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Between Eastern roots and Western wings: (re) mapping the pursuit of happiness in Cristian Mungiu's movie Occident.

During the time of queuing for hours on end for the monthly ration, a loaf of bread or a bottle of milk, Romanians ever so carefully mocked the communist leadership, and expressed their longing for changes.

An old Romanian joke goes like this:

On a warm and bright morning, Ceausescu steps on his grandiose balcony for a breath of Bucharest's fresh air, a refreshing melange of chemical discharges and demolition dust. The Sun, proudly adorned with a pioneer kerchief greets him humbly: "Much beloved and esteemed Comrade Ceausescu, our Danube of wisdom and foresight, builder of the multi-lateral developed society and brave defender or the values of socialism and communism, I bring you homage." Around lunchtime, after having signed a Presidential order for yet another church demolition and a decree sending a brand new batch of dissidents to prison, Ceausescu takes a well deserved break out on his balcony. Without hesitation, the Sun extends his noon greeting: "Genius of the Carpathians and hero of our glorious nation, much beloved and esteemed Comrade Ceausescu, I humbly salute you." At the end of his exhausting day, longing for the Sun's praises, Ceausescu sneaks out in the balcony, franticly seeking the sun. As he hesitates between weeping and summoning his trusted Securitate agents, Ceausescu hears the already familiar voice roaring from behind the Brandenburg Gate:

"F...k you, schizophrenic and megalomaniac bastard!" Shocked beyond words, Ceausescu mutters:

"How about this morning and earlier today?" Grinning cunningly, the Sun replies: "That was then, idiot! Remember, moron, I'm in the West now."

In the preface of a book about her journey to Romania titled We Wait for You--Unheard Voices from Post-Communist Romania, Annabelle Townson, an American Peace Corps volunteer, states that many of the people she encountered identify intellectually and emotionally with the Western civilization. "Our tail borders the east but our heart faces west," (1) claim Romanians. In her attempt to provide an explanation for the concerning spiritual state of the contemporary Romanian society, she invokes the country's geographic position, a feature that overtime "has invited invaders, looters, and worse to cross through their land over the centuries, setting the stage for chronic suffering and oppressive occupation." (2)

During the last sixty years alone, as Yalta determined the faith of numerous nations, some Eastern and Central European countries ended up with the prospect of a somewhat decent life, while Romania felt the increasingly and painfully stronger grip of a dictatorship. As the communist regime tightened its iron fist around even the tiniest whisper of discontent, and shortages of basic goods made people's lives sub-human, plans of illegal border crossing to the West sprouted in almost every mind. Almost always whispered and accompanied by a certain exchange of looks, the words "dincolo" (on the other side) or "afara" (outside) embodied the very essence of freedom and happiness, while stories about the bountiful, almost mystical Western lands revitalized broken spirits and nourished the will to survive in Ceausescu's Romania. While nearly starving Romanians were struggling to stretch their monthly food rations, they listened dreamingly and wistfully to stories about the West, the true Wonderland where "there were bluejeans and oranges, soft toys for children and portable TVs for fathers and whisper-thin nylons and real mascara for mothers." (3) The West always represented the land of fragrant soap and real chocolate, but most importantly, a safe haven for political dissidents, a place where churches were not demolished, voices were not silenced, and spirits were not broken.

The Western world did cast a magic spell as early as the 1880s, when some of our adventurous ancestors embarked toward the land of opportunities motivated by the prospect of wealth. The journey abroad was seen by many Romanians as a short-term effort to "make a thousand and the fare," to earn enough money to pay off debts at home and perhaps buy a farm back in the rolling hills of the Transylvanian countryside. While at the turn of the century the prospect of seeking adventure abroad represented an opportunity for economic re-bouncing for some Romanians, by the 1970's, "everyone lived by thinking about flight," (4) as Herta Muller recalls in the Land of Green Plums, one of the most poignant depictions of the existential struggles in Communist Romania. Our contemporaries ran for their lives, fearful of the repercussion of their feelings or thinking.

