Radu Mihaileanu, a New Cinematic Humanism

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1. Mihaileanu and Romanian Cinema

Radu Mihaileanu occupies a unique position in the history of Romanian cinema. A Romanian Jew who immigrated to France in the 1980s, Mihaileanu repeatedly acknowledged his multiple identities as steps towards becoming a global citizen. While his filmic debut with Trahir (Betrayal 1993) and Train de vie (Train of Life 1998) relate very much to the Romanian social and political landscape, Vas, vis et deviens (Live and Become 2005) definitely marks his international success and full recognition as a French filmmaker. (1) His films of the nineties represent both a personal transitional and a rare perspective on the former socialist Romania since he left it in 1980. Abroad, he had the opportunity to compare and reflect on the differences between the Eastern and Western European systems. In addition, his knowledge of the Romanian Jews allowed him to share (2) a tare and unique insider's view on the role and status of the Jewish minority in Romania. (3) As a result, Mihaileanu's films of the nineties should be analyzed in the specific social context of former socialist Romania and of the Jews' history in Eastern Europe. Train de vie becomes even more significant considering that Mihaileanu managed to avoid the stereotypical Holocaust cinema portrayal and that, with the Ceausescu regime out of the way (1989), be could return to Romania for filming.

The Romanian socialist cinema was employed as a propaganda tool for governmental politics and nationalistic aspirations. Films of minorities about minorities were non-existent, although their presence was acknowledged as background in the larger socialist agenda--the reshaping of national consciousness--which took place more or less dramatically depending on social class and financial status. Whereas elites and most owners suffered great losses, socialism gave hope to lower classes such as workers and peasants. New politics contained the expression of ethnic groups, pressuring them into the public sphere, where a suppression of existing prejudices (especially against Jews and Roma, but also against other minorities) was formally implemented at the price of assimilation. As a result, the film industry was channeled towards the creation of a unified national icon that promoted an idealistic image of the socialist communitarian individual.

Writers and artists were drawn into the rewriting of History, contributing to the development of a romantic socialist vision. The film industry brought to life figures such as the haiduk, a lawless man fighting the rich and defending the poor, (4) the resistance combatant against the Nazi occupation, (5) of historical leaders dedicated to national continuity waging war against various invasions. (6) This nationalistic cinema also answered the need for historical and global recognition, of at least a heroic form of self-recognition. While big screen cinema and television forged a certain image of the Romanian citizen, the minorities were allowed artistic expression in local theaters, often with little impact on the larger community, since the rural population and most working class people would not attend the shows. (7)

By the eighties, new "resistance" forms of artistic expression eluded socialist censorship, allowing intellectuals to experiment with new ways of communicating with their public. Although at the time Romanians considered triumphant any form of artistic expression that escaped censorship, Alex. Leo Serban describes the phenomenon in rather negative terms:

   In Romania, if you wanted to "express yourself" in
   cinema [...] you had to accept some concessions.
   Films were "escapist," but--in the end--(still)
   ideological; historical movies were ideological; even
   comedies were ideological ...! [...] the truth was
   homeopathically dribbled inside existing templates,
   and one had to extract it with tweezers as if it were
   hard essence bubbles in soft bottles. …