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You will write “I will not post graffiti” in Romanian four thousand times on the wall.

(2020) Drama (Big World) Serban Lazarovici, Nicolae Ceausescu, Bogdan Zamfir, Ioana Iacob, Serban Pavlu, Alexandru Porocean, Silvian Vâlcu, Constantin Dogioiu, Doru Catanescu. Directed by Radu Jude

 

These days, the left rails against authoritarianism around the globe and frets that it is coming to the United States. The right often pooh-poohs such notions and, in some cases, embraces authoritarian leaders such as Viktor Orban or Vladimir Putin. But nobody really discusses what life in an authoritarian state looks like, and the consequences of such on individuals who live in them.

Romania in the 1980s under communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was such a state. In October 1981 in the city of Botosani, chalked statements calling for free trade unions such as the then-nascent Solidarity union that was rising in Poland, and expressing frustration at the scarcity of food and services for the general public began to appear on the walls of the Communist party headquarters and other government buildings around the city.

The Romanian secret police, the Securitate, went to work immediately, mobilizing an army of informants and agents to discover who was behind what they considered terrorist acts. The culprit was caught within a few weeks and turned out to be a 17-year-old high school student named Mugur Calinescu (Lazarovici). The boy was interrogated and eventually released without being jailed, but the consequences against him and his family were appalling.

Jude based the movie on a stage play by Gianina Carbunariu, what she called a “documentary play” (she also co-wrote the screenplay along with Jude). The dialogue was taken directly from the testimony and reports that was recorded by the Securitate around the incident. Actors playing various Securitate agents read their reports against stylized stage-like backgrounds, lit by bright and garish lights, with gigantic television screens, tape recorders and the symbol of the Securitate in the background. Interspersed with the testimony are excerpts from Romanian state television of the period, showing the propaganda that depicted Romania as a happy, prosperous place even though those making the television programs knew it wasn’t so (their fixed smiles betray them) and of course the people watching them knew better as well.

This results in an innovative and interesting narrative, but despite the subject matter, this is not a story of a brave young man standing up so much as it is about how easily those in an authoritarian nation turn on one another. The film continues through the suspicious death of Calinescu just four years later, apparently from leukemia, at the age of 21 (it wasn’t uncommon for the secret police to expose Romanian citizens to lethal radioactive isotopes in order to silence them without appearing to murder them, although it was, of course, the kind of state-sanctioned murder that continues in Putin’s Russia even now). The final act jumps ahead to modern days, where the unrepentant agents of the Securitate insist they worked for the good of the state and that they never harmed anyone.

The film takes an awful long time to get going, although as it continues through the saga the movie gets more and more intense. Jude might have benefitted from a judicious hand in the editing bay, perhaps cutting down on some of the testimony (and accompanying cheesy television clips) and tightened the storytelling just a hair.

What we’re left with is a chilling look at life in an authoritarian state, and the movie does end with a gut punch – monochromatic photos of the real Mugur and the chalk graffiti he left, which look terribly innocent by any standards, but especially given the tragic consequences those chalk writings created.

REASONS TO SEE: A unique method of telling the story. Somewhat surreal, although it may not be quite so much to those who lived in Romania at the time.
REASONS TO AVOID: The pacing is a bit slow for a two-hour movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
=TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival, one of two films Jude debuted there that year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 01/23/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews; Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: V for Vendetta
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Laureate

Life Feels Good (Chce sie zyc)


Inside me is the universe.

(2013) Drama (Under the Milky Way) Dawid Ogrodnik, Dorota Kolak, Arkadiusz Jakubik, Helena Sujecka, Mikolaj Roznerski, Kamil Tkacz, Tymoteusz Marciniak, Anna Nehrebecka, Katarzyna Zawadzka, Anna Karczmarczyk, Agnieszka Kotlarska, Janusz Chabior, Gabriela Muskala, Lech Dyblik, Izabela Dabrowska, Marek Kalita, Witold Wielinski, Teresa Iwko. Directed by Maciej Pieprzyca

 

A young man intones, quite seriously as young men will, that “tits and stars are two of God’s greatest inventions.” Although I know of few young men who would disagree, the man uttering this bit of wisdom is about as extraordinary as he gets.

Young Mateusz (Tkacz) is diagnosed by an officious state doctor (Muskala) as mentally retarded and little more than a vegetable. “You’ll never be able to communicate with him,” she bluntly tells the boy’s frazzled mother (Kolak) and whimsical but loving father (Arkadiusz), “You must learn to accept this.” She recommends putting him in a state facility where he can be cared for properly, but his parents won’t hear of it Dad, a day laborer who has a tendency to put off home projects in order to go out drinking, talks to his son as if his son can understand what he’s saying and shows him how to build things. What nobody realizes is that Mateusz understands every word being said to him.

His father dies young and it is left to his mother, his indifferent sister (Sujecka) and his younger brother (Roznerski) who joins the Polish navy, while the sister gets married and criticizes her mother for dealing with Mateusz so long. Eventually his mom realizes she is no longer physically capable of caring for her son and reluctantly has him sent to a state facility where he’ll be treated as a vegetable.

Now a young man (Ogrodnik), Mateusz is in the process of discovering girls – in particular neighbor Anka (Karczmarczyk) whose stepfather is abusive. Frustrated and unable to do anything about the violence he sees through the window, he manages to figure out a way to get the stepdad out of the way but as Mateusz ruefully notes in a voiceover narration (a very clever device the way it is used here), things don’t work out as Mateusz hoped as Anka and her mother move away.

Still, Mateusz is a handsome young man and he eventually finds another girlfriend – a pretty young aide (Zawadzka) who allows Mateusz to delve into more sexual exploration than he ever has. However, it turns out that she has an agenda of her own and soon Mateusz is alone again, visited only by his mother. Will he ever be able to communicate with the outside world? It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal the answer to that.

Movies like this are often disdained as manipulative tearjerkers, but this one has much more going for it than merely an emotional wallop. For one thing, it’s beautifully shot – the vistas of Poland’s countryside and villages are made pure magic by cinematographer Pawel Dyllus. For another thing, the score is far from maudlin and beautifully underscores the scenes and scenery – you can thank Bartosz Chajdecki for that.

Best of all it has an astounding performance by Ogrodnik who is perfectly healthy although his noises and movements are very realistic for someone who has cerebral palsy (as the real Mateusz actually wound up having). Much of his acting must come from his eyes as his twisted limbs don’t always communicate much, although his facial expressions sometimes reminded me of silent movie actors.

He is well-supported by those who play his mother and father, as well as the redoubtable Anka who has a moment when the two touch fingers beneath a closed door which is all the goodbye the two lovers will get. The scene in which Mateusz communicates with his mother for the first time in his life is absolutely beautiful and any mother of a disabled son will appreciate it, not to mention any moviegoer with any sort of empathy. Believe me, tears will flow.

Poland has been a source for great movies for decades now, and this one is yet another one to add to the list. For my money, it’s likely the best Polish movie to hit these shores since Ida and while it is only getting a direct to VOD release here, it’s one any good cinema buff worth their salt should seek out forthwith.

REASONS TO GO: This may be the best film to come out of Poland since Ida. Tremendous performances abound, particularly from Ogrodnik, Kolak and Zawadzka. The film is beautifully shot.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s a little bit long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is nudity and sexual content as well as some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McCarthy’s husband Ben Falcone was attached to the movie before she was. When Julianne Moore who was originally cast as Lee Israel backed out over creative differences, Falcone recommended his wife for the role.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Left Foot
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
3100: Run and Become