Romanian Cinema At The PFA

by on February 18, 2020

From film “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians”

The Pacific Film Archive film series “Perspectives On History: Romanian Cinema Since 1989” has brought to Bay Area audiences a mix of recent classics of world cinema and lesser known works from this country.  Cristian Mungiu’s heartbreaking abortion drama “4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days” and Cristi Puiu’s dark health care hell tale “The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu” have been among the works screened. Andrei Ujica’s found-footage portrait of a dictator’s cult of personality, “The Autobiography Of Nicolae Ceausescu,” will make you suspect a similar film could be made in America about the Orange Skull using nothing more than Faux News footage.

The relatively recently made “I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians” concludes the Pacific Film Archive series.  Radu Jude’s riveting dark political comedy also happens to be one of this year’s most essential films.

The title of Jude’s film comes from a statement made by notorious World War II Nazi collaborator Marshal Ion Antonescu.  This military leader chose to defy the condemnation of posterity by ordering the execution of several thousand Jews in Odessa during the war.  Time has unfortunately resulted in the popular rehabilitation of Antonescu as a Romanian national hero.

Theatre director Mariana Marin (Ioana Iacob) hopes to puncture Antonescu’s popularity a little.  Her public recreation of the Odessa Massacre will, she believes, spark the audience to reconsider their country’s toxic historical legacy.  However, more than a few reenactment volunteers seem a little too eager to play Nazis. Also, City Hall may have commissioned Marin’s project.  But it’s not about to give her a free hand to put on something that will upset the audience or embarrass the local politicians.

On one level, Jude’s film can be understood very simply as a behind the scenes dark comedy about the chaos that precedes the making of a live theater performance.  But to appreciate the film solely on that level would be to sell Jude’s creative vision short. Equally important to the staying power of this film are its considerations of what history people choose to remember and the ability of art to elicit reactions from depicting the more horrifying aspects of human nature.

It’s fair to say Marin has been haunted by the massacre.  In casual arguments with extras, she brings up detailed knowledge of the background behind the incident.  Even a postcoital moment with her married lover sees Marin looking at a picture of Jews lynched during that wartime ethnic cleansing.

But if the theatre director is determined to make “Never Again” more than a nice rhetorical sentiment with this production, that feeling isn’t necessarily shared by others.  One re-enactor’s refusal to work with gypsies feels little different from anti-Semitism. Even Marin’s lover grouses about a supposed Jewish tendency to find anti-Semitism everywhere.

If the clashes in Jude’s film were limited to Marin’s fights with more prejudiced Romanians, the results would make the film as forgettable as a self-righteous weekly American TV drama.  But Jude’s master stroke is having the director’s foil be Constantin Movila. He’s the City Hall representative who approved Marin’s proposal. But he also wants to ensure what she produces ultimately doesn’t embarrass City Hall.  His request that Marin’s depiction of the massacre avoid upsetting the children attending the performance happens to be a familiar censor’s tactic.

Movila is however more than an out-and-out bad person.  His conversations with Marin challenges her assumptions yet are respectful.  The American viewer may disagree with Movila, yet the official brings up points that a thoughtful viewer will need to mull over later.  For example, a discussion regarding the Darwinism of massacres brings up disturbing questions about what massacres people choose to remember and why.  Is a massacre only worth remembering if it passes a numerical threshold of victims? Is not liking the victims of a massacre an excuse for forgetting their violent deaths?  Is remembering some massacres but not others an admission that the commission of a mass killing is not an aberration but an accepted part of human behavior? For that matter, these questions could also apply to American popular attitudes towards mass shootings.

If Marin’s arguments with Movila feel refreshing to at least this American viewer, it’s because it delivers something sadly missing in recent years from American public discourse.  The right-wing news media in particular has turned public debates into a weapon of social control. In this Mirror Universe version of public talk, only viewpoints that confirm the listeners’ prejudices get aired unchallenged while viewpoints that might spur a listener to rethink their beliefs get actively discredited.

