The Good Life of Alex. Leo Șerban

The film critic Alex. Leo Şerban, and the joys of being.

Photographs from Alex. Leo Şerban’s personal archive

One by one they came to his memorial service on that April day. Andrei PleȘu, Radu CosaȘu, Cristi Puiu, Cristian Mungiu, Radu Muntean, Răzvan Rădulescu, Maria Dinulescu: writers, directors, actors, film critics, journalists, former students, friends, people who had met him at some point, people who just knew of him.

Some chatted, even giggled from time to time, as if at a gathering where no one had yet cracked open that first bottle of wine. The conversation flowed, heartened by Leonard Cohen’s voice, which warmed up the cold room with his Famous Blue Raincoat – Leo’s favorite –and by photos of Marilyn Monroe, for whom Leo had a soft spot, scattered all around. One of the friends who handled the funeral said that, had they had the courage, they should’ve all worn red. Leo would’ve loved that. The wine was opened, eventually, at the dinner they held in his honor at the Salsa Picante restaurant, where he was a regular. A dinner spiced, of course, with gossip and delicious stories. 

Alex. Leo Şerban was the most beloved Romanian film critic, one who knew how to give context and value to the new Romanian cinema. He was a cultural journalist for more than 25 years, the author of seven books and hundreds of articles which appeared in dozens of national and international publications. He hosted radio and TV shows, he coordinated a collection of books about film, he inspired and promoted many of the Romanian film critics whose voices are relevant today. He died of lymphoma this spring, in the hospital. He was 51.  

He belonged to everyone – readers, colleagues, friends, family – and to no one. There were so many people who were a part of his life, many of which wrote about him since his death. They were sad about not having him around anymore, but their memories were radiant, and the simple act of committing them to paper emphasized his uniqueness. He would have liked that. 

“What amuses me,” says journalist Iulia Blaga, who was a close friend, “is that now everybody claims a piece of Leo and everybody is under the impression they had him all to themselves, which is not true, because Leo was the most free person I’ve ever known. He never belonged to anybody, really. You couldn’t pin him down. He would escape.”

Alexandru Şerban was born in Bucharest, on June 28, 1959. His father was never part of his life, and Leo never talked about that. He lived with his mother and grandmother in downtown Bucharest and later moved close to Obor Market. His autobiographical texts lead the reader into a world filled with old ladies he used to call aunts, all revolving around the Grădina Icoanei park. 

There were his grandfather’s sisters, Bigi and Mica. Mica lived in a studio flat that Leo inherited and moved into at 24. Bigi only wore black and white and killed herself in her ‘70s, because she had lost her hearing. She was the one from whom Leo stole his first drag of a cigarette. There were Mimi and Babu, her daughters. There was Marga, Babu’s sister in law. There was Hilda, Mimi’s friend, a 90-year-old red-haired lady who smoked like a chimney. 

His mother, Gabriela Şerban, a blue-eyed woman of 73 with delicate features, says that when he was about 5, Sandu (as she always called Leo) used to call out to her from outside the building where they lived. “Babeeeeeei!” “Can’t you call me mother?”, she would answer, amused.

Leo called her anything from Bubi to Babeiuşicuţilică. He called his grandma Bababa. “This was pretty much my family, a lot of women with B’s in their names,” he wrote in Mica dietetică (Small Dietetics), published posthumously. “A batriarchy.” 

Leo was more of an introverted and precocious child than a naughty one. He started taking French lessons quite early, a sort of tradition in his family. He spent his holidays in the mountains, at Moeciu de Sus, and Cârţa, a village in the Făgăraş mountains.

His grandma took him to the cinema, which stirred in him an intense passion for movies. She was the one who explained to him that what he saw on the screen was not real. “In our family, we each had our favorite genres,” he wrote in Dietetica lui Robinson (Robinson’s Dietetics), a book he published in 2006. “My grandma – a fan of musicals and comedies, my mum – a fan of thrillers, and me – a fan of everything.”

He was crazy about cars; he knew them from movies and noticed them on the streets. His toy car collection included a model Chrysler he used to reenact Kennedy’s assassination over and over. He would occupy the entire living room floor with Lego castles, where he entertained imaginary guests arriving in fancy limousines. Over the years, he never allowed his mother to throw away his toy cars and he sometimes asked her for them to play. Nevertheless, he never cared for driving, which he considered a useless skill as long as somebody else could do it for him. 

