December 2011, Romanian Film Festival week. Radu Muntean Retrospective.
We’re in a bar lounge at Lincoln Center. Music, chatter, bedlam. Mr. Muntean, half an hour late, orders a chamomile tea, promising he’ll answer swiftly all questions since he’s an efficient guy.
Born in 1971 in Bucharest, Director Radu Muntean graduated in 1994 from the Romanian Academy of Theatre and Film, Film Directing Department. He has the most titles launched of all Romanian "New Wave" directors: Furia/Rage (2002), Hîrtia va fi albastră/The Paper Will Be Blue (2006), Boogie (2008), Marţi după Crăciun/Tuesday after Christmas (2010), and Vorbitor/Visiting Room (2011).
The Paper Will Be Blue was nominated for a Golden Leopard at Locarno and winner of the Special Jury Prize in Namur. His films were in the official Cannes festival selection: Boogie in the "Quinzaine of Realisateurs", 2008, and Tuesday after Christmas, in the "Un Certain Regard", 2010. And here in the U.S.A. Boogie won the award for best screenplay at the International Hampton Film Festival 2009.
In a career that so far spans a mainstream crime story, Rage, and an auteur action movie, The Paper Will Be Blue, Radu Muntean is known for switching styles and themes. Boogie, his third feature, is a story about the lives of 30-somethings. His fourth film, Tuesday after Christmas, is an urban tale about the dilemma of a middle-aged man, who must choose between his wife and mistress. And the last production, Visiting Room, is a documentary gathering stories about love in prison.
Besides being one of Romania’s outstanding feature filmmakers, Muntean is a well-known commercials director and his career includes some of the best Romanian ads ever made.
From 1996 until now, Radu Muntean has directed over 400 commercials for agencies such as BV McCann Ericsson, Saatchi & Saatchi, D'Arcy, Leo Burnett, Grey, Tempo, Scala J. Walter Thomson, Graffiti BBDO, Headvertising, winning over 40 national awards and international advertising festivals.
Ella Veres: Let’s start with the Hârtia albastră (The Paper Will Be Blue). What was the reaction to your movie?
Radu Muntean: We had a variety of audiences, but the Romanian audiences didn’t really watch it. It’s the film that fared the worst at box office. It was released at the same time with two other films about the ’89 revolution, Porumboiu’s A fost sau n-a fost (Was It Or Was It Not?) and Mitulescu’s. Cum mi-am petrecut sfârşitul lumii (How I Spent the End of the World). So Romanians were saturated with watching anything about the revolution. During the 16 years that passed between the revolution and my film premiere they were assaulted by information of various degrees of outlandishness about the revolution. Often sensationalistic. Who shot? Who didn’t shoot? Who were the terrorists? They got bored, rightly so, and they didn’t give a chance to my movie in Romania. Though the film is not about that. It’s a subjective experience of a few people during the revolution. Abroad, the film was extremely well received on the festival circuit. I got a few prizes and was presented at Locarno, and was overall in 60-70 festivals, so abroad the reaction was much more positive, even if people didn’t understand exactly what it was about, but they realized the film is not about clarifying historical and political facts, but rather a human perspective.
EV: I lived thru that period myself and I too had hopes and disappointments, and experienced the same fizzling energy.
The message of the movie seems to be: It was not a revolution. Stay in your little place. It was not worth giving your life for. Innocent victims died just to give the impression of revolution. Criminals. Dead innocent children to give them legitimacy.
Sorry, I fell ill. Such bad, bad, bad memories. Blockbusters sell hope, fairytale happy endings, to keep us going. You sell grim nightmares.
Somehow your movies are discussion forums.
RM: Discussion forums?
EV: For example in South Africa they had a Reconciliation Committee to which victims of the Apartheid could say, ‘Look this-and-this has happened to me,’ and, ‘So-and-so did this to me.’ Or someone who felt guilty would come out and confess…
RM: What has this to do with my films?
EV: Hârtia seemed to open a discussion about how back then we were manipulated by brazen profiteers.
RM: I didn’t aim at opening discussions connected with the political context and all kinds of conspiracy theories that circulate about the revolution. The film is not about that! The film doesn’t want to clarify who shot, who didn’t shoot, who are the terrorists. The film is about an absurd period, treated in absurd key, and that’s all. It’s a movie about confusion. It doesn’t want to clarify the confusion. Doesn’t intend by any means to be a discussion forum! There were so many discussion forums on the Romanian talk shows. Each time on the eve of the yearly anniversary of the revolution there are tens of programs. I didn’t want to do with this film.
RM: Well, of course I can’t stop people talking about this. Movies always generate reactions you can’t control.
EV: In previous interviews you were distressed by the dishonesty, and the presence of people that are still in places of power they shouldn’t be.
RM: Well, that’s separate from the movie. You can think whatever.
