and a stranger one in North Korea.) During the first years of his rule, every empty speech is greeted by standing ovations, every birthday with banks of roses. Later, the applause is muted, the roses reduced to a few bouquets. The visits to construction sites are taken on unpaved roads to nowhere. Inspecting baked goods in a market, the leader comments on the relative thickness of the crusts. The workers look at him as if he’s mad—and by this point, he likely is—because crusts are all that many people have to eat. Ceauşescu and his wife Elena were arrested after the uprising of December 1989. Shaky handheld video of their hasty trial before a military tribunal frames the movie, fore and aft. The couple’s execution immediately after the trial was never recorded. And, in any case, Ceauşescu would not have included it in his autobiography.

Two other must-see features, Cristi Puiu’s Aurora (2010) and Radu Muntean’s Tuesday, After Christmas (2010), were critical favorites at Cannes and the New York Film Festival. In Tuesday, After Christmas, a woman who believes she has a perfect marriage is devastated when her husband announces that he’s leaving her and their child for another woman. Except for the intensity of the immediate reaction of the wife (beautifully acted by Mirela Oprisor) to her husband’s betrayal, the film is singularly and refreshingly devoid of melodrama. The relationship between the husband and his girlfriend doesn’t seem compelling on either side, although one suspects that he needs to believe it is, in the way that you might talk yourself into going into debt to buy a new car when the one you have is just fine. Aurora, Puiu’s follow-up to The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and the second film in his proposed series “Six Stories from the Outskirts of Bucharest,” is a terrifying, clinically detailed study of a paranoid multiple murderer and a rigorous investigation of the possibilities of “observational cinema.” That Puiu both directs and plays the role of the killer intensifies the tension between identification and distance. Both Aurora and Tuesday, After Christmas will open in the US in 2011, but it could be fun to see them with the Romanian audience that always turns out for the festival and whose engagement with this burgeoning national cinema makes for lively postscreening discussion and partying.

Puiu’s longtime producer Bobby Paunescu makes an impressive directing debut with Francesca (2009), in which an attractive young woman who believes she can make a better life in Italy gradually comes to understand that she is trapped between sexual predators at home and white slavers abroad. Francesca is a spare, tough movie about gangster capitalism and misogyny in the new Europe. It’s the kind of discovery that makes festivals like this one both pleasurable and necessary.

Amy Taubin

The Fifth Romanian Film Festival runs December 3–5 at TriBeCa Cinemas in New York. For more details, click here.