He went to C.A. Rosetti High School, which—in 1975, when he started it—had a pool. Narcisa Cimpoca, one of his friends and classmates, who is now a translator, remembers that they were lucky enough to have a pretty open-minded education for the communist era – they even had native speakers as English teachers. In his freshman year, Leo was almost expelled for skipping too many classes. He would skip classes and go to the library, then asking the family doctor for an excused absence slip. When a teacher eventually called his house, he would pick up and pretend he was his mother. 

Back then, Alex, as his high school and university friends called him, was thin as a rake, with long fingers, elegant gestures and an explosive laugh. He excelled in literature and foreign languages, ignored Latin and was terrified of math. He wrote stories à la Edgar Allan Poe, read books that most of his classmates had never heard of and, at 17, the Chicago Review published Green Lemon, a poem of his that he had sent in after he had discovered the magazine at the American Library and had taken a liking to it. He was extremely popular among both students and teachers. Not a recess went by without a bunch of people surrounding him. (“Alex always used to say: ‘Darling, I’m snobbish. I’m stylish and bohemian’,” Narcisa remembers.)

He used to spend most of his time with Narcisa, a short brunette, and Laura Manu, a tall blonde. A few years ago he wrote that Laura was the only woman he had ever fallen in love with, albeit platonically. Playful spirits as they were, they made mock translations of English expressions, made fun of anything, exchanged secret notes, and talked about movies, creating and recreating their favorite scenes. “We lived in play and played in reality,” says Laura, a psychotherapist living in London since 1990. 

After class, Alex used to walk Laura home, even though she didn’t live near him. They talked all the way to her house, then they stopped outside her building and talked some more. When he got home, he called her on the phone and they talked again. “He loved my neighborhood,” Laura says. “Whether it was a window, a door or a rain gutter, he would always show me something I had walked by I-don’t-know-how-many times, and I would see it for the first time. This is how I see him: he took pictures even before he had a camera.” 

One day, he told Laura that she had to go with him to see his aunts, so they could meet her. For Laura, it was like the movies. She remembers it was already dark, though not late, when Leo took her to a house near Grădina Icoanei. Inside, in a room full of beautiful antique furniture, there were five lean, elegantly old-fashioned, serious-looking and slightly snobbish ladies. “I was so intimidated. And I saw Alex changing before my eyes. All of a sudden he was no longer the casual joker I knew, but had become the polite, reserved nephew. He kissed their hands and sort of stood back and let them question me.”

In high school, as many people did during those times, they turned to culture as a form of resistance. They went to the French and American libraries, where they found books, new movies and music, despite the fact that the regime frowned upon such things and finding classmates to join them wasn’t easy. That’s where they saw The Rose, inspired by Janis Joplin, and they left singing on the streets. He wasn’t much of a singer but they would sing duets and laugh their hearts out. They went to the cinémathèque to watch classic movies. Both Alex and Laura were crazy about Alfred Hitchcock and loved Marlene Dietrich. 

Laura was the first to fall for Leonard Cohen. She got Alex into Cohen, too, when she played him an album over the phone. She and some other friends think this is where the “Leo” he added to his name comes from. “At some point, in high school,” says Laura, “I overheard a girl from another class call him Leo, and he answered. So I asked him: Leo? ‘Darling, Leo is my middle name now.’”

“He loved my neighborhood,” Laura says. “Whether it was a window, a door or a rain gutter, he would always show me something I had walked by I-don’t-know-how-many times, and I would see it for the first time. This is how I see him: he took pictures even before he had a camera.”

Leo went to college without a clear plan. He chose English and French, because that’s what he liked. It was during those years that he met Dana Enulescu and Gabriela Massaci, who later became his close friends. Massaci, a former director of the Romanian Cultural Institute (ICR) in London, first saw him in a student play and remembers she was captivated by the intense, wiry boy performing on stage. Enulescu, a journalist who has been living in Italy since 1982, was his colleague and says he was a brilliant student, who read everything, understood things before all the other students and spoke flawless English. 

College years also meant unforgettable parties, some of them given in the house of one of his aunts. “There was party after party,” says Massaci. “All these aunts who adored him, but also drove him nuts, would let us use their homes. Throwing a ‘30s theme party in the ‘80s was a pretty subversive thing to do. The party was fabulous, and Leo, an unrivalled host.” (At another party, Leo impersonated Boy George to great acclaim.)

