An analysis of how aspects of nonverbal communication in post-communist Romanian movies transmit the roots and portrayal of the society’s socio-political context
After the fall of the communist regime in 1989, Romanian cinema went through a rebirth process. Without the burden of censorship, Romanian directors embraced the newly acquired artistic freedom. The post-communist movies reflect the struggles of a nation that fought to find the voice that was silenced for many years. This paper analyzes how the socio-political context of the post-1989 years is portrayed through nonverbal communication in Lucian Pintilie’s The Oak (1992) and Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005). By exploring the main characteristics of Romania’s cultural dimensions and how they impact nonverbal communication, the research shows that the way in which the two movies portray the society is similar, even though they have been produced almost at a decade apart. The study also discovers that some of the cultural dimensions, such as high context and high power distance, are dominant and crucial in depicting Romanian society.
The language, the way of communicating, and the culture are pivotal aspects of a nation, and they are “intricately intertwined with one another” (Fong 2015, p. 209). In an increasingly globalized world, understanding that cultures have different ways of communicating and that the same gesture can mean completely different things is of utmost importance for avoiding misinterpretation, stereotyping or misjudgment. Since cultures are “dynamic, continuously developing, and evolving”, every culture is nowadays in some form “hybrid”, being influenced by factors such as geography, history, religion, or politics (Barker and Galasinki 2001; Serbanescu 2007, quoted in Magyar 2014, p. 73).
This paper analyses Romanian culture, and the way nonverbal communication in post-communist movies portrays the society. Given its geographical location and history, Romanian culture is a mixture of various influences that have not been deeply researched so far. The way people behave and react in society has been greatly influenced by traumas experienced during the years of poverty and censorship that preceded Nicolae Ceausescu’s fall in 1989. After the regime collapsed, the country, vastly influenced by Western capitalist values, began a reinvention process. This reinvention and transition were portrayed in movies that finally had the artistic freedom that was long forbidden.
In Part A the cultural dimensions of Romania and their connection to nonverbal communication are presented, followed by a brief presentation of how nonverbal means of communication have always been the main element in transmitting meaning and shaping a character. Part B presents two movies that are representative of the post-communist era: The Oak (1992) and The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005) by looking at the director’s approach and one relevant scene from each movie that helps the understanding of nonverbal communication in Romanian culture. Lastly, Part C analyses the impact communism had on Romanian cinema and takes an in-depth look into the cultural similarities and differences between The Oak and The Death of Mr Lazarescu.
PART A. THEORETICAL BACKGROUND
Predominantly culture is regarded as “an implicit nonverbal phenomenon because most aspects of one’s culture are learned through observation and imitation rather than by explicit verbal instruction or expression” (Andersen 2015, p. 229). The biggest part of the information that we receive and process is communicated nonverbally; not even the members of a specific culture are fully aware of this “secret code” they are using (Andersen 2015, p. 229). Understanding what nonverbal communication is, and how the most relevant cultural dimensions influence it represents the first step of this research (I). Then, the paper will briefly explore how nonverbal communication is used in cinema, specifically in acting (II).
I. Romania’s cultural dimensions and their implications on nonverbal communication
Simply put, nonverbal communication is everything that is not explicitly communicated through words. It represents a “subtle, non-linguistic, multidimensional and spontaneous process” (Andersen 1999, quoted in Andersen 2015, p. 229). Through nonverbal communication, the spoken word is “completed or replaced”, the smallest of gestures can be filled with meaning and transmit various nuances of emotion (Mantu 2017, p. 32). The nonverbal elements of communication situate themselves in three areas: paralanguage, kinesics, and proxemics (Ewald 2005, p. 117). Paralanguage represents “the vocal part of speech other than words, including pauses, silence, tone, pitch, rate of speech, volume and voice quality”; kinetics studies “the body’s physical movements, such as gestures, facial expressions (including eye contact), and posture” – also props, dress code and touching; proxemics refers to “the use of space and can communicate much about status, comfort level and interest” (Ewald 2005, p. 117).