By contrast, in Jude’s film, neither Marin nor Movila are out and out wrong for the views they hold.  A reasonable case can be made for each antagonist’s position. Their trouble with finding common ground may prevent this recreation from happening, though.

Marin’s friction with Movila is ultimately nothing compared to the entrenched Romanian beliefs she wants to challenge through her production.  The popular Sergiu Nicolaescu hagiographic film “The Mirror” paints Antonescu as a Romanian patriot who removed non-Romanians encroaching on the country’s lands.  The crowd at the recreation performance cheer on the arrival of the Nazi soldiers. Nor does this crowd shout a single catcall at a Bishop’s nauseatingly anti-Semitic blessing of the Romanian troops.

“I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians” is ultimately a tale of the struggle of stories to be heard.  The most obvious struggle pits the stories the Romanian people tell themselves about their history vs. a story willing to incorporate the unsavory facts about the country’s past.  It’s more socially acceptable to claim Romanians were victims of Nazi tyranny than to acknowledge their forefathers’ own complicity in killing 380,000 Jews. But having Iacob step out of character at the beginning and end of the film also raises questions about the film’s events. Does what Jude depict on screen reflect suspicions regarding the fate of such a production in real life?

Jude’s film offers no easy solutions to the question of using art to depict historical horrors.  The clips from “The Mirror” demonstrate the easy ability of (propagandistic) art to rationalize and even celebrate terrible human behavior.  Yet as Jude shows, it’s far more difficult to create art that’s also understood as unsparing criticism of the past. Had Marin taken more of a sledgehammer approach to her material, it’s likely even more of her extras would have refused to work on the project.

The film name checks such well-known figures as Hannah Arendt and Elie Wiesel as well as featuring photographs from the time of the massacre.  But Marin’s project never comes across as being self-important in Jude’s hands. In between handling the moving parts of finding costumes and getting prop military equipment, the director takes time to ride an electric scooter or relax with a smoke break.  The scenes in Marin’s bedroom, with its mix of playful sexuality and history, feels like a callback to mid-1960s Godard.

Jude breaks the film’s spell at the end by a call out to the actress playing Marin.  Yet the silent final image reminds the viewer that the challenge of honestly facing the legacy of Romania’s anti-Semitic ethnic cleansing still remains unmet.

***

The Pacific Film Archive write-up on Andrei Ujica’s found footage documentary “Out Of The Present” led this writer to slightly misinterpret the film.  Soviet Flight Engineer Sergei Krikalev’s unexpected extended stay on the Mir space station provides the film’s spine. Yet this film is not about Krikalev’s adjustment to a new reality on Earth.  In fact, the flight engineer turns out to be a minor character in the film.

In May 1991, the Soviet Union was still in existence when Krikalev began his Mir mission.  This particular mission became noteworthy for having researcher Helen Sharman as part of the crew.  Sharman would become both the first woman and the first British astronaut to live and work on Mir. But while Sharman’s portion of the mission was successfully completed, circumstances led to Krikalev’s staying on Mir for ten months.  By the time the flight engineer finally returned to Earth, the Soviet Union was no more.

How Krikalev handles his return to a politically changed world is dealt with only briefly in the film.  This approach makes sense if a viewer understands a consequence of astronaut training. Keeping calm and collected in the midst of unexpected situations is a practical prerequisite for becoming an astronaut.

The film shows instead how space exploration is a communal enterprise.  The legions of personnel seen needed to send a trio of people up into space and bring them safely back to Earth makes the astronauts these personnel support different from the rich people who’ve signed up for space tourist slots.  The tourists follow the master-servant dynamic, with the tourist being minimally interested at best in the details of the amount of work needed to get them into space. The astronauts, on the other hand, are partners in a living example of what ex-President Obama called the “you didn’t build it yourself” phenomenon.  These space explorers are well aware their efforts alone didn’t result in their reaching the heavens. It was a combination of what they did themselves plus the work of dozens of other technicians.