Leo’s first job after graduating was in a small provincial town, where he was supposed to teach English at two high schools. He made the commute for three years. “The mood?”, he wrote in Dietetica lui Robinson. “All I could think about–just like a military draftee–was how long I still had to do this, worrying at the thought that the Lunatic [Ceauşescu] might come up with a law that would force me to move there…”

After the Revolution, he was a foreign languages assistant at the University of Bucharest. That’s when Mona Nicoară, the director of Our School, and a former neighbor of his, met him. She can’t say for sure whether he was supposed to be teaching phonetics or some other dull thing, but it didn’t really matter, because Leo, the guy with round-framed glasses, spent almost the entire semester telling them about movies.

Leo didn’t stay on to become a professor. He had already started writing for relevant cultural publications, and was well on his way to becoming a renowned journalist. He was part of the team that founded Dilema in January 1993, and remained one of its essential writers throughout his life. He wrote with great ease about literature, photography, art. He was equally great at writing about himself, or analyzing Michael Jackson’s concert in Romania, or reviewing Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. His writing voice was always a bit falsely naïve, a bit ironic, never overwhelming or presumptuous, always perfectly in control. You can never tell fact from fiction in his personal texts. 

Didier Dutour, deputy director of the French Institute in Romania, met and befriended Leo in 1992. “He was one of the most interesting people in Bucharest,” Dutour says. “He was very active and, in a way, aggressively intellectual, because he was very, very aware of what he knew.”

His friends say that he used to write fast, especially in the morning, with no drafts and no notes. In an interview he gave in 2001, he said: “For me, the ideal review is an aphorism. That means managing to sum up what that movie means to you, the viewer, in one sentence.” That is exactly what he did later on the forum of (a Romanian IMDb), and on Twitter. (E.g.: “Atonement: lavish adaptation of mcewan novel seems like dull remake of losey & pinter go-between, without the brains; keira knightley a bore.”)

His nonchalantly elegant writing style was matched by the way he dressed. In high school, he would go to the Athenaeum wearing a suit with sneakers, one red sock and a green one, just to add a personal note to his outfit. At some point he wrote that nothing ever made him prouder than the day in 1999 when he met a Time Out editor in New York, who photographed him on the street. When asked to define his style, Leo answered “Casual with a twist.” “He wasn’t defiant in his manner of dressing or in the way he acted, because he disliked exaggerations,” says Cristi Luca, a cultural journalist and a friend. “He was a very normal guy but would add a bit of a twist, like an accessory.” The twist could be a black hoodie with white polka dots, or a Marilyn Monroe T-shirt, or a green cap that he wore until he lost it, or flip-flops, or T-shirts with written messages. (At the opening of the third edition of the Romanian film festival in New York, he wore a T-shirt with a pink pony, which read “We love you, ICRNY!” – a reference to a cultural controversy stirred up by an ICR exhibit – and at a TV show he wore a red T-shirt, a present from a friend, which read “When I’m bored, I Google myself”).

In the late ‘90s, Leo wrote about movies in both Dilema, and Libertatea (the best-selling tabloid in the country). But those were times when movies were starting to flop at the box-office, the Romanian cinema seemed completely lost, and the two important film magazines – Noul Cinema and Pro Cinema – had been closed. Leo and film critic Mihai Chirilov, whom he had met in 1994 at an event dedicated to the Italian cinema, found a way to fight this state of affairs in Observator Cultural, which came out in 2000. They penned two to four pages a week, so they saw and reviewed everything that was on screen. Because good movies weren’t a priority for Romanian cinemas, they found ways to go to international film festivals. Although Observator had a small circulation, film fans sought it out for the reviews, and this made Chirilov and especially Leo more popular in the field. 

In 2001, when Cristi Puiu released his Stuff and Dough, the movie didn’t drum up much attention, but Leo, Chirilov and a few other critics, pushed for it. 2001 was also the year when director Tudor Giurgiu founded the Transylvania International Film Festival, where Leo helped with advice, played host and was part of the jury. 