When it comes to nonverbal communication, it must be born in mind that its meaning can only be deciphered and defined within a cultural context (Ewald 2005, p. 117). The way individuals understand nonverbal cues is determined by “very complex rules of culture and behavior” which implies that the secret code an individual acquires gives him the capacity to “match routine expressions with particular cultural and socio-historical circumstances” (Ciubancan 2013, p. 224). In the words of Andersen (2015, p. 231), “culture, along with genetics, is the most enduring, powerful, and invisible shaper of our communication behavior”.
The differences and similarities between cultures can be quantified and expressed when looking at them comparatively, through a broader lens and in correlation with other cultures. This is how researchers like Geert Hofstede and Edward Hall managed to revolutionize the understanding of cultures. The so-called cultural dimensions or dimensions of cultural variation represent means of characterizing cultures by using different points of reference.
a. Individualism/collectivism. One of the fundamental dimensions that distinguishes cultures is individualism versus collectivism (Andersen 2015, p. 233). According to Geert Hofstede, individualism/collectivism portrays the way in which people live together, either alone, in families, or in tribes (Hofstede 1980, quoted in Andersen 2015, p. 233). In contrast with Western cultures, Eastern cultures tend to be more collectivist, good relations in a community and collective judgement being valued more than personal judgements (Andersen 2015, p. 233). This dimension is closely connected to nonverbal behavior, in the sense that people from collectivistic cultures tend to be more physically close to one another, while people in individualistic cultures are more distant proximally (Andersen 2015, p. 233). Romania is regarded as a collectivistic society, which implies that members are committed to the group, loyalty is vital and overrides other societal rules, “offence leads to shame and loss of face”, and the work relationships are perceived similarly to the family links, i.e., in moral terms (Hofstede Insights).
b. Power distance. Another important dimension that is worth mentioning is that of power distance. According to Hofstede, this dimension reflects the attitude of the people towards the inequalities that exist within a culture (Hofstede Insights). Hierarchical structures are easily accepted in Romanian society, subordinates show obedience and “expect to be told what to do and the ideal boss is a benevolent autocrat”, aspects which make Romania a culture with a very high-power distance (Hofstede Insights).
c. Uncertainty. In some cultures, change is valued, while in others stability and certainty are more important (Andersen 2015, p. 235). Romania is a country with high preference for avoiding uncertainty and a characteristic of such cultures in nonverbal communication is that people have the tendency to express their emotions more (Hofstede 1980, quoted in Andersen 2015, p. 236). The emotional need for rules overrides the efficacy of those rules and “people have an inner urge to be busy and work hard” (Hofstede Insights).
d. Immediacy. Immediacy is the dimension that relates to the “closeness, intimacy, and availability for communication” (Andersen 2015, p. 236). This can be portrayed through facial expressions such as smiling, eye contact, touching (Ibid). People who belong to the so-called “contact cultures” touch more and feel comfortable being closer together (Ibid.). As research suggests, people that come from Latin cultures, unlike those from Northern European and Northeast Asian cultures, keep relatively close distance between them (Andersen 2015, p. 230). Thus, given its geographical location, Romania can be regarded as a contact culture.
e. Gender. The dimension of gender – which is to be understood as the “rigidity of gender rules” in a society – is crucial in understanding nonverbal communication, because it shows what nonverbal expressions are permitted by each sex, nonverbal aspects of power, and it sets the guidelines for interpersonal relationships, especially those between men and women (Andersen 2015, p. 238). This characteristic is directly connected to the way people allow themselves to show emotions and the way they engage in the behaviors of the other gender. Romania is considered by Hofstede a rather feminine society, which means that attributes such as affection, compassion and emotionality are valued (Hofstede 1980, quoted in Andersen 2015, p. 238).
f. High-context/Low-context. Edward Hall’s well-known distinction of high and low context – the “degree to which communication is explicit and verbal or implicit and nonverbal” is one of the earliest and most researched cultural dimensions (Andersen 2015, p. 231). Nevertheless, it must be born in mind that this distinction is not “a clear-cut dichotomy” and the two dimensions are “not opposites, but rather extreme points on a continuum which includes areas where the two perspectives are actually intertwined” (Ciubancan 2013, p. 224). While in low context cultures the communication happens mainly through the coded, explicit parts, in high context cultures the information can be found mainly in the physical context, in the nonverbal aspects, in the things that are not said (Hall 1976, p. 91). High context cultures have deep roots in the past, are slow to change, highly stable, and tend to rely on their history and other aspects to confer meaning to an event (Nishimura, Nevgi and Tella 2008, p. 785).
