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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
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The Laureate