The critics were happy to finally have relevant movies made in their country. When they went to festivals they were no longer critics from a country with no movies, but from one that finally had something to show. “That was the first time we felt really good about ourselves as film critics,” Chirilov says. “It’s not that we took Romanian film international. Romanian film went international by itself. We just helped build its reputation and raised its exposure and relevance on the international market.”

Leo declared Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest the most exciting post-1989 debut and pegged screenwriter and director Răzvan Rădulescu as the genius behind the pure and tough movies made in Romania. He was also the one who said, after Mungiu won the Palme D’Or, that “Puiu planted the seed, Porumboiu watered it, and Mungiu is picking the fruit.” The press labeled what came next “the new wave”. An enthusiast of this necessary revival, he liked to call it “the new Romanian cinema” or “neorealism” and defended it, explaining that, no matter how negative the public’s reaction to its brutal honesty, a film created by young directors can only be minimalist. “Our minimalists (or neorealists) hold up a mirror to the public, but the public doesn’t want to see itself reflected,” he wrote in an article he republished in 4 decenii, 3 ani şi 2 luni cu filmul românesc, a book published in 2009. The time had come for discovering the simple life through film, and Leo was there to welcome every good new movie, to lure people into seeing it, to put things into a fair perspective. 

As Romanian directors started winning international awards, the number of international events dedicated to Romanian movies grew. “Almost all the directors wanted Leo to join them,” Chirilov says, “because he was their most articulate, their most exuberant moderator and his company was in itself a validation, a guarantee that the event would turn out well.” Maria Dinulescu, one of Leo’s favorite actresses, remembers meeting him in London, at a festival where he was the moderator of the Q&A about Cristian Nemescu’s California Dreamin’, a film in which she starred. “Since he was so constructive, you would inevitably say what really mattered,” she says. 

Leo never would’ve praised a film he thought was bad. He thought it was best not to be a director’s best friend, so he didn’t risk becoming his worst critic. To him, a good critic had to be able to do three things: “write well, have taste, and be cultured (at least well versed in something particular)”. He loved classic movies, saying that a true film lover is essentially a lover of the past. He used to say that if all the reels of film in the world were to burn, and he could only save one, that would be Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Antonioni’s L’Eclisse, Dreyer’s Ordet, Bergman’s Persona, and Fellini’s 8 1/2 were also on his short list.

He loved Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis and, famously, Marilyn Monroe, for whom he had become a sort of local biographer. When Laura gave him a rare photo of Marilyn smoking on a balcony, Leo said that was the best present he’d ever received: “My favorite woman doing my favorite thing.” 

He never took notes during movies, saying that if something deserved to be remembered, it would, and if not, that was the movie’s fault. His memory was like an elephant’s and his attention to detail made things easier for him. When he laughed during a movie, you knew it was him, because it echoed throughout the whole room. He didn’t shy away from crying, either. “When watching a movie,” he wrote in the book De ce vedem filme? (Why Do We Watch Movies?), “I don’t think about turning it into a review: I simply enjoy it (or get mad at it). When writing about a movie, I don’t think about turning it into literature: I simply weigh it. When saying what the film is about (sometimes you have no choice), I try to do that as fast and as clearly as I can, without ever revealing everything: just a few details to help the understanding of my analysis. When analyzing a movie, I try to do it in a way that would still allow the film to charm people: ‘understand’ it up to a certain point and then let it reveal its own mysteries.”

Another thing Leo was good at was discovering new voices in film criticism and cultural journalism. He wasn’t selfish, his friends say, because he was fully aware of his own worth. 

Chirilov was studying electronics and was a movie enthusiast when Leo asked him to write some reviews for Dilema. He did the same for film critic Andrei Gorzo, who was his student and a wonderful partner in debates, thinking and bickering. On the Cinemagia forum he found Cristi Luca, a web programmer from Iaşi, and offered him a column at Dilema. He gave wings to journalist Luiza Vasiliu when he wrote that her column in a cultural publication was his favorite. “Can you imagine, having a thing like that happen to you at 20? It blows your mind,” she says, “because you would’ve never imagined that the little nonsense that you write may mean something to someone so cool.” Răzvan Penescu, the founder of the cultural site, asked him, in 1999, to contribute some texts for the site he was just starting, and Leo said yes, even though he didn’t know much about Răzvan. 