When it comes to classifying Romania as either high context or low context, it is necessary to complexify the answer. Romanians like to regard themselves as they belong to a Western, therefore low-context culture (Pirosca 2016, p. 10). It is true that the increase of tourism and Western influences brought various nuances to Romania’s cultural anatomy, some of them different from the ones it knew. However, when analyzing the discourse of tourism, for example, it has been pointed out that Romania does not follow the patterns of intercultural studies, the communication providing elements of both high and low context, unlike countries like Spain or the Great Britain which showed more consistency (Magyar 2014, p. ii). Ciubancan (2013, p. 228) phrased it very well by saying that “while the Romanian society shares the cultural and social values of the Eastern world (hierarchy as opposed to democracy, fatalism as opposed to self-determinism, male dominance as opposed to gender equality etc.), it also displays a communication style which is closer to the Western world (extrovert, forceful, lively, overt body language etc.)”.
I. The function of nonverbal communication as acting tool
Cinema manages to communicate a lot nonverbally through the collaborative effort of many artists. The colors, the lighting, the camera motion, and the sound are all complementary to the way actors portray the characters (Stratton 2017, p. 2). For the purposes of this paper, the focus will be on the nonverbal behavior of the actors.
As Ball (1996, p. 70) pointed out, “nonverbal behavior is the most powerful tool an actor has to portray a character”. The most important instrument of an actor is their body, because through body movement and through gestures an actor can bring an entire world on stage without a word. Commedia dell’arte is an illustrative example in this regard. The costumes, masks and physicality were used to communicate the character’s status and position in society. Each stock character used in commedia dell’arte had a certain physicality and a precise dressing code: Pantalone, the older master, had a costume that consisted, among others, of “a tight fitting red vest, red breeched and stockings”, while Arlecchino, one of the servants used to wear “a rakish hat above a black mask and carried a wooden sword” (Brockett et al 2017, p. 122).
In the first half of the 20th century, Antonin Artaud was the most influential representative of the theatre which was concerned “with those impulses buried in the unconscious mind” (Brockett et al 2017, p. 187). While he did not deny the power of words, Artaud praised the importance of gestures as a way of “reconciling theatre with the universe” (Artaud 1958, p. 70). Peter Brook also stressed that “a word does not start as a word—it is an end product which begins as an impulse, stimulated by attitude and behavior which dictate the need for expression” (Brook 1968, p. 15). Thus, the gesture, i.e., “a movement of the human body made with the purpose of expressing an idea, suggesting feeling or thought, adding expressiveness to words or even replacing them” contains the power of enriching what is expressed through words (Payrato 2009, quoted in Mantu 2017, p. 32).
PART B. CASE STUDIES
The nonverbal communication in movies is a good instrument to analyze and reflect on a country’s social and political context. 1989 was the year that marked an abrupt transition from communism to capitalism which brought about many changes in the Romanian film industry. The last decade of the 20th century is regarded as the Transition Period, while the movies produced after 2000 are considered the Romanian New Wave. Produced more than a decade apart, The Oak (1992) belongs to the Transition Period (I) whereas The Death of Mister Lazarescu (2005) is representative of the Romanian New Wave (II). For the purposes of this paper, the scenes that have been chosen portray situations in hospitals where the main characters are doctors, patients, nurses or paramedics. This presentation will provide an opportunity to explore and compare this portrayal by analyzing it critically in Part C.
