Bad Luck Banging, or Loony Porn, the Romanian director Radu Jude’s exuberantly rude and bawdy new film, is a movie about us. Or rather, it’s a comedy about our world: how we live under surveillance, with diminished boundaries, plagued by conspiratorial thinking and multiple pandemics—virtual as well as actual. As if tossed in a bottle, Jude’s message arrives from an obscure corner of Europe, albeit one that as of last November was suffering the world’s highest per capita death rate from Covid-19. Romania is another land where vaccine hesitancy has mutated into a political movement. The leader of the country’s vaccination effort told The New York Times that this is a result of widespread disinformation: “Fake news has a huge influence on our population.” In the same article, Alina Bargaoanu, a Bucharest communications professor who studies Internet-driven conspiracy theories, explained that many of them originate in the United States and are given particular credence because “Romania is a very pro-American country.”*
The title itself is a provocation. The graceless English translation sanitizes the original Romanian Babardeală cu bucluc sau porno balamuc, which in its offensive combination of Romani slang and tabloid vulgarity ensured that Romanian media would have difficulty mentioning the film by name, while others would be angered by it sight unseen. (In English, it would more accurately be titled something like Troublesome Fucking, or Madhouse Porn.)
According to Jude, Bad Luck Banging was inspired by a local news story. The movie concerns a conjugal sex video that goes viral, jeopardizing, if not terminating, the career of the video’s female participant, Emi Cilibiu (Katia Pascariu), an award-winning history teacher at an elite Bucharest primary school. Despite more or less beginning by filling the screen with an engorged male member and ending, after a prolonged parent-teacher meeting that’s more like a show trial, with a Romanian version of Wonder Woman ramming a dildo down a priest’s throat, Bad Luck Banging is nothing if not didactic. It also intends to add to the historical record.
Bad Luck Banging is to some degree a documentary of its own making. The movie was conceived well before the onset of Covid-19. Preproduction happened under lockdown, so casting and rehearsals were done on Zoom. Lockdown in Bucharest ended in late May 2020; sensing the imminence of Covid’s second wave, Jude and his producer, Ada Solomon, rushed the film into production before it was fully funded, shooting on the city’s streets with masks mandatory for the crew and cast, off camera as well as on. People on-screen are forever telling one another to mask up or “sanitize,” with varying degrees of civility and success. Appropriately, Bad Luck Banging had a virtual world premiere at the 2021 Berlin Film Festival, where the Zoom-linked jury gave it the Golden Bear—making it the third Romanian film in the past decade to win the top prize, a better record than any other country.
Emerging on the international film scene some fifteen years ago, the New Romanian Cinema (NRC) was one of the twenty-first century’s least anticipated developments. Romania’s subsidized film industry, unlike those of other nations of the former Soviet bloc, never produced a “new wave.” The nation’s most distinguished filmmaker, Lucian Pintilie, spent much of his career self-exiled in Paris. Particularly after Nicolae Ceaușescu came to power in the mid-1960s, Romania was known mainly for kitschy, hypernationalist historical spectacles. The advent of the NRC was all the more surprising in that, with the fall of communism, the film industries of other Warsaw Pact nations had tended toward artistic decline.
Cannes was the stage on which the NRC first received international attention. In 2005 Cristi Puiu’s tour de force The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu, a series of intricately choreographed scenes tracking a stricken elderly man’s odyssey through several Bucharest emergency rooms, won the festival’s venturesome Un Certain Regard section. The following year Corneliu Porumboiu’s droll 12:08 East of Bucharest, satirizing Romania’s self-deceiving memories of the 1989 revolution, won the Caméra d’Or for best first film. The year after that, Christian Nemescu’s posthumous California Dreamin’, a comedy about a NATO train stalled in rural Romania, took the Un Certain Regard award, and Cristian Mungiu’s gripping thriller 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, about the travails of obtaining an illegal abortion in Ceaușescu’s Romania, was crowned with the Palme d’Or.
However welcome, the efflorescence of Romanian cinema is something of a mystery. In the introduction to her anthology The New Romanian Cinema, Christina Stojanova suggests that, with Ceaușescu’s overthrow and execution in late 1989, Romania experienced a more violent political rupture than did the other Communist states. Like the neorealist movement that emerged from the rubble of Mussolini’s Italy, the NRC was a response to a traumatic upheaval that demanded a break with existing aesthetic norms.