After pushing them forward, he didn’t let them stray. First of all, he used to introduce them to new people, because Leo was like an offline social network. “He would introduce you to somebody and say something like: ‘Now you two should go for a walk’,” Penescu says. “He would say a few things about you and all of a sudden you made friends with that person.” Later, he found all sorts of pretexts to keep people close. He invited them to all sorts of events, he assigned them readings, he made recommendations and gave them films and books, he called them over and cooked for them. He never cooked elaborate things, just dishes that were easy to make but always had some special ingredient or an unexpected combination of tastes. Some were a success. Others, not so much. (Some of his friends still make a face just thinking about his “surimi salad”.) But what mattered most at these gatherings was the small talk. He never had more than four or five people over, avoiding big crowds and including everyone in the conversation. (“He liked to create discussion scenes,” Chirilov says.) Sometimes he invited people who didn’t know each other but whom he thought had shared interests. Other times, he picked people who, brought together and forced to interact, could generate animated controversies. And that was really no surprise because Leo loved a good argument. 

Sometimes conflicts brought him new friends. That was the case with Adela Marcov, a web editor who criticized him on her blog for writing something mean about Jodie Foster, and he, in return, asked her out for a drink. Or with Radu Enescu, a financial consultant with whom he argued in blog comments at first, but later, after finding out that they had similar taste in movies, invited to his 50th birthday. 

Leo didn’t like sports, knew nothing about football (he thought a penalty is taken from 9 meters, and that Maradona was Brazilian), but quarreling was a sport he was good at. He became an active member of the Cinemagia forum, in which he saw a good place for interaction, observation and conversation about movies. There he was no longer Alex. Leo Şerban, the critic, but a regular user, “als”, who could be easily dragged into heated arguments and had no problem with picking on anyone who annoyed him. 

The Internet was his playground. Especially during his last years, Leo read blogs and it sometimes seemed that he had in mind the motto he had outlined in a Proust questionnaire: “Minimum effort, maximum effect”. From six in the morning when he woke up, until eight or so, he would fill the blogosphere with comments. He incited, contradicted, and sometimes lashed out at people for no apparent reason, but he never let people post comments to his own articles. (“I don’t allow comments to my online articles; I think it’s a healthier approach,” he wrote in one comment.) Sometimes it seemed he was testing the whole array of tools of that vice of his, self-deprecation, because while a good reputation is easily tarnished, a bad one always leaves room for improvement and good surprises. 

“As a friend, he was oversensitive,” says Corina Şuteu, director of the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York, “extremely empathic and also terribly driven. He was extremely loyal and equally absurdly virulent in his enmities as he was committed in friendship.”

One extreme aspect of his ways was the Terrorist, a literature blog that he and other bloggers attacked, harassing its author, LuciaT, to get her to reveal her true identity. He pushed and pushed until she decided to shut down her blog.

 Shortly after, Leo posted a comment to an interview she gave: “luciat was just the subject of an experiment – neutral to me, affectively speaking. I ‘terrorized’ her coldly, Chinese style;)” A year later, he didn’t seem to have changed his mind about her: “as for the ‘death’ of ‘that’ blog – I disagree: it was luciat’s decision (= which goes to show how little she cared about her dozens of readers/fans) to close it. I, for one, really can’t take the blame for it: if the woman lost it, it’s because she’s emotionally unstable, what do I have to do with it??”.

He called himself a minimalist hedonist, who disliked excesses, all extremes, and who believed in something he called “l’esthetique du peu.” HE BELIVED Life WAS too short to be taken seriously.

He was also fiercely opposed to political correctness, especially when he was asked to talk about his homosexuality. He never confirmed it openly, he even said he was against the gay movement and the gay community. In his typical manner, he once wrote on a blog that he thought it was worse for somebody to hate Picasso than to be homophobic. He never wrote about his relationships and, after his death, his friends protected his privacy just as fiercely. 

Leo was outed in 2005, when a tabloid published several explicit photos of him and another man. His friends suggest that affected him deeply. Leo later said that of everything that was published the only genuine things were his nude self-portraits, which he still liked.

“That was private and it was his decision to protect it,” Dutour says. “I would talk to him about this, too. People need role models and he could’ve been one. But he never wanted to be one, he was very anti-establishment and the gay movement was an establishment in itself. He didn’t want to be part of a community when, sometimes, you have very little in common with these people.”