I. The Transition Period: The Oak (1992)
Lucian Pintilie is regarded as a director that makes “complicated, tough films” (Ratner 2012, p. 53). His debut film came in 1965 – the year in which Ceausescu started ascending to power; given the rise of censorship in Romania, he had to move to France where he lived until the fall of Ceausescu (Ratner 2012, p. 54). The Oak (1992) was the second movie in the so-called “trilogy on Communism and its rampage through Romania” and it has received international acclaim, being described as a “magnificent social satire, which shows the material and spiritual poverty of a sick nation where hospital patients die as a result of excessive bureaucracy and baby-faced soldiers machine gun a school bus” (Jackel 1999, p. 28).
The action takes place before Ceausescu’s downfall. The Oak tells the story of a schoolteacher, Nela, who sets off to a teaching job in a small town after her father, a former member of the secret police, dies. After she arrives in the countryside, Nela is the victim of rape. Fortunately for her, a man sees the abusers and gets into a fight with them. The next day Nela goes to the police and to the hospital to get a report that certifies the rape. In the hospital she meets Mitica, a doctor who turns out to be the savior from the previous day. Mitica is outspoken, free-spirited, and enraged about the political situation in the country; also violent, and short-tempered, he keeps his nurses in line and maintains their respect by beating them. Nela and Mitica share similar values and ideas regarding the communist regime, and they bond quickly. The last scene shows Nela and Mitica under an oak; Nela appears that she accepted her father’s not so heroic past, and Mitica, “determined to refuse a normality which consists of accepting the terror and brainwashing of a communist utopia” tells Nela “If we have a child, he will certainly be an idiot or a genius; if he is normal, I shall kill him with my own hands” (Jackel 1999, p. 28).
One of the moments that portray the interaction between nurse, doctor, and patient – in this case a former patient – is the scene where Nela is waiting for Mitica in a hospital room – his office. Nela is smoking by the window when a nurse, Suzi, comes in. Suzi scolds Nela, talks down to her and calls her names, because Nela “stole” Mitica from her. When the two women are about to get into a fight, the conflict is interrupted by Mitica who comes in. He immediately slaps the assistant a few times and then tells her that if she touches Nela he will kill her (Suzi) with his own hands. Suzi apologizes and appears mesmerized and at the same time in love with the doctor. After Mitica sends Suzi out, he tells Nela that Suzi is the best nurse in the hospital, but he must slap her “preventively” each week to keep her under control.
II. Romanian New Wave: The death of Mr Lazarescu (2005)
The death of Mr Lazarescu (2005), directed by Cristi Puiu is one of the first movies of the Romanian New Wave that received international acclaim. The story revolves around Mr Dante Remus Lazarescu, a 62-year-old man who is shuttled between four hospitals as doctors attempt to diagnose him. While Lazarescu’s name makes an analogy to both the legend of how Rome was created (by the two brothers Remus and Romulus) and to Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, the action of the movie supports this analogy by portraying Lazarescu who, like Alighieri’s poet, goes through the circles of Hell – which in this case are the Romanian Hospitals (Sklar 2006, p. 62).
The “Kafkaesque journey through the dreadful circles of the Romanian medical Inferno” starts with Mr Lazarescu’s having nausea and a headache; a couple who lives in the same building with him comes to help him take some pills until the ambulance arrives to escort him to the hospital (Teodorescu and Munteanu 2010, p. 54). In the beginning Mr Lazarescu does not feel so bad, but he is moved from hospital to hospital because the doctors do not have time or space for him, and by the end of the movie his situation is as bad as it can get. The way Lazarescu is portrayed, “with his striped shirt and blue watch cap, along with baggy jeans, white socks, and sandals, jowls unshaven and legs wrapped in bandages” attracts the viewer’s attention and probably pity (Sklar 2006, p. 63).
