Nae Caranfil is the most interesting comedy producer of the post-1989 Romanian cinematography. In the tradition of the old `commedia all`italiana`, which granted a comic approach to a dramatic theme, Caranfil succeeded in speaking with humour about the boring provincial life during communism, the ambiguous dream of emigrating to the West, the inventive mafia of philanthropy. A master of subtle satire, garnished with an ounce of metaphysical melancholy, because the heroes of his comedies are irremediably condemned to fail out of too much candour (and a not unequivocal one). `Par delicatesse j`ai perdu ma vie`, in the words of Rimbaud.
Caught by the fever of historic reenactments, capable to surpass the record of the most expensive production in the history of Romanian cinema (‘Restul e tacere,’ dedicated to the first feature film made in Romania in 1911), now his latest movie is not faithful to the old ‘Caranfil brand.’
`Closer to the moon` is a fictional retelling of a judiciary chronicle event that occurred in the late ‘50s, in the peak time of Romanian Stalinism. A gang robbed in plain sight a truck of the National Bank, running away with a fabulous sum for those years. When apprehended, before being executed, the gang members played their own roles in a propaganda movie. What really surprised was composition of the gang: all of them were privileged collaborators of the new regime. And all Jews. The episode also sparked the interest of a Romanian producer of documentaries, Alexandru Solomon, who reopened – based on the images of the ‘reconstruction’ made in the past – the debate about the obscure motivations of such an apparently absurd act. But if ‘the great communist robbery’ is a sober interrogation, `Closer to the moon` has all the ingredients of a typical Hollywood-made historic caricature: the bad guys are sadistic, brutal or hysterical (like the Germans in so many war movies), while the good guys are an example of humanity, humour, empathy and sacrifice.
Even though the Romanian comedy producer would only want to make a parody of a certain aesthetic with commercial success, irony is so subtle that is passes unnoticed. But there is something else that can be noticed: the thugs are funny, and not for their provocative `