Friday, October 8, 2010

NYFF Review #2: The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu

In covering the NY Film Festival, I just couldn't do a review a day. Much less two reviews. This is not how I roll.

So I've decided to review the 2010 New York Film Festival as such:

My first day, I wandered into the Walter Reade Theater, not knowing what to expect. I'm seriously hurting for money, so my therapist thought I should come equipped with cards and resumes. But I've arrived with neither, and don't expect to be passing out either during my time here. It's just too weird, to be searching for a job in a place where people expect you to have one. So I keep to myself. The others here at the festival, they seem like they are of another Earth. And they don't bother getting to know me, so I'm safe.

And, in this spirit, my first film of the the 2010 NYFF is called The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu. I went in knowing only a few things about Ceauşescu: (1) he was the "dictator" of Romania from 1964 to 1989; (2) he squandered the country's money on a ridiculous, ego-boosting building project; (3) he and his wife, looking like your unsuspecting grandparents, were executed by his one-time public upon the fall of Communism.

Given this, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu strikes me as a film about evil not knowing that it's evil. At least media-wise, Ceauşescu was forward-thinking: he made sure his filmmaking team was running at least an hour of every day he was in power. On many days, they were powered up five times that. But they were only recording that which he demanded they record. As a result, filmmaker Andrei Ujica has at his disposal, in the construction of this remarkable movie, thousands of hours of footage to pick through. Via choice and circumstance, he narrowed his overlook down to 240 hours of footage (all keenly shot, even including Ceauşescu's private hunting expeditions). From Ujica's notating eye, we get this portrait of a man who didn't bother to notice his steady slide into darkness.

The black-and-white footage, from behind the Comintern, shows Ceauşescu thinking he's doing a good thing for his people. He's freeing them from bondage. And, most importantly, he's making sure they are fed. From here, he goes on a road trip, on a tour through markets, sampling the breads and the meats available now to the Romanians. And, yeah, see how great I am? You can buy and eat this shit! (That is, until things got really bad, and the loaves of bread and the sides of meat were made of plastic, all for the camera to capture.)

But, later, when color bleeds into the scene, politics get into the mix. And after he visits China, and Mao, you start to notice a lot more portraits of Ceauşescu plastered up all over the place. Always a bad sign. Political rule #1: If you need to put your mug all over your country, then you're a dictator.

One of the biggest laughs I got at the 2010 NYFF was the phony-fied image of a Romanian parade, circa 1970 or so, highlighting the Romanian athletes soon to be displaying their wares at the Olympics. In this parade: a moving boxing ring, a moving volleyball court, each inching their way down the parade route. Ridiculous. Outlandish. One of the best laughs I've gotten from 2010 movies came from The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu.

Andrei Ujica, who's done two other films about Ceauşescu (CHOW-chess-cue, as I learned) before this one, has some feeling for his subject. The elderly Ceauşescu and his wife, Elena, are seen at the beginning and the end, mama and papa, basically pleading for their lives. And though we don't see their deaths (no one did; they occurred so quickly that even cameras couldn't capture them), we can feel the filmmakers' sideways remorse at their speedy trial (though he knows they're just, especially after the dictator ordered his armies to fire upon his protesting people). Interestingly, though, the film seems to be slightly as much an apologia as a damnation. Those of us not in the know--those of us not Romanian--have no idea, from only this film, why the man and his wife were dispatched so ignominiously. But we can get a good notion from the pointless 80-foot-high ceilinged palaces built on countless acres of land while regular Romanians were lucky to find a crust of bread. But, still, is justice done?

And is this an "autobiography?" Not a minute of this footage--and there's three hours of it here--failed being rubber stamped by the Ceauşescu camp (and this includes his meeting with Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, too). So maybe this is a filmed memoir. Yeah, the Romanian president didn't have the final cut, but The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu is the truest kind of document: one that's been, by image only, given the okay, and with all good things included, by its maker, and almost all good things included by the editor (the film nearly approaches travelogue territory). The only problem is, though he was surrounded by luxury, one extravagance this film's cherished and dirtied subject never could afford was the will to suss out who he was, really, in the larger scheme of the world. And I'm certain all the filming failed to help.

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