Ordinary Romanians found out about successful border crossings from Radio Free Europe, and they learned about failed attempts when a spouse or parent disappeared in the middle of the night, and returned with bruises left by Securitate interrogators. The failed defector would, too, return home, many years later and many kilograms lighter, after having spent time in jail or having been forced to work in the DanubeBlack Sea labor camp.

It was only after the fall of Communism in Romania in December 1989, that writers and movies makers began to freely depict this immigration epidemic in all its complexity, covering its various forms and timelines, from the dangerous illegal border crossings during the "Golden Era", to the contemporary safe departures for now borderless West. Depictions of the painful manifestations of the immigration epidemic range from the desperate defection plans described by Augustin Buzura in his novel Refugii [Refuges], to the Spartan training in a bathtub filled with ice blocks in preparation for the illegal crossing of the Danube by two teenagers portrayed by Cristian Mitulescu in the movie Cum mi-am petrecut sfarsitul lumii [How I Spent the End of the World].

Nearly every accomplished cinematic production from the last fifteen years includes anywhere from a sketchy remark to a bundle of references about the West, leaving us to wonder: Are Romanians still magically drawn by the prospect of immigration toward the West almost two decades after the fall of Communism and the re-birth of a democratic society? Did the new political freedom and opening of the borders make the relationship with the West less adventurous and, therefore, less passionate?

Screenwriter and director Cristian Mungiu addresses these very questions in his 2002 debut feature film titled Occident [The West], a savorous comedy portraying immigration as "a national sport, the national obsession at the beginning of the 90s." Occident is also a movie about the new, dynamic, perpetually transforming and consumption-oriented Romanian society, where the protagonists explore ways to fulfill their dreams in a country where the disappearance of oppression and political persecutions does not necessarily allow for one's pursuit of happiness. Selected for Cannes 2002 (Quinzaine des Realisateurs), and recipient of several other international awards, Occident also represents a stepping stone in Mungiu's extraordinary career, to be followed by 4 luni, 3 saptamani, 2 zile [4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days], the winner of the Palm'D'Or in 2008, and a first installment in a proposed trilogy entitled Amintiri din Epoca de Aur [Tales From The Golden Age].

While much changed in many ways since the days of the Golden Age, the desire to leave the country remains stronger than ever. Some Romanians experienced a brief change of heart in the midst of revolutionary passions in December 1989, when for a minute they declared in front of the television cameras their unwavering commitment to be forever faithful to our mother land. Just days later, however, by the time Andrei Codrescu made it across the ocean to witness and document life in the new-born, communism-free Romania, people were lining up at the passport office. "Everyone I spoke to wanted to leave Romania," recalls Codrescu. "Paradoxically, now that it was possible to have some freedom, the only freedom anyone wanted was to get out. As I listened to the voices in my head, I saw little reason to hope. Communism had torn up people's souls." (5)

During the following years, as the old tears in people's souls began to slowly heal, and fear, political persecution and lack of human rights became nightmares of the past, a new rip tore the Romanian society: the new, fast moving world began to leave behind youth struggling for a decent job and to throw the retired into poverty. Mungiu's characters cover nearly the entire specter of Romania's society, from the kindergartners trained to sing "If you're happy and you know it" for every occasion, from visits by foreign potential adoptive parents to wedding celebrations, to Tanti Leana, the aging abandoned mother of a son who defected to the West during communism. Luci, an unemployed researcher, and Sorina, a kindergarten teacher, fatally damage their relationship due to their inability to decide as a couple whether they should leave the country. Mihaela, an aspiring poetess who works as human advertising, somehow believes that her work can only be published abroad. Gica, a self employed mechanic whose jeep license plates read mockingly PCR (Romanian Communist Party), wishes to trade his job for a cook position on a cruise ship, despite his lack of familiarity with the kitchen. All these characters are in their late thirties and painfully disappointed. Mrs. Julea, the kindergarten Principal lives her life waiting for a call from America, where her daughter lives an arranged, but peaceful domestic existence. Mihaela's parents, a police colonel (a former militiaman) on the verge of retirement and a hairdresser, quarrel almost incessantly about their daughter's future. After their daughter's shameful abandonment by a run-away (or rather inebriated and passed out) groom, Colonel Visoiu and his wife serve each other loads full of pro and con arguments against Mihaela's potential departure. The common defining element, present in various shapes and forms for each character lays solely in their love or hate relationships with the West.

