A compilation documentary of Communist kitsch and 30+ years of immersive Romanian history.

The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu

on August 30, 2011 by Vadim Rizov
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Essential contextual viewing for fans of the recent Romanian New Wave, Andrei Ujica's The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu is the closing document in his trilogy on the end of Eastern bloc communism, following 1992's Videorgrams of a Revolution and 1995's Out of the Present. Revolution reexamined 1989's bloody changeover and Out of the Present focused on a Soviet astronaut stuck on MIR while the USSR was dissolving. Ceasescu is much bigger picture, cut down from over 1000 hours of video recordings of the Romanian dictator, beginning with his 1965 rise to power and ending around the 1989's coup. It's an immersive, deliberately myopic portrait. Commercial prospects for a three-hour assemblage of state visits, press conferences and speeches are a hard sell to crowds beyond doc lovers and news hounds, however, selling to Romanian film fans (admirers of films like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 12:08 East of Bucharest), is a wise bet, as that passionate community of film buffs should see this documentary if at all possible.

A firm grasp of Ceausescu's career (or vigorous Wikipedia perusal before viewing) is essential: Ujica provides no narration, identifying captions or time markers. Nor does he go in strictly linear order, something that only becomes obvious a little more than halfway through, when we return to a state visit from earlier in the film. The shift from black and white to color provides some contextual clues, but viewers will need a firm grasp of geopolitical history not to get lost.

The title's no joke: the film presents Ceausescu as he presented himself to the world and wanted to be remembered. There's no mention of the staggering debts Ceausescu incurred in the '80s, or the country's food shortages (implicitly alluded to in footage of an otherwise bare grocery store being stocked with ingredients specially for his visit). Until the end (grubby video footage of the deposed Ceaucescu's fruitlessly interrogated), this is strictly Ceausescu's official legacy: long press conferences raving about the importance of proper Marxist-Leninist study, visits from world leaders (de Gaulle, Nixon, Gorbachev) and visiting other countries as an honored guest (Queen Elizabeth, Universal Studios and Kim Il Sung all have cameos).

Ujica provides long, generous snippets that go on uninterrupted for ten minutes at a time: those with no prior interest in the subject may find the film deadly. Those interested in how Romania got where it is today, though, will be fascinated. The approach immerses viewers in the texture of Communist pageantry in real time. In much the same way contemporary Romanian cinema privileges the uninterrupted master take for maximum exposure of charmless buildings, fluorescent lighting and the rest of the decaying infrastructure of post-Communist Romania, Ujica shows how the country got there through one man: one long speech and ineffectual piece of rhetoric at a time.

Early on, Ceausescu looks like a young David Lynch, all black suits and poofy hair. That inadvertent surrealism suffuses a lot of the film, which is a treasure trove for anyone who ever wanted to, say, see Ceausescu play volleyball (very badly) or hear Nixon speaking Romanian. Nonetheless, Ceausescu is very serious business: its opening portrait of the death of Gheorghe Gheorgiu-Dej, Ceaucescu's predecessor, does a remarkable job of combining footage of overwhelming, mournful crowds with remarkably plausible ambient sound.

The only form of overt editorial comment Ujica allows himself, indeed, is occasionally cutting out sound entirely, drawing attention to the hollowness of the propagandistic footage. Everything else is done with juxtaposition (with particular attention drawn to parallels between Ceausescu's increasingly specious rhetoric and North Korea's spectacular but laughable ceremonies). What results is overwhelming in scale, but consistent as a whole: this is what nearly 35 years of power looked like, but only if you weren't paying close enough attention.

Contact: Bobby Gaunescu, bobby@mandragora.ro
Director/Screenwriter: Andrei Ujica
Producer: Velvet Moraru
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 180 min
Release date: TBD

 

Tags: Andrei Ujica, Velvet Moraru
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