Romanian film review – Better than in the movies: Chuck Norris vs. Communism

Trying to catch a film on TV at a decent hour is often impossible. Why Romanian stations prefer to air good movies after only after 10 pm beats me; I assume it has something to do with ratings. Either no one would watch a whole film at a time when they would gobble up talk and reality shows or series, or the stations simply don’t trust their audience. Either way, it often makes me want to give up on TV altogether.

HBO is one of the few exceptions and given that its whole schedule is made up of films, it’s natural, but its undeniable achievement lies in its ongoing commitment to the documentary genre. Being one of the main producers of documentaries (you could google all recent Romanian docs and chances are HBO has produced more than half of them), it’s also natural that the pictures will be aired and included in the station’s video-on-demand selection. One of its most recent productions, Chuck Norris vs. Communism, will be screened this Thursday (8 pm), Saturday (11.05 am) and Saturday (4.45 pm) and you should save the dates.

Chuck Norris vs. Communism is based on a true story, a spectacular, life-beats-movies kind of tale. It’s actually a miracle it hasn’t been dramatised before so kudos to director Ilinca Călugăreanu for finally getting the job done. In the mid and late 1980s, thousands of VHS tapes with mostly Hollywood films were smuggled into the country from Hungary by Teodor Zamfir. In need of a fast and reliable translator, he approached a young woman working at the national television’s censorship office, Irina Margareta Nistor. Nistor accepted the risky task, dubbing all characters and her pleasant, high-pitched, unmistakable voice became a phenomenon in a time when the black market for bootleg tapes exploded and almost everyone was watching the forbidden ‘imperialist’ movies, which were mostly genre and B pictures, actions flicks and romances. The myth of the woman behind the voice was born. When one character says Nistor has the most recognizable voice in Romania after Ceaușescu‘s, it’s no exaggeration.

There are a lot of talking heads in this film and most of them are moving to watch as they remember the films and the effect they and Nistor’s voice had on their lives. However, the film suffers from being repetitive, both visually and narratively, and Călugăreanu can‘t avoid beginners’ mistakes, from the reliance of style over substance in many takes or the urge to make the documentary more thrilling by adopting the look and mood of the discussed films, re-enacting Nistor and Zamfir‘s activity in spy film aesthetics. These flaws are easy to forgive though thanks to the interviewees’ genuine emotion and the hilarious film excerpts with Nistor’s legendary dubbing. The audience in the cinema was roaring with laughter anytime Jean-Claude Van Damme’s fight acrobatics or some hair-raising macho Chuck Norris scene came along. The parts about Nistor’s veiled translation of curse words or sex talk is also particularly funny, not only from a linguistic point of view, just as her tendency to use a bit of a poetic license, infusing some characters with more feeling by adding words to the original conversation.

As much as I enjoyed the film and its breezy fun, I was also disappointed by its simplistic approach. Chuck Norris vs. Communism is not a research film but mostly an homage to Irina Nistor, contributing to the mythologisation of her and Zamfir’s actions. With such a meaty story, it would have been great to tackle some more uncomfortable questions or show a different angle to all the onscreen reverence. Instead, it chooses a safe and comfortable position of merely relating facts most of us know, relying heavily on emotions and nostalgia. While these are valid aspects in this particular story, they should not be a documentarian’s sole interest. The final conclusion that these films played a major role in the Romanian revolution, making people realise what they had been deprived of and leading them to rebel, also made me cringe. If only things were so simple.

Still, the film is a must-see for everyone interested in cinema and especially for the ones who lived or grew up with Nistor’s voice and for whom Jean-Claude Van Damme will never ‘just’ be Jean-Claude Van Damme.

By Ioana Moldovan, columnist