What the footage doesn’t always make clear is the sheer difficulty at times of working in space.  To the lay viewer, it may seem as if the concerns regarding ship angle and speed is glorified nitpicking.  But to the pilots, these concerns spell the difference between safely docking a ship and having a very damaging mid-space collision.  Seeing tools accidentally float away into the depths of space means accepting that the tool is lost forever. A more long distance image would show just how tiny the Mir station is compared to the vastness of the darkness surrounding it.

Compared to the footage of political unrest in the then-Soviet Union, seeing the astronauts have fun with liquids in their zero-gravity environment may appear frivolous.  Yet the footage of Earth as seen from space does not give any hint or clue of the political changes befalling the Soviet Union. It is as if such political upheavals were far less momentous than its participants believed given a sufficiently distant perspective.  Also, it could be said that it’s better to show the fun aspects of living and working in zero-g than to bring up concerns about the fragility of the astronauts’ artificial environment.

In the end, Ujica’s film shows in an odd way Krikalev didn’t truly miss anything during his extended absence from Earth.  The collapse of the Soviet Union didn’t stop its space program. It’s also hard to say that the government which replaced the old Communist system was in the long run much of an improvement.

***

How should a viewer regard Stere Gulea’s drama “The State Of Things?”  Is it an object lesson in the limits of revolutionary change? Or is it a jaundiced parable about standing up for truth in a corrupt society?

The film is structured as an extended flashback.  Central character Alberta Costineanu is lying on a hospital operating table.  Why she’s undergoing a medical procedure gets explained over the course of the film.

On the night of the Romanian Revolution, a romantic tryst between nurse Alberta and Dr. Andrei Secosan gets suddenly interrupted.   A wounded anti-Ceausescu protester has landed on Alberta’s doorstep in need of critical medical help. The duo’s frantic efforts to keep the protester alive eventually come to naught thanks to a secret police officer who ensures this member of the anti-Ceausescu forces doesn’t live another day.  When Ceausescu is toppled, Alberta decides in the post-revolution euphoria to see justice done for the murdered protester. But the nurse finds out the hard way some things haven’t changed despite the revolution’s occurrence.

Gulea ably captures the feelings of being suddenly thrust into the midst of revolutionary chaos.  From dodging roadblocks to obtain medical help to suddenly finding the TV station where you’ve sought refuge is under siege, there’s a sense of nothing being certain including the next moment of life.  Alberta for her part navigates the chaos well as this life and death environment isn’t that far removed from a particularly chaotic day at the hospital.

The film also does well capturing the “all things are possible” euphoria following the collapse of a hated government.  The long line of people at the TV station wanting to express on television their joy at Ceausescu’s fall creates the sense of a prelude to a more just age.

Perhaps that euphoria gives Alberta the confidence to publicly speak up about the protester’s murder and cover-up.  Or the nurse’s refusal to remain silent represents an attempt to atone for her weakness in participating in the cover-up of the protester’s death.

Whichever reason motivates Alberta’s actions, their common characteristic is their romantic naivete.  The corrupt police officers and others who thrived during Ceausescu’s reign weren’t about to wither and die with the dictator’s fall.  Like particularly persistent weeds, such officials found new ways to survive in this suddenly politically changed environment. If Alberta thought the protester’s killer feared facing accountability for his crimes, she gets painfully shown the error of her beliefs.

Gulea’s film doesn’t revel in the misfortunes befalling Alberta.  Instead, there’s a feeling of tragic sadness in seeing her slowly discover just how far less just the world turns out to be…even after supposed revolutionary change.

(“I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians” screens at 7:00 PM on February 27, 2020 at the Pacific Film Archive (2155 Center Street, Berkeley).  For further information about the film and others in the series as well as ticket ordering information, go to https://bampfa.org .)

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