Welcome to the Romanian New Wave
The first feature from Romanian filmmaker Cătălin Mitulescu, The Way I Spent the End of the World (also known as How I Spent the End of the World) was released in 2006, more than a decade after the fall of the brutal Communist regime of President Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989. But like most of the movies that come under the loose banner of ‘Romanian New Wave’ (other exponents include Cristi Puiu, Cristian Mungiu, and Corneliu Porumboiu), The Way I Spent the End of the World is set during those last days of darkness. It’s a film that uses realism, humour, and wry observation to explore the people’s resilience and the legacy of this chapter in Romania’s history. Mitulescu, who is said to have launched the New Wave in 2004 with his Palme d’Or winning short film, Trafic, achieves this through the alternating viewpoints of Eva Matei (Dorotheea Petre), a spunky seventeen year old, and her seven-year-old brother Lalalilu, or Lali (Timotei Duma), as she prefers to call him. Set in 1989, with Romania on the verge of revolution, Eva and Lali are the generation that will inherit the change about to come.
Small acts of everyday resistance
Under Ceaușescu’s regime, controls on the media were tight and even tighter around the general populace. Internal dissent, however innocuous was dangerous. Eva finds herself in reform school, after she’s present when her boyfriend, Alexandru (Ionuţ Becheru), while flaunting his masculinity accidentally kicks over and smashes a bust of the president. Refusing to cooperate and marked with a bad attitude, the Communist Youth Union votes for her expulsion and Eva ends up in a technical school. This new environment essentially functions like a reform school; as Eva is told, “learn to value what the state does or go to jail.” What Mitulescu makes clear is that Ceaușescu’s Romania created a society where most people towed the line publicly while privately mocking and and condemning without second thoughts. Eva displays courage, and it rubs off on Lali. With his mix of innocence and experience, Lali sees the despondency in his family and neighbours and decides that the only way to fix things is to assassinate Ceaușescu: “Everyone will be happy.”
Revisiting history with the blackest humour
Mitulescu crafts moments of very black humour from the misery. Making light of one of the darkest periods of European history isn’t an easy task. Lali’s scheming, along with his dim-witted friends, to join a children’s choir that will get him close to Ceaușescu, is played with both earnestness and comedy. We know it’s just a fantasy, but there is enough tension in the plot to keep us guessing. He even writes a patriotic poem to convince his teachers of his love for the regime: “I thank you for my wonderful childhood.” His straight face during this recitation can only make us smile.
Subtle evocations of deprivation
History has shown that life under Ceaușescu was a brutal, soul crushing experience, and a time of meagre rations. Most of Romania’s agricultural and industrial production was exported (in an attempt by Ceaușescu to pay off the country’s enormous foreign debt), so that Romanians regularly went without. As a result, living standards were low, and people scrambled for food, medicines, and other basic necessities. Images of sick children in clinics evoke remembered images of the hundreds of thousands of Romanian children who suffered abuse and neglect in the country’s orphanages. Lali is almost constantly sick with a fever or cold. Eva’s mother encourages her to reconnect with Alexandru out of self-interest, because his father, a Party member, can help get Lali’s medicine. To emphasise the restrictions and drabness of the times, Mitulescu sculpts the world through a colour palette of blues and grays to contrast with the warmth of his characters. He adds quiet, nuanced touches to show, rather than tell us about the misery – the watery soup the Matei family eats, their empty sugar pot, and Lali offering to split an already slim piece of cheese three ways.
Watch 'The Way I Spent the End of the World' at SBS On Demand
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