Being a supporter of the gay movement would’ve been a label, and he always dodged labels. 

“There has been, at some point, a questionnaire in Dilema,” says Cristi Luca, “which I believe defined the way he was. The question was something like ‘What’s your take on the whole forbidden fruit thing?’ and he answered: ‘I don’t know what to say about fruits, I don’t like fruits, I like chocolate’.”

His image–from his name to the way he was perceived–was entirely self-made and nobody worked harder to maintain it than him (he was the one who asked Adela to make his Wikipedia page). At least for people who didn’t know him, he projected a sort of self-mocking snobbery that set him apart from the crowd and never ceased to intrigue. One could spot it in the ‘alsisms’ he tweeted: “It’s better to spit where u liked than to lick where u spat”—in the things he would say all of a sudden, leaving people to wonder whether or not he was telling the truth (he once wrote on a blog that his mother’s family was descended from Alexandru Ioan Cuza and his dad’s family had aristocratic roots, that he abbreviated his family name because it was too long and had a foreign ring to it, that his family used to know Romania’s most important rulers).

The nonchalance with which he acknowledged his preferences in all sorts of fields revealed a lack of elitism and an open mind, as well as the pride he took in being this way. He had liked Margareta Pâslaru ever since he was a child, he preferred ABBA to rock music and had a soft spot for O-Zone. “Maybe it’s not exactly what you would call ‘good music,’ but I’ll be damned if it’s not great to dance too!” he wrote in ELLE magazine. When it comes to Leo’s ambivalence, everyone has an example: he would link to cat videos but also to articles by Susan Sontag, he was crazy about Big Brother but also about Wong Kar Wai, he liked Proust but also Mihaela Rădulescu, a TV celebrity.

There were contrasts in anything he did or wrote, including the lists he liked so much, some of which he wrote this year, while in the hospital. Lists of what he never did: never went to kindergarten, never played football. Lists of things he liked: fries, roses, pre-classical opera. Things he didn’t like: the skin that forms on top of milk when heated, arugula, the theater. (Mainly because it wasn’t film.) His dreams: that there would be no more disputes, only controversies, that he wouldn’t be taken seriously for what he said but only for what he did, that he would stop getting angry.

He called himself a minimalist hedonist, who disliked excesses, all extremes, and who believed in something he called “l’esthetique du peu.” Life is too short to be taken seriously. “I like to believe in the daily duty of satisfying one’s pleasures,” he wrote in his introduction to Dietetica lui Robinson. He ended the book by listing his own Decalogue, his own rules. Besides the first commandment – “Do what you like” – and the last, which mirrors the first, all the other ones begin with “Pay attention” – to the things around you, to how they match with you, to today, to what you’re doing and what you have to do, to joys.

His friends say he was a solar personality, who kept his demons away from the public eye, who always lifted their spirits when they were down. “Every time you met him,” Mona Nicoară says, “he made you feel that doing something new was worth it. You knew that spending time with him enriched you in a way that can’t be measured. It was all about living the moment in its best possible version.”

Most of the memories people have of him involve jokes and anecdotes. People miss how much they used to laugh with and at Leo—at his dark humor, at the juicy gossip he loved and usually found before everybody else. “I don’t think that gossip will ever be as intellectually demanding an activity as it was with Leo,” says Luiza Vasiliu. “It was an art form. If you happened to be on the black list, that sucked. He would immediately denounce any sign of imposture or gratuitous arrogance.”

He was better than antidepressants when it came to giving advice in matters of the heart. He had pet names for all his friends: la petite, querido, Narchisichi baby. He must have sent dozens of e-mails a day, his friends say, otherwise how could he have left them with the impression that they had just seen each other the day before when they didn’t see him for months? He spent hours on the phone, chatting on and on with writers Radu Cosaşu, Ioana Pârvulescu, Iulia Blaga, whom he’d wake up with “How you doin’, girl?”. Not only did he manage to stay in touch with the many people he knew all over the world, but he knew their likes and dislikes, remembered things they had once said and he even quoted them, making them feel special. From his trips, he brought presents home for everyone, from little stones and posters to cakes and religious statues. 