Puiu’s and Mungiu’s early films did have a number of neorealist elements. Characterized by location shooting, ordinary protagonists, strict chronologies, contemporary settings, and the absence of musical soundtracks, they were further distinguished by long, choreographed shots and a level of ensemble acting that clearly required hours of rehearsal. With virtually every scene shot in a single setup, their movies felt as though they were unfolding in real time. This underlying documentary aspect (what Irina Trocan, one of the essayists in The New Romanian Cinema, calls the “mystique of the diegetic world”) reflected a desire to show the world as it actually is. Indeed, Puiu’s and Mungiu’s first films involved ordeals in the face of oppressive institutions. Rather than expressions of new freedom, they were suffused with existential dread.
Jude is a decade younger than Puiu and Mungiu, who were in their early twenties when Ceaușescu was overthrown. After making two contemporary domestic dramas, The Happiest Girl in the World (2009) and Everybody in Our Family (2012), he created an alternative version of the nationalist epic or “heritage movie” that was the central Romanian genre of the Ceaușescu era. This provided his breakthrough. The jaunty title of his folkloric period piece Aferim! (2015) might be translated as “good job” or “mission accomplished,” and describes the movie itself.
Set in early-nineteenth-century Walachia, an area in southern Romania dominated at different times by the Russian and Ottoman Empires, Aferim! concerns a local constable and his son who are engaged by a nobleman to track down a fugitive Romani slave; based on a true story, it was the first Romanian movie since 1923 to address the issue of slavery. Bearing out the observation that introduces Onoriu Colăcel’s The Romanian Cinema of Nationalism—“The Romanians love to watch their fictional ancestors on screen”—Aferim! was a modest hit at home, selling a bit more than a tenth of the tickets purchased for the Hollywood import Fast and Furious 7, but a critical success abroad, where it was typically described as a Romanian western.
Jude’s follow-up, Scarred Hearts (2016), was a different sort of historical movie, based on the life and writings of the Romanian Jewish writer Max Blecher, who died at twenty-eight of spinal tuberculosis. Set almost entirely in a sanitarium, Scarred Hearts suggests a scaled-down, mordant take on The Magic Mountain. Like Hans Castorp, Max has political discussions and even a love affair, but he is a far more sardonic, anguished figure and suffers more acutely from misdiagnosis. As the Mann novel ends with the outbreak of World War I, so Max dies on the eve of World War II, heralded by a rise in Romanian anti-Semitism, an element Jude added to the story to the evident displeasure of some Romanian commentators.
Jude (who despite his last name is not Jewish) addressed the Holocaust directly with his documentary The Dead Nation (2017) and then again in his next feature, the Pirandellian backstage drama I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians (2018). In I Do Not Care, a fierce young theater director (played by Ioana Iacob), named for the Romanian dissident poet Mariana Marin, has received a government grant to stage an outdoor historical pageant as part of a Bucharest cultural festival. Her chosen subject is the 1941 Odessa massacre, in which the Romanian army, at the behest of its German allies, slaughtered tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews during the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. The movie’s title is a quote from Romania’s wartime fascist dictator, Marshal Ion Antonescu, about the massacre.
I Do Not Care is shot like a documentary—it even begins with Iacob introducing herself as an actor who plays a character in the movie. It is basically a thought experiment, much of it devoted to Mariana defending her piece, arguing about historical details, and rehearsing civilians who are playing reenactors in the various armies. (Some are upset that there are Romani members of the cast.) Her most intense discussions are with the amiable government watchdog assigned to the production. She is a true believer in art’s capacity for “moral enlightenment.” He is a crafty realist who slyly suggests she take Schindler’s List as her model.
Against the odds and with a certain amount of subterfuge, the show proceeds as planned. Crowds of spectators are entertained by the marching bands of the various “armies.” The supposed German troops are greeted with sporadic cheers, the designated Russians with lusty boos, and the Romanians with wild enthusiasm. A battle is staged. Speeches are made. First a priest and then a Romanian general rail against the “dirty Jews,” who, in a departure from the approved script, are rounded up and locked in a barn that is purportedly set aflame. The government watchdog is taken aback by this unexpected deviation. So, ultimately, is Mariana, if not for the same reason: she hadn’t anticipated the crowd’s enthusiasm. The spectator is left to wonder whether Jude directed the audience’s approving response to the spectacle or, in the manner of Sacha Baron Cohen, provoked and documented it.
