When “Avatar 2: Way of the Water” surged to the top of the Romanian box office earlier this year to become the highest-grossing film of all time, it marked an auspicious sign for a theatrical business still looking to recover from the doldrums of the coronavirus pandemic.
Yet local industry-watchers were even more encouraged to see a historic first in 2022, with two Romanian films cracking the top 10 at the year-end box office — a striking achievement for an industry that hasn’t historically been known for cranking out crowd-pleasing hits.
Topping the list was “Teambuilding,” a satirical workplace comedy from directors Matei Dima, Alex Coteț and Cosmin Nedelcu, which briefly reigned as the top-grossing film ever in Romania before being knocked from its perch by James Cameron’s blockbuster, which has raked in more than $8.3 million to date.
Meanwhile, first-time filmmaker Cristian Ilișuan’s “Mirciulică,” a comedy about a 30-year-old forced to move back in with his parents after flunking a judicial exam, clocked in in seventh place, edging out “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and finishing just behind Hollywood tentpoles including “Minions: The Rise of Gru,” “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” and “Top Gun: Maverick.”
Buoyed by such commercial success, the Romanian industry is at a “turning point,” says Mihai Chirilov, artistic director of the Transilvania Film Festival, which takes place from June 9 – 18. “We are dealing with this new breed of Romanian film, the box-office hit, which is a completely different beast.”
Since Cristi Puiu’s “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” burst on the international scene in 2005, winning the Un Certain Regard Award at the Cannes Film Festival and ushering in the Romanian New Wave, Romanian auteurs such as Puiu, Palme d’Or winner Cristian Mungiu (“4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days”), Berlin Golden Bear winner Radu Jude (“Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn”) and Cannes multi-prize-winning Corneliu Porumboiu (“The Whistlers”) have cemented the Eastern European nation’s reputation for arthouse fare.
They’ve been joined in recent years by the likes of Bogdan George Apetri, whose “Miracle” premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2021, and the directing duo Monica Stan and George Chiper-Lillemark, who took home the best director prize in the festival’s Venice Days sidebar with their feature debut “Immaculate.” Then there’s Alina Grigore, the actress-turned-director whose first feature, “Blue Moon,” took home the top prize at San Sebastian two years ago. Waiting in the wings are promising talents such as Andreea Cristina Borțun, whose 2021 short film “When Night Meets Dawn” premiered in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight section and whose feature debut, “Blue Banks,” will be produced by the Romanian-born, Hollywood heartthrob Sebastian Stan.
While breakout hits, such as Paul Negoescu’s low-budget-comedy-cum-box-office-smash “Two Lottery Tickets,” occasionally break the mold, Romanian films have traditionally struggled to reach a wide audience. That makes the sudden emergence of a new crop of crowd-pleasers all that more surprising.
“These are people from the fringe,” says Chirilov, noting that many of the newcomers are influencers or others coming from outside the traditional cinema ecosystem. “They have a completely different way of marketing their films. But what they know for sure is they want to make a certain type of film — you know, classically designed comedies, very audience-friendly.”
The stunning success of “Teambuilding” “took everyone by storm,” he says. “It really divided the professionals in the film industry. There were some people, including me, who were defending this film and actually enjoying this film. But the big majority was very vocal against it.
“These commercial hits put a certain pressure on the established Romanian filmmakers. They fear the entire paradigm, in terms of financing, will change,” he continues. “I think this will reconfigure the industry. There is a pressure on the film industry to deliver on numbers commercially. I don’t know how they’re going to do it, what’s going to change in terms of subjects, approach. But there is something in the air.”
This week Transilvania will try to bridge that divide by hosting a conversation between the directors of “Teambuilding” along with Mihai Mincan, whose stowaway thriller “To the North” premiered in the Venice Film Festival’s Horizons strand, as well as Negoescu, whose black comedy “Men of Deeds” swept the Romanian Academy Awards this year while also performing at the box office — one of the rare breed of Romanian films straddling the line behind arthouse acclaim and commercial success.
“I think it’s important to put these two worlds in front of each other and see what’s going to be the outcome,” says Chirilov. “The programming this year reflects the possibility of these two worlds coexisting.”
The festival will also showcase the highlights of what was a prolific year for the Romanian industry, with more than 50 feature films submitted for the festival’s Romanian Days competition — an all-time high. The selection includes “Men of Deeds” and “To the North,” as well as first-time director Andrei Tănase’s (wo)man vs. nature drama “Day of the Tiger,” which premiered in Rotterdam, and “Boss,” a film noir from Transilvania veteran and grand prize winner Bogdan Mirică (“Dogs”).
Other films in the competition include Vlad Petri’s hybrid documentary “Between Revolutions,” a Berlinale prize winner about a friendship between two women that spans the revolutions in Romania and Iran, and “The Chalice. Of Sons and Daughters,” about marriage traditions in Romania’s rural cortorari communities, by Dana Bunescu and anthropologist Cătălina Tesar. Journalists Adina Popescu and Iulian Ghervase, meanwhile, present their third documentary, “Eagles from Țaga,” the story of a football coach training a perennially losing football team.
Lastly are two documentaries that will have their world premieres in Transilvania: “My Muslim Husband,” a story about love and prejudice in contemporary Romania by Daniel and Alexandra Bărnuți, and “Blue Planet,” by Daniel Sărăcuț, a bittersweet chronicle of the rock band Dio Family reuniting to record the eponymous track. Both films are directed by natives of the festival’s host city of Cluj.