In a puzzle-like narrative, in which stories and destinies intersect in the same time and space, Mungiu reveals more than the national obsession for the West. As the movie implies, the burning desire to leave Romania is not simply a fashion statement, a reflection of a popular trend. Many of the characters contemplate living their homeland not because they feel the need to adhere to a growing trend, but because their lives seem futureless. With wit and a very sharp critical eye, Mungiu examines life in the post-communist Romania, an existence meant to deal simultaneously with the multiple practices inherited from the past and the challenges raised by the new society. As the film points out, corruption and nepotism still dominate Romanian society, and gifts (also known as bribes) secure most accomplishments. Mihaela, the aspiring poetess, owes her job as a walking cellular phone in the mall to the bribes her father, the policeman, offered her employers. Products of the "old times" and their practices, both Mrs. Visoiu, and another mother waiting to negotiate her daughter's future with the matrimonial agency Director, bear gifts ranging from a crystal vase with obvious sentimental value ("from our wedding, a present from my godparents," claims Mrs. Visoiu) to a wicker basket with vegetables, gladiolas and a live goose. Bribe is embedded into the Romanian behavior in such a profound way that its absence triggers an instant fall from social grace. "Only these girls came empty handed," complains the goose lady about the two ice-cream liking candidates from the waiting room.

Colonel Visoiu, the representative of a generation who lived almost entirely under communism, proudly underlines the positive changes in the Romanian society: "Do you see how times changed?" he questions Nae Zigfried, a business owner now established in Germany, who ironically reports the theft of his belongings. "Nowadays, the people call the police like they would call a friend. Whether they have any business with us or not, they just call to hear a friendly voice," states Colonel Visoiu reassuringly. As a matter of fact, Mungiu gives the police force an almost pathetic voice. The fable, at times even disheveled physical appearance of the recruits, along with the clumsiness of their actions, reveals a caricature-like image of the new society, in which the attempts to vindicate the abuses of the past lead to the weakening of the basic infrastructure. Despite the many stated changes, the reality proves the longevity of various old practices that enable the nearly retired Colonel Visoiu to take great advantage of his status, using his staff for non-business related tasks, including cleaning and re-decorating his apartment.

An indisputable proof about the many changes in the Romanian society comes during Luci's training as a "publicity agent," an impressive title for the walking around the mall beer bottle he was about to become. A manager obviously uncomfortable with sales pitches and the aggressiveness of the consumption market philosophy describes Luci's assignment: "Not only humans have souls, but also the objects, the products. If you identify yourself with the product," advises the manager, "if you give it life, if you love it, the client will also love it. And if he loves it, he'll buy it, too." Mungiu's movie is fast to point out that in its eagerness to incorporate as many traits of the Western lifestyle as quickly as possible the Romanian society tends to change in many undesirable ways. Encouraged to sometimes unhealthy consumptions by markets eager to make up for their decreased popularity in their own countries, Romanians began to define their happiness around the number of weekly trips to the foreign fast food restaurant. "Just imagine how it would be like to eat at McDonalds every Saturday!" Mrs. Visoiu fuels Mihaela imagination, trying to present her daughter with the idea of an arranged marriage with a foreigner. In tune with the Western model, shopping and dining, upgraded housing and estate ownership represent increasingly desired life-style trends in Romanian society. The striking contrast between the modern architecture and vibrant colors of Jerome's apartment and opposing them, on the other hand, the uniformity, the dullness and the corrosion of the old communist communal flats stands proof of the economic and social disparities, another leading reason for the outside search of options and opportunities.