Jude followed I Do Not Care with another sort of adaptation. Based on a 2013 documentary play drawn from the files of the Ceaușescu-era security police, Uppercase Print (2020) involves a 1981 epidemic of subversive graffiti. An extensive investigation leads to the arrest of a sixteen-year-old boy named Mugur Călinescu, who was inspired by Poland’s Solidarity movement but acting on his own. The case, which Jude intersperses with snippets of archival television, proceeds through round-the-clock surveillance of Mugur (played by Serban Lazarovici) and his parents, as well as multiple interrogations of his teachers, who are tasked with deciding on an appropriate punishment. The teen, who is surprisingly stubborn, finally breaks down and recants. Readmitted to society, he dies four years later under mysterious circumstances. In some respects, it seems like a rehearsal for Bad Luck Banging.
Like Jude’s previous four features, Bad Luck Banging is a period piece about the present moment. Since the movie was conceived as a time capsule, it’s a reasonable assumption that its raunchy prelude is set before Romania’s lockdown ended and was not immediately uploaded to the Internet. Convincingly amateurish as well as explicitly hardcore (requiring at least one body double), the video is not just an expression of conjugal affection but a symptom of enforced boredom. Perhaps a bit stir-crazy, Emi and her husband embark upon a spell of self-documented adult play, replete with wigs, masks, toys, theatrical dirty talk, and, on the other side of the bedroom door, an interrupting mother-in-law: “Don’t forget to fill my prescription.” (Domestic life intrudes on sex as it might on a Zoom meeting.)
Introduced with a few bars of the World War II ballad “Lili Marlene,” this humorously clumsy dramatization of Emi’s private life segues into the scarcely less messy public arena. The movie’s first part—titled, perhaps after Walter Benjamin, “One Way Street”—follows Emi as she makes her way through central Bucharest. She seems prim and brisk—nothing like the video’s pink-wigged sex sprite, who we just saw decked out in butterfly panties and a sequin-spangled leopard-skin mask. The public Emi wears a different kind of mask, as does nearly everyone else. The first third of Bad Luck Banging is essentially a documentary of Bucharest in the summer of 2020. The segment has a raw vérité quality. Jude keeps his camera at a distance, observing the streets as much as Emi, who is intermittently glued to her cell phone as she tries to figure out how the sex video escaped her husband’s computer.
Bucharest is half built and half derelict—a semiotic jungle and a ruin waiting to happen. Detritus is everywhere, as are shoddy consumer goods. A billboard advertising a self-defense school, Superkombat Academy Romania, presides over the symbolic economy. The mall is stocked with ersatz Disney creatures, gaudy princess dolls, and pink-orange Paw Patrol toys. Everyone is stressed. Rudeness is endemic. “Mask on your muzzle,” a shopkeeper snaps at a gabby customer. Class warfare breaks out in a supermarket checkout line, where one customer is unaccountably dressed as Superman.
Jude told an interviewer that he saw Romania’s main problem as the absence of social solidarity. The pervasive hostility of the people is echoed by the assaultive environment. Bucharest is not only ramshackle in its visual cacophony but also aurally abrasive: the endless clamor of the traffic, the blaring horns and constant sirens. The street is so noisy that when Emi’s husband calls with the bad news that their amateur video has surfaced on Pornhub, she seeks quiet in a gaming arcade. Later she stops at a bookstore and buys a copy of Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. “So timely for the pandemic,” the clerk tells her and, as further reading, recommends Charles Reznikoff’s book-length poem Testimony, which, in its found archival material cataloging atrocities, presages Bad Luck Banging’s second movement. (Jude is the most literary of Romanian directors—every one of his recent movies includes a reference to Isaac Babel.)
The sequence is replete with “stolen” documentary shots. As with I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, Jude blurs the line between the observed and the contrived. Did the filmmaker find or place the several broken mannequins glimpsed lying on the street, or position the plaster ice-cream cones leaning against a building? The scene in which Emi enters a drugstore and attempts to purchase a single Xanax is clearly staged, but did the actress deliberately provoke a cursing match with the owner of a car parked on the sidewalk? Was the elderly woman who, spotting the camera, laughingly says, “Eat my cunt!” coached or spontaneous?
Emi’s tour of Bucharest—which Jude, interviewed via Zoom during the New York Film Festival, compared to the excavation of Pompeii—concludes with the camera tilting up at the mock-classical columns of an ancient, shuttered movie house. That temple to cinema may be closed, but there’s a religious aspect to the movie’s second part, titled “A Short Dictionary of Anecdotes, Signs, and Wonders.” Rather than offering manifestations of the Holy Spirit, Jude creates a sort of lexicon in brief sections titled after words and concepts—ranging from “Jesus” to “Social Distancing”—with found video clips and photographic material largely culled from the Internet, thus providing a context for the sex video. (Emi is absent from this section, although the actress who plays her makes a brief cameo.)