EV: Sure. The reverberations are what they are. There is a haunting moment of silence in your film, when the would-be terrorists chat about pickled green tomatoes and carrots, and the soldier asks them since when they are in Romania, because they speak Romanian so well, the guys are silent. Sacrificed.
RM: I didn’t want to start a political and social debate with this film.
EV: Why not?
RM: I don’t have all the facts. It’s not my profession.
EV: Okay, we don’t have any national discussion, but were there no incidents within your professional circle, when people who were dishonest and still in those power positions, man, just would not leave! This communist dishonesty is a blight. The deep ingrained historical crime can’t be so easily washed away. Don’t you think so?
RM: Yes, I kept on saying this, as often as I had the occasion, both I and other colleagues, but we are not capable as a nation to come together, and we, as filmmakers, are no exception. We tried to create an association, to become a power axis in Romanian cinema, after all it’s because of us that the world talks about Romanian cinema in the last years. But it was not feasible.
EV: The fact that it didn’t work out has anything to do with the film Furia (The Fury)?
RM: What connection could that have with Furia?
EV: Well, it was made in that period. I thought this film came out of that frustration.
RM: No, no, this happened after Furia. Furia was my first film. I was at the beginning. There was no New Wave at that time. In general, if a driver annoys me in traffic, I don’t go make a film about it.
EV: Okay, then why Furia? Why are those people furious? Why is that young man furious? Why is the Gypsy mafia furious? Why is everybody furious? Even the soccer fans. Thugs like in Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange?
A society that imagines itself living the mafia life of America, Italy, the Godfather... Forms without substance/content?
RM: They’re aggressive, not necessarily furious.
There was a lot of aggressiveness in Romanian society during the late ‘90s. And aggressiveness breeds aggressiveness. The film was generated by this conclusion that I drew
at that time.
EV: How did Adrian Copilul Minune/Child Prodigy react when he saw the final film?
What was the Gypsy community’s opinion to see how you portray them as sadistic Gypsy mobsters living in palaces adorned with turrets?
RM: I have no clue what was their opinion!
EV: Did they come to see the movie?
RM: How should I know if they saw it? I don’t know.
EV: Adrian Copilu’ Minune (Child Prodigy) didn’t come to the premiere?
RM: He didn’t come because he had a wedding to perform at. I don’t know his reaction. We never talked after the shooting. On the set he was very professional.
He's accustomed to being professional. People engage him to sing at weddings.
He comes, sings for these certain amount of hours, takes his dough. He's a professional.
EV: Okay. Vorbitor (Visiting Room) is a documentary. I’ve watched all your movies one after the other this weekend, and it caught my eye,
Gypsy people are present in your films.
RM: Gypsy people are present in my films?!
EV: They sure are. Don’t you have in Furia the Gypsy mafia?
RM: Right, and apart from Furia?
EV: Well, you have in Hârtia… The Gypsy is present at the revolution, though he is accused he came to steal or that he is an Arab terrorist. However, he fights in the revolution.
RM: Oh, if you please, he is a secondary character. It was based on a well-known story in which they shot a Gypsy. Actually he was a Gypsy whose father was a university professor, not a Gypsy who picked in the street garbage bins. They shot him, he looked indeed like an Arabian terrorist and they let him die! They filmed him while he was dying. So that’s why I used this type of character. But why are you asking me?!
EV: It’s interesting to me. In Marţi, there is a preoccupation with skin color. The father asks his daughter, ‘Is this Barbie black?’
RM: These are some absolutely personal interpretations. I must say!
EV: Why? I’m not attacking you here.
RM: Well, it’s very difficult!
EV: And the little girl says, ‘Oh, no, no, she's suntanned! She’s not a black Barbie, she’s suntanned!’ What does it matter?! I mean in Romania, it matters. Here, it doesn’t matter.
RM: No, no, no, in Romania these things don’t matter either. You’re wrong. It really doesn’t matter, and I really didn’t want to say anything thru this. It seemed the epitome of kitsch that the doll manufacturers made Barbie black, Barbie yellow, Barbie this-or-that, so that nobody should be offended, and I asked props to buy a black Barbie. The dialogue line came out from her. There was no agenda behind this, to talk about racial differences. It really bears no relevance to me.
EV: Alright. Next Marţi… It’s a brave movie, for a Romanian film, since you have in it frontal nudity. It’s a brave thing to do.
Well, how should I put it without making you jump up again… Well, it’s frontal nudity…
RM: So what?!
EV: Well, it’s unusual.
RM: It’s unusual for audiences that are not used with this kind of movie. It’s an auteur film, it’s a realistic film. In real life people undress in their home’s privacy.
EV: Naturally. I don’t know how you chose the actor, I understand he is from a group of friends, but…
RM: No! I had a casting audition with him and he seemed the right actor. I don’t cast based on friendship. It so happens I’m friends with the 5, 6, 7 good actors in Romania. We worked together before, and became friends. We move in the same circles.