I want to go "anywhere, anywhere but this shitty place," pleads Sorina when she discovers their belongings dumped in front of their apartment building. Sorina's disappointment with their lack of opportunity and financial stability generates a desperate urge to run wherever the destiny might lead her, even at the expense of sacrificing her relationship with Luci. Her struggles embody and confirm the feeling of displacement and failure, a trademark of a whole generation so accurately expressed also by Valentin, a young man, Annabelle Townson befriended, during her mission in Romania: "The mentality of Romania cannot change; everywhere else will always be "outside" to us, states the young man. It is as if we are captured in our own country. We suffer from lack of everything, especially opportunity ... we cannot experience life elsewhere so we dream longingly for the life we might have outside, perhaps not as a prisoner, but something like that." (6)

The struggle to hold a decent job or to find a replacement for lost employment holds a front seat among the many problems depicted in Occident. Luci's professional life takes one hit after another. After his career as a researcher comes to an end due to the lack of funding, he works at the Botanical Garden greenhouse. Months of unpaid wages and the eviction from his apartment leave him hopeless and nearly numb. Homeless and jobless, Luci watches his life fall apart as his meager possessions lay in front of the dilapidated communist housing project completed with wandering stray dogs and clothing lines hanging out to dry.

Contrary to the appearances, Luci's character, brilliantly played by the award winning actor Alexandru Papadopol, does not lack the courage to begin a new life elsewhere. Brave enough to have attempted illegally crossing the border in the 80's, he selflessly changed priorities in order to undo the pain his former friend and defection partner Nicu left behind when he abandoned his aging mother. A victim of Nicu's betrayal, Luci acts upon his moral commitment to the elderly woman, who despite her own poverty shelters him during his time of need. At times idle and hesitant, lacking the almost savage determination and drive to succeed through any means that his fellow con-nationals often exhibit, Luci becomes emblematic for a large category of Romanians, who choose to continue their struggles on the domestic front. Although Mungiu's message is clearly appreciative of Luci's commitment to remain faithful to his moral obligations, one cannot ignore a certain sense of loss and capitulation when in the final scene of the movie Luci simply walks away, head down, against the rising sun. As his former coworker Mihaela heads out for Germany, his-ex girlfriend leaves for France and Costelus, the adopted orphan embarks upon his journey to Holland, Luci returns to his job as a walking beer bottle and the prospect of moving in a rented room. But while Luci's future might raise some worries, we find the faith of the characters that chose to path to the West equality disconcerting.

Mungiu's West is no longer just a goal to be attained or a landmark to be reached by Romanians longing for greener pastures. Following the fall of Communism, no longer misguided by the carefully staged and supervised tours offered by the former Communist government to foreign visitors, the West changed its position from contemplative and quiet discontent to active, supportive involvement. The West now represents a generous ally who sends its entrepreneurs and experts (some with more credentials than others, as Mungiu observes), to share their experience with a new democracy. Strangely enough though, granted the already established fascination with the "outside," the characters chosen by Mungiu to represent the West are by far less flattering that one might expect. The colorful and intriguing Western characters that populate Occident are sometimes shady, even dubious. Throughout the entire movie, Jerome, the Frenchman who takes Luci to the hospital after an accidental encounter with a flying bottle of wine, is defined solely by his trademark, the red jeep, and his rented located apartment in a fancy new housing development. Although he generously facilitates Sorina's departure by taking her with him to France, Jerome remains as mysterious as the world the young Romanian kindergarten teacher is about to encounter.

The Dutch/Belgian Van Horne, the most dubious of all characters, appears in various, unrelated circles, bearing different identities and roles, from a French speaking benefactor seeking to adopt a Romanian orphan to a consultant appointed by an unnamed European organization to train the local police force. Van Horne's multilingualism, otherwise not an uncommon European trait, added to his multiple appearances as an almost venerated central figure at the most unrelated events, casts serious doubts about his motivations. Seconds apart, during two consecutive introductions, Van Horne turns from Belgian to Dutch. This seemingly lost in translation shift if identity entirely downplayed by Mungiu, appears not as a social faux-pas, but as proof of Van Horne's unquestionable superiority and immunity given by his Western origin; in the eyes of his eagerness to please and accommodate Romanian hosts, the details about his nationality become rather irrelevant, as long as he comes from abroad. Between choosing a potential candidate for adoption and training the police force, Van Horne squeezes in his busy schedule a blind date with the ever dreaming Mihaela. The outcome of their encounter is tragic-comic. While Mihaela recites in French her infantile poems, Van Horne, obviously not very interested in her sensibility or creativity, tries to pat her knee in a less than paternal fashion. This East/West Side Story expires even before inception, as each party clumsily and without the effort to pretend otherwise follows its own interest; Mihaela would like to use Van Horne as a vessel across the border while the foreigner regards her as a mere sexual object. But this failed rendezvous is just the first in the series of hilarious dates with different unappealing, caricatural "distinguished foreign gentlemen," ranging from a Spanish mute who works at the Scala and who brags about an obviously imaginary friendship with Placido Domingo, to a stuttering character who tried to win Mihaela's heart with his Russian doll gift. These dates were arranged by the enterprising gentleman known as "Domnul Director"/ Mr. Director, a character in a league of his own, who turned the general Western fetish into the business of procuring husbands for Romanian ladies eager for an upgrade from the indigenous dating scene. Reigning behind a desk cluttered with crystal vases and other "gifts" from seekers of soul-mates, the director of a matrimonial agency proudly emphasizes the top of the line quality provided by his business.