Sometimes funny but more often discomfiting, this barrage of images can be read as a taxonomy of the obscene or a series of one-liners. Beginning with “23rd of August” (the day in 1944 on which Romania switched sides from the Axis to the Allies), proceeding through “Aborigines” (posed photographs of European men abusing naked African women), “Military” (a parade of tanks), and “The Romanian Orthodox Church” (nuns serenading an Orthodox patriarch with a fascist hymn), the segment is devoted to showing civilization at its worst. Most entries—like a selfie-friendly tour of Ceaușescu’s monstrous palace, known as the “House of the People,” and cell-phone footage of a bus driver fighting with an elderly Romani woman—are specifically Romanian, although the river of garbage following the title “Global Warming” seems universal.
As this jokey symphony of social disgust continues, references to atrocities proliferate. “Montage” is the juxtaposition of clowning soldiers and piled-up corpses. “Christmas” provides a pretext for citing a wartime massacre of Jews and Romani. We learn that “blow job” is the most looked-up term in an online dictionary, with “empathy” second. Commodification rules (French Revolution–brand éclairs are juxtaposed with Romanian Revolution–brand wine), as does alienation, visualized as toy robots at war. The final title, “Zen,” is illustrated with a petrified corpse.
In preparation for the movie’s final part, titled “Praxis and Innuendos,” the word “Family” is accompanied by the image of a young boy’s scarred back and “Children” defined as “political prisoners of their parents.” The two previous sections come together as Emi goes on trial before the parents of her students in what Jude calls, in the section’s subtitle, a “sitcom.” For reasons of social distancing, the inquisition is held in the school courtyard. Masks and exhortations to “please sanitize” take on double meanings—as does the suggestion that, during the meeting, the school is being cleaned up for an anticipated health inspection.
The parents, who are largely caricatured types, demand to see the sex video. “I couldn’t watch it, I was on shift,” one man explains. Thus, to add to her humiliation, Emi is forced to sit in silence, fuming behind her mask, beside the self-righteous parent who displays the video on her tablet. Katia Pascariu’s acting, largely conveyed in the intensity of her glare, is magnificent.
Emi is being taught a lesson even as she attempts to teach one. The parents blame her for traumatizing their children. She tries to defend herself (“My private life is my own”) and suggests that they should do a better job of policing their children’s Internet consumption, which, of course, has increased during lockdown. Like the protagonist of I Do Not Care, Emi is amply equipped to answer for herself, pose difficult questions, and even deal with a mansplaining intellectual who imagines he is defending her when he defines teaching as a form of symbolic violence.
Meanwhile, one grandparent’s Woody Woodpecker laugh punctuates the extraneous sound effects—sirens, ringing telephones—that infiltrate the meeting. The confrontation soon becomes an excuse to make schoolyard puns and dig up Emi’s other offenses. The trolling is relentless. (In one notable irony, an online discussion includes a commenter calling Emi’s attackers “leftist, politically correct, shit-eating scum.”) The parents question not only Emi’s morality but her pedagogic philosophy, as well as her patriotism, and they accuse her of indoctrinating children by, in effect, teaching a Romanian (or “Jewish”) version of critical race theory.
Although Jude makes light of the culture wars, he is not a satiric populist like Norman Lear. Rather, he belongs to a tradition of politically minded Eastern European filmmakers who have taken as their subject the nature of the media and the circulation of images. These include the Soviet montage theorists Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein, the Yugoslav “new wave” director Dušan Makavejev (whose 1971 sex-pol farce WR: Mysteries of the Organism is Bad Luck Banging’s most obvious precursor), the Andrzej Wajda of Man of Marble (1977), and, most recently, the Ukrainian documentarian Sergei Loznitsa. All subscribe to the faith that cinema has the power to change the world; some, like Jude, understand that it will not. The plague is here to stay. As Emi’s ordeal winds down, the movie presents three possible endings—happy, unhappy, and apocalyptic. The last option (which suggests divine intervention in the form of a superheroine) is the greatest crowd-pleaser. Not just popular but Pop.
Andrew Higgins, “In Romania, Hard-hit by Covid, Doctors Fight Vaccine Refusal,” November 8, 2021. ↩