When Lazarescu is taken to the first hospital, an older, imposing doctor sniffs him and interrogates him about his alcohol consumption. The doctor talks down to the paramedic, Mioara, who brought Lazarescu to the hospital. The doctor is offensive and ruthless and treats Mioara “as a person of inferior professional status who needs to be reminded, repeatedly, how insignificant she is” (Teodorescu and Munteanu 2010 p. 55). The personnel in the room orbits blindly and obediently around the older doctor who “patronizes and infantilizes his patients” (Teodorescu and Munteanu 2010, p. 54). When the paramedic suggests a diagnosis, she manages to “arise his ire and evoke his arrogance and hierarchal instincts” (Sklar 2006, p. 62). The doctor insults and scolds Lazarescu for his drinking, and when Lazarescu reacts to the doctor’s rude comments the doctor becomes even more infuriated. The doctor starts calling the patient “pig” and other names; the conversation is interrupted by an emergency: many people severely wounded are brought in by a team of paramedics. When going back to Lazarescu, the doctor mocks him and reiterates that he is healthy. Lazarescu wants to leave because he cannot stand the doctor’s attitude, but he falls in his attempt to stand up. The final diagnosis of the doctor is “You are fine! Just stop drinking.”
PART C. ANALYSIS
The Oak and The Death of Mr Lazarescu vividly reflect Romanian society and the struggles of the times. By understanding the communist and post-communist milieus’ impact on cinema (I), one can better contextualize Romania’s cultural dimensions that are portrayed in post-communist movies, as well as the meanings of nonverbal behavior (II).
I. The context of post-communist cinema
What distinguished the communist regime in Romania is the harshness of the measures that Ceausescu took starting with the early 1980s: he decided to pay back the foreign debt and this result could be attained only “by cutting down imports and enforcing an austerity program on the country, which included power cuts during winter – for both industry and the population – rationalization of food and fuel, and strong controls on every expense for social programs” (Cernicova-Buca 1998). This policy continued even after the debt was paid. The intense austerity led to massive protests which culminated with the Revolution and the fall of Ceausescu on 22 December 1989 (Tismaneanu 2009, p. 282).
As a result, “the communist years brought more than cold and fear, they also brought a prolonged drought of real stories” (Serban 2009, p. 60). Despite society’s “victory” from 1989, “the 1990s emerged as a decade of complete rebuttal of the structures and ideologies that came before, as well as a decade of profound social dislocation and economic trauma” (Godeanu-Kenworthy 2020).
Once freedom of expression was acquired and directors did not have to censor their ideas anymore, the movies that were produced in Romania after 1989 tried to delimit themselves from the movies that were produced during communist years by revolting against the lies that the prior generations had to endure (Ferencz-Flatz 2015, p. 151). The Transition Period in Romanian cinema comprises the films produced in the 90s and is regarded in the literature as having a “collective author”, because after the oppression suffered during communism all directors managed to have a “hegemonic voice” (Rogozanu 2017, p. 48). The 90s cinema is considered monotonous, lacking complexity, imbued with repetitive patterns and its “aesthetics (…) was from the very beginning an artistic dead end” (Ibid.; State 2014, p. 75).
II. The portrayal of Romania’s cultural dimensions in post-communist cinema
The Oak does not fall short of the Transition Cinema patterns. It contains elements that are common to the films of the 90s such as the anonymous phone call that brings threats, or the doctor as an “agent of the new world against the grey and violent world of the working masses” (Rogozanu 2017, p. 48). Released three years after Ceausescu’s fall, the movie is fast-paced, and the characters are very outspoken. Throughout the entire movie, the way characters behave, and act takes “precedence over their ideas and discourse” (Caufman-Blumenfeld 1998, p. 271). The paraverbal elements have the role of “reinforcing a characteristic of Communism in its last stage: ‘a minimal language as the outcome of chain catastrophes, a language of survival’” (Ciment and Tobin 1994, quoted in Caufman-Blumenfeld 1998, p. 271).
