Wednesday, September 7, 2011

How can Andre Ujică’s THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF NICOLAE CEAUCESCU be so damned interesting?

And I mean "interesting" (in the headline above) not to a Romanian -- for whom the movie of course would hold a fascination -- but to a reasonably intelligent American, one who knows only a bit of Romanian history but hardly enough, even, to follow closely what is going on in this very unusual movie. And yet follow it he does, in wonderment and awe. This must have something to do, he thinks, with power: How it "graces" those who hold it with seemingly unlimited ability to do the most horrible, stupid things and then act like these things constitute something totally "other" than what they actually are.

That anyway, is one explanation for the reign of Nicolae Ceaucescu, the little dictator of Romania for 24 years and also for the "hold" that this movie about him may exert on viewers who choose to see this three-hour film that offers no narration, simply "found" footage and appropriate musical accompaniment from the archives of various events in the life of the dictator, his wife Elena (both are shown above, in winter sleigh attire) and their country during this increasingly stressful, down-sliding period.

To create his film in this odd manner was the choice of filmmaker Andre Ujică, shown at left, and a brave one it is. TrustMovies tackled Ujică’s opus via screener, parsing it out to himself in three sections of one hour each over three days. He can't say how he might have fared had he viewed it in a theater for three uninterrupted hours, but each passing hour left him eager to get back to this strange tale, which initially shows (after the opening episode that gives us Nicolae's and Elena's downfall) the man as almost a normal-seeming, Soviet-type apparatchik (only shorter of stature and with a bit of a liberal bent), until power (what else could it have been?) corrupted him absolutely.

The film is full of fascinating moments in time: pomp and ceremony, Romanian style; a visit from Charles De Gaulle; Czech Spring, about which the little premiere gives conflicting signals (as I interpret them, at least); his visit to Mao -- yow! (see below) and an embarrassing moment in U.S. history as President Jimmy Carter welcomes him -- with a marquee advertising Deep Throat prominent in the background! No dates are given so we must rely on popular culture, fashion and faces to fill us in, time-wise.

In the middle of all the pomp, there is a horrible flood (kind of reminds you of Bush and Katrina), then a scene of urban devastation (from a bomb? what?); then a funeral (whose? family? his mother?) followed by a hugely creepy scene of bear hunting. Finally, a living human being demurs aloud about our great premier but is shouted down. NC is promptly re-elected and what follows is a grand parade in China that rivals in scope and use of people the most lavish of Hollywood epics. And then the hair grays, the visage begins to crack and age.

Unrest, when it happens, happens fast, and we are back at the beginning as the husband and wife, arrested, argue and then refuse to answer. We've lived through one hell of an "autobio-graphy" -- a well-chosen word and title for the film, because it is made up entirely of official cinematography. Unlike any other docu-mentary I have seen, this one gets at truth via official hypocrisy (yup, that's Nixon, below) and calculated overkill and yet remains somehow un-ironic on one level and bursting with irony on another.

Shown at various festivals and as part of the new Romanian cinema last year, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu is a film I had despaired of ever obtaining a theatrical release. Now, thanks to a new distributor, The Film Desk, the documentary will be released this Friday, September 9, opening at the Elinor Bunin Munro at Lincoln Center, followed by a nationwide release in select cities.

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