"Where do you want the gentlemen to come from? he questions Mihaela's mother, who husband shops on behalf of her daughter. "What do you mean?" the puzzled woman replies? "Europe, America, Asia," he offers proudly. When she naively inquires about any locals, the matrimonial agency director snaps, offended: "Madam, we work exclusively with foreigners, for locals you should use another agency."

The ultimate gateway to the West seems to remain joining an already established co-national, a somewhat more liable alternative to adoptions by foreigners, temporary and poorly compensated employment on international cruise lines or arranged marriages. "If we don't help each other, who else would?" asks rhetorically Nae Ziegried, the Romanian who owns a small printing business in Germany, who had his own share dealing with various agencies. Unfortunately, in Nae's case, the agents were not spreading marital joy, but fists and kicks, cruel physical punishment and jail time for his attempt to defect to West Germany in the early eighties. As Nae himself recounts in a conversation with Colonel Visoiu, who happened to have been one of his former interrogators, his will to succeed in his journey to the West superseded the punishment. The second, successful border crossing led Nae to Germany, where he rebuilt his life while helping his co-nationals in their efforts to succeed. Although reluctant at first to facilitate Mihaela's departure, Nae Zigfried is a caring and selfless benefactor, who values helping his fellow Romanians, despite apparent struggles of is own.

The efforts to lead a decent existence in a society geared toward consumption and quick gains are especially challenging for less practical individuals, as Mungiu so poignantly argues in Occident. Townson seconds these facts, when she concludes in her book that "The dilemma for the educated and skilled is to remain poor in Romania or take a chance for a better life "outside". While America is the ultimate destination of hope, she argues, "few even dare to dream of going there; the expense and visa requirements are daunting. Anywhere in Central Europe and Canada is more realistic and the scheming becomes an obsession." The years following Mungiu's Occident did little to alleviate this national obsession. A notable change did take place in immigration dynamics, especially after Romania's acceptance in the European Union in January 2008, but only in terms of strategy, as a significant wave of temporary workers accepted domestic and agricultural jobs in Spain, Italy, Germany and France. Within the last century the phenomenon of immigration has come full circle, driven in phases by poverty, political persecutions and once again by economics, raising the rhetorical question voiced by one of Mungiu's contemplative characters, dressed for work in a full body beer bottle suit and humming a communist propagandistic song: "Did you ever expect the year 2000 to look this way?"


(1.) Townson, Annabelle (2005), We Wait for You--Unheard Voices from Post-Communist Romania. Lanham: Hamilton Books, 9.

(2.) Idem.

(3.) Muller, Herta (1998), The Land of Green Plums. Michael Hofmann Publisher: Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 47.

(4.) Idem.

(5.) Codrescu, Andrei (1991), The Hole in the Flag. New York: William Morrow and Company.

(6.) Townson, Annabelle, [1], 73.


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Title Annotation:Proceedings of the 1st IISHSS International Conference on the Economics and Psychosociology of Intercultural Relations in the Contemporary Mediascape: February 15-18, 2011 Cambridge, UK
Author:Paulesc, Julie
Publication:Economics, Management, and Financial Markets
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EXRO
Date:Jun 1, 2011
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