EV: Yes, but what I want to say is that having frontal nudity requires courage to present an actor who is not the most endowed male. I think it’s quite rough. Very rough. His status as a Romanian sex symbol is absolutely destroyed now, with his miniature penis. And keeping in mind that Romania still worries about its image abroad, well, sir, you just destroyed all pride of Romanian manhood, and the myth of the Latin lover. It’s awfully small.
So I conclude it’s a brave thing to do.
RM: Yes, but I don’t think this way when I create a scene. I don’t say to myself, ‘This is gonna look so brave!’ I chose him not based on how small or large is his tool, but for his acting abilities, otherwise I’d take a porn star if I wanted to impress with his instrument. I don’t think this way about my scenes. ‘How brave! It will be a brave scene!’ No, merely these people are at home, alone, and I show that they feel good together.
EV: Sure, I got it, but willy-nilly people come, have a look, and get thinking. Your movie talks about relationships.
EV: Well, this man is presented like a good catch. I understand he’s middle class, he has a good income.
RM: Yes, he manages.
EV: He manages, he is a bureaucrat banker. He doesn’t have much going on for himself. He might do the grocery shopping and they have gadgets around the house and he takes his family skiing to Austria, but he's a pot belly, who smokes non-stop. Is the gentleman considered a catch by Romanian intellectual women?
He is not the most exciting guy in the world, and yet two women fight over him.
Well, if this poor guy doesn’t even have a large winnie, allow me to ask you why are these women fighting over him?!
RM: Well, this is…
EV: They are both professional women, they make good money, they could leave Romania for a better life, yet they consider this guy something they have to fight over. I’m curious what did people say?
RM: I have no clue. Probably he is a guy who has a sense of humor. Probably he is a good father, a good husband. There are a great many reasons a woman is attracted to a man, and not all are tied with winnie size.
EV: But that plays a role too.
RM: I don’t want to get into a discussion about if size matters or not, but I can’t choose an actor based on his penis size, it’s the last thing I’d do, and I don’t film him dressed when I intend to make an intimate movie. I can’t hide… when I make a straightforward movie I can’t hide if he doesn’t have a large enough schlock. Let’s be serious.
EV: This is not what I’m discussing. It seemed curious to me that women didn’t wizen up in Romania. I could not even understand why the poor wife was all worked up.
RM: Well, you have to face it, your question is a bit exaggerated!
EV: You think so? What does she need him for exactly? He's a bore. And she is a bore too. Actually the mistress too, a movie with three middleclass bores.
She is only 40 years old and as good looking and slim as the younger woman, the dentist.
RM: She’s been his wife for 10 years, they have an eight-year-old child together, they built a live and a future together. How shouldn’t she be upset when he announces her that he found another woman?
EV: Yes, I allow her to be upset, but there’s the road, good riddance. He lied to her.
Stories like this are rather dreams of embittered Romanian men. The foreign man is not in this story.
RM: This is a personal film. Everyone cheated, or was cheated upon, at least once in their lives. Each viewer has a subjective rapport with what they see on the screen. Some women identify with the wife’s reaction. I had many reactions like this, from women who felt personally touched by the wife. Others were moved by the man.
EV: Back to the Visiting Room. You’re saying last night that you didn’t want to know what crimes they committed.
RM: No, I didn’t.
EV: So, from start we know that these people are criminals. It’s a circus: we're looking from the outside in the inside, a freak show.
Are we laughing at them, or with them? Often I felt the audience was laughing at them.
Yet, there is love in prison. They created their universe by ignoring what’s blatant, they are criminals, so they can keep on loving each other. Love forgives? Gives a chance? Forgets? Reinvents?
Well, I can’t keep from seeing a metaphor in this: I see again the blight that obliterated Romania, well, not only Romania, overall, people who lived under communism and had to survive somehow…
RM: Make your point. I have to leave in two minutes.
EV: It seemed a metaphor about post-communist society. How can a society regenerate? Do these inmates regenerate thru loving each other?
RM: I say again: this film is about love. It’s not about crime and not about how society can regenerate. It’s a movie about love under isolation. The main female character killed her child. It could be a movie, but a movie about why people kill. Mine is a film about love.
EV: What do you think about the Romanian Diaspora that you encounter at film festivals?
RM: Very little.
EV: You have no interaction with the Romanian Diaspora artists? Should we come home?
EV: Should we come home?
RM: I can’t give you any advice. To each his own. There are people who adapted here. There are others who talk only about Romania, and that makes me think they didn’t adapt, and would like to come back. There are people who are conflicted, and others who made peace with themselves. Each has to take the decision that suits them.
EV: I was asking you if there is a need for Romanian Diaspora artists to have a presence in Romania?
RM: No. No. I apologize I have to go.
EV: Thank you.
Well, here you have it: If you’d like to throw a bit of money my way to keep my endeavors going, and also enable me to spread the money to my various causes, witnessing democracy and engineering social change being one of them, I’d be grateful.