Romanian film review – Monumental: The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu

I have been writing about documentarist Andrei Ujică times and times again, especially in connection with Videogramme einer Revolution/Videograms of a Revolution (1992), an impressive attempt to suggest a chronology of the Romanian Revolution by using archive video material. His subsequent effort, Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu (2010), works with a similar set-up and achieves sheer brilliance.

The ever-reliable Union cinema (Cinemateca Union, 21 Ion-Câmpineanu St.) is screening the film on Wednesdays at 6.30 pm and in case you’ve missed it, here’s your chance to watch one of best films of the decade. And if you have, watch it again because this film is best seen on a big screen. The best word to describe it is mind-blowing, and that is no exaggeration.

Ujică used more than 1,000 hours of footage from the National Archives to paint a hallucinating portrait of dictatorial monomania. Covering almost 25 years, the documentary shows his rise to power, his increasing delusion of grandeur and his ultimate fall. Many scenes show Ceaușescu speaking publicly, on state visits, and on holidays with his family, as well as a participant in absurd scenes of public veneration. Some of these scenes are jaw-dropping, like the ones where he visits North Korea and assists a public feast for Kim Il Sung (“mega“ would be an understatement in this case) and some are extremely funny and not seldom candid, especially when we watch him spend time with his family. There are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments in the films, and not just out of sheer incredulity, just as there are so many scenes that make your blood run cold.

Ujică relies solely on the visual archive material, there are no explanatory titles, no commentary, no hints. The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu demands a lot from the audience, starting with some knowledge of Romanian history, the willingness to work through the scenes that are never explained and most of all to sit through more than three hours of archive material and put together the public biography of a man as seen mostly through images and actions orchestrated by himself, his close companions, and his party (hence the brilliance of the film’s title). But for those willing to do so, the experience is unforgettable and transfixing.

Ujică’s greatest achievement is to let the images speak for themselves and involving the audience in the process of analysing, re-analysing and interpreting the images. While his impressively precise editing is the best commentary on them, connecting or dis-connecting scenes in an often surprising way, the pictures here quite often speak for themselves. The result is an unflinching critique not only of a megalomaniac abusing his power, but also of a country and an entire world playing along and enabling a man’s (ultimately human) weakness cause immense damage. Furthermore, Ceaușescu’s myth as a tyrannical leader is undercut in extreme ways without belittling the evil he caused. If an entire nation’s destiny is ruled by a character as silly and grotesque like Ceaușescu as shown in this footage, then history and its political course are ironic beyond words. And utterly devastating.

By Ioana Moldovan, columnist, [email protected]

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