“When Alex died and I read what people wrote about him,” Laura said, “I realized that each of them wrote or talked about a very special relationship with him. That each one of these people, myself included, felt they were special to him. And I couldn’t help but wonder: was this some sort of narcissistic reaction on our part, feeling so important? And I came to the conclusion, which is not yet final, that we really were special. So many people were indeed special to him. Or he made us feel special. He would always keep you in a special place and he didn’t do it to suck up to you. It was for real.”

Leo knew how to be alone. 

Beyond his people skills and general appeal, beyond the seemingly huge number of friends that he had, there’s only a few to whom he ever talked openly about himself. The fundamentals stayed with him and with the few people who really knew him. “That’s simply the way I am,” he said in an interview in Revista Cultura, in 2010: “a tenacious introvert who feels the need–in order to protect his privacy–to ‘project’ to the outside world the extrovert face of an egocentric. (I am obviously an egocentric!).”

“I don’t think he was egocentric,” Dutour says, “more like self-centered or in Stendhal’s words, an egotist. Because being an egotist entails shutting oneself away from the world to offer something to others. And it’s a way of accepting that everybody is selfish and we are the most important persons to ourselves.”

“He was, at once, very tormented about many things,” Massaci says, “but he always kept those things at bay with what I often thought was too much self-control. My impression was that such fears and worries should’ve been more exposed. Either way, Leo was very discrete and kept his private life to himself.”

When he was sad he would usually withdraw until it passed. During his last two years, though, some of his friends noticed a latent sadness that must have been harder to conceal. Some blame it on the ending of a relationship that mattered a lot to him, others on loneliness or aging, a process he was struggling to accept. 

He never seemed scared of growing old; he already had gray hair and he used to say that with age comes wisdom. But he hadn’t gotten used to the idea. “I used to joke that he was twice my age,” Luiza says, “and that he was old enough to be my father. I only made that joke twice and that was it. He didn’t think it was funny. I would giggle a little and change the subject.”

When he turned 50, Leo hosted an official party at the French Institute’s Elvira Popescu cinema, where he invited a lot of friends to see Jacques Tati’s Mon oncle, a movie he said he could have lived in. He laughed the hardest during that rainbow-y and rainy evening. Although he had said he didn’t want any presents, he left home with mountains of flowers, traditional cheese, Converse sneakers, and a huge painting of Marilyn.

During those months, two other things happened: Leo let people know, to the amazement and amusement of his friends who still didn’t believe he was serious, that he would quit film criticism and Dilema Veche. In a farewell text he published in Dilema in November 2009, he said he was quitting because of “routine, decay, and a strictly personal dissatisfaction with the journalistic profession. And even with film criticism.” He pushed harder in Idei în Dialog, where he became insistent about some of his observations and disappointments. Film criticism is nearing its end, he wrote, stressing that the vast experience of the critics makes young people regard them as untouchable elitists. 

Then, to the amazement and amusement of the same incredulous friends, he said he was going to Buenos Aires and Lisbon for a year. At first, they poked fun at him; they even made bets as to how long he would last there because the Leo they knew had his favorite places. He didn’t necessarily have the curiosity to conquer new ground, but rather the wish to revisit dear places, like the Botanical Garden in Cluj or Place de Furstenberg in Paris, where a famous photo of Mircea Eliade, Eugen Ionescu and Emil Cioran was taken. But Leo loved Buenos Aires from books and movies and he had been dreaming of going there for years, so his friends had to accept his wish and held a farewell party and Leo, armed with Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu and A hedonist’s guide to Buenos Aires, really did leave at the end of 2009. 

He spent a lot of time there with Marius Rădoi, a teacher at the Cervantes Institute in Bucharest. They met at a mutual friend’s birthday party and found they were going to be in South America at about the same time. Rădoi says those were weeks of intense exploration, in which Leo took him to museums, showed him streets, hotels, famous houses and people with whom he’d just made friends. Among them, the owner of restaurant that hosted a painting exhibition in the basement, which was built on the site of a former orphanage. 

“When he left for Argentina,” Penescu says, “I knew I was going to keep pestering him to write and that he would because, after all, writing was part of who he was.”

He did write. In 2010, Leo posted on Liternet (which he considered a substitute for his own blog) letters that showed how much he was taking in: parks, firms, yards, cats, characters. He sent photographs of whatever caught his attention. He loved photography and did it as he did everything else: with no fuss. 