The communist milieu is reflected in the directorial choices as well as in the interaction of the characters. The movie portrays a privileged part of society – doctors, teachers; however, the class differences are not so visible given the general poverty that existed: their homes are small and dark, they look cold and dirty, the tap water is red and not potable. Throughout the entire movie there is a growing tension between the people in the society. Hysterical lines are part of almost every conversation. The doctor, Mitica, is portrayed as a fighter against the regime and against all the corrupt people around. His weapon is violence and the way he maintains people’s respect is through beating them up. When the jealous nurse wants to fight Nela, Mitica slaps her several times without having second thoughts. The nurse recognizes the doctor’s power and accepts it. If before he entered the room her status was higher than Nela’s, once Mitica returns her low status becomes apparent.
As Romania is mainly a high-context culture, the fast pace of the movie and the abundance of text give the impression that the reflection of society is not accurate. However, considering that the movie came out not long after 1989, it is understandable that the portrayal of the way people communicate is not the most accurate. The Oak comes as a response to the times when one had to be silent to live peacefully, it comes as a reaction to years of pain and trauma.
It took a decade for the cinema to reinvent itself, to learn to tell its own authentic story, unconstrained and at its own pace. As one of the most influential auteurs of the Romanian New Wave, Cristi Puiu imbues its movie with hidden meanings and symbols. (Ferencz-Flatz 2015, p. 159). Puiu’s goal is to talk about love by portraying a world where it does not exist (Ferencz-Flatz 2015, p. 40).
By seeing cinema as “a tool for observing and recording the outside of things and beings, as a technology that mechanically, objectively molds the events, i.e., uncolored and undistorted by the subjectivity of those who are part of them”, the Romanian New Wave portrays society in such a manner that gestures are not so much accompanied by words as they are by silence (Gorzo 2014, p. 15; Mantu 2017, p. 33). In contrast to The Oak, The Death of Mr Lazarescu contains many silences that are used to accentuate the painful waiting that Lazarescu experiences. However, the communication, even if it is at times imbued with snappy comments, reflects Romanian society in a more accurate way.
In countries with a high-power distance, people with higher status show their negative emotions more easily to those who are in a low status, and this behavior is regarded as natural; people with lower status also hold more body tension and are under constant pressure that they are in the wrong (Matsumoto 1991, quoted in Andersen 2015, p. 235). This characteristic is masterfully reflected in The Death of Mr Lazarescu. In the scene that depicts the interaction with the first doctor, the domineering attitude of the doctor is apparent from the moment he walks into the room. All the nurses revolve around him and some of them barely look him in the eyes. Even the paramedic Mioara hesitates when she is around him. Even though the movie depicts post-communist society, the interactions between nurses and doctors are not so different from the ones portrayed in The Oak which portrays the society in the 80s. The high-power distance is evident in both movies, and the actors manage to show this through small body movements and emotionally charged looks.
It is also worth pointing out that in collectivistic cultures, kinesic behavior “tends to be more coordinated” and “people match one another’s facial expressions, and body movements are in sync with each other” (Andersen 2015, p. 234). This effect is connected to the power distance dimension and their correlation is skillfully portrayed in both movies. When the doctor laughs, the patients or the nurses laugh or feel more relaxed; the person with a higher status seems to have the power over the atmosphere in the room.
Cinema is a vital tool in reflecting the society, its socio-political context, the class struggles and its deepest frustrations. The tough censorship from the communist years took a toll on the way Romanian cinema is made. After it regained its artistic freedom, it took a decade for Romanian movies to escape the loophole of lamentation and revolting.
The cultural dimensions of Romania are mainly unchartered territory, and not a lot of research has been conducted to analyze them or the way communism shaped the cultural identity of a nation. A more in-depth study of the attitudes encountered in society, especially in relation to hierarchies would provide a complex picture of the way Romanians embraced the sudden intersection of social and capitalist values from 1989.
Romanian movies are still searching for their voice, being caught between the American influences and the ghosts of the past. The Oak and The Death of Mr Lazarescu manage to encompass the essence of a society in turmoil, caught in a contradiction between old and new values. Through subtle gestures and authentic characters and encounters, the movies portray the spirit of their times which are not so far from reality even today. The cultural dimensions are vividly reflected in the action and in the text, which provide a good representation of the period they depict.
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Student – Macromedia University of Applied Sciences