Judging by his messages from Buenos Aires and later the numerous “letters to friends” he posted from Lisbon (where he journeyed repeatedly throughout 2010, and which he proclaimed his favorite city), the sadness he felt before leaving dissipated in calm, wonder and excitement. Deeply rooted in life, Leo took advantage of everything it gave him. “One day while in Buenos Aires we were supposed to meet,” Rădoi says, “and I was late, so I apologized, and he said: ‘No biggie, while standing here I was looking at a poster and I learned a new word.’ Escalofriante, which means spine-tingling.”

To Dutour it became obvious that something was wrong with Leo one evening in February 2011, when French actress Carole Bouquet read some letters of Antonin Artaud at the Odeon Theatre in Bucharest. It was the last public event that Leo attended, although he wasn’t well – he was in pain and had trouble moving. Dutour invited him to dinner with Carole. 

“She worked with Buñuel and she was a perfect match for Leo and he was a perfect match for her,” Dutour says. “And for the first time he said: no, I can’t go. And that’s when I started worrying about him because I knew that in different circumstances he wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

 “A few days later, on February 17, he was hospitalized at Matei Balş for tests; he, who always avoided doctors and talking about illness. What initially seemed a neurological affection later turned out to be an aggressive lymphoma. In March, he had a first round of chemo at the Fundeni hospital, then he went back to Balş. 

While in the hospital, Leo acted as if his cancer was the flu. He sent e-mails, read blogs, left comments, talked on the phone about books, films, made plans – sometimes despite doctors’ orders. His voice was somewhat weaker, but typically upbeat. He didn’t cry, didn’t complain, didn’t talk to anybody about what was going on inside him, and tried to be, as much as possible, the Leo people knew. He worked on his next books, all published this year: Mica dietetică, a book of short biographical texts, Alte camere, alte glasuri de ieri (Other Rooms, other Voices of Yesterday), a book of poetry he initially said he would never publish, and the novella Litera din scrisoarea misterioasă (The Letter in the Mysterious Letter, originally written in English).

“While he was in the hospital, I had my days when I was furious with him for doing this to us,” Iulia says. “Afterwards, I understood that maybe this was his way of saying goodbye. He started to part from those he knew while he was still alive, in order to protect his vital space and not to be seen suffering or withering, because he was horrified of old age and sickness. But also, I think, in order to protect us.”

On March 29 and 30, he tweeted in a frenzy. About how much he hated the Gopo movie awards – he wanted awards for Morgen, First of All, Felicia, Tuesday, After Christmas, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu; instead, almost all the awards went to If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle. About his busy plans for the near future: TIFF in June, Rome and Tuscany, a visit to the Karlsruhe University, where the Romanian director Andrei Ujică teaches, in Paris. On March 31st  he sent out one last tweet, as if to set the record straight: “when you make plans = as if you place your life in the hands of fate and fate laughs at you that very moment. life is the lab rat of fate.”

Some of his friends still wonder whether Buenos Aires and Lisbon were just a dream come true, or prompted by some premonition. “I think we all wondered about that after he died,” Laura says. “Did he know? When he left and I wrote to ask him how it was, he wrote back: ‘Honey, I’m 50. At this age you never now how much longer you’ve got. I want to indulge myself’.”

Somewhere in the space between the night of April 8th and the morning of April 9th, Leo, staring at the ceiling of his hospital room, was seen by a caretaker whispering “Ciao”, to no one in particular or to the entire world. A few minutes later, he was gone. 

He was cremated, as he had wished. His mother slipped two of his toy cars into one of his pockets. Half his ashes were buried at Bellu Militari cemetery, where his family is. The rest was supposed to go to Tuscany at some point. That’s how he wanted it. Leo loved Italy. He visited the country every year and referred to it as the paradise of contemplation. He liked the language – which he spoke pretty well – the food, Moretti beer, the sun, the sea, the history, Fellini, Visconti, Pasolini, De Sica, Mastroiani.

The tall, cylindrical urn carrying his ashes was left on his desk, in his studio, near his laptop, his scraps of paper, and writing instruments, all left untouched, as if in a museum. At the end of September, almost six months after he was gone, his mother took the urn, slipped it in a bag, and shut the door behind. A few days later, two of Leo’s friends flew to Italy with the urn and spread his ashes in the village of Monterchi, in Tuscany, a province so beautiful Leo called it heaven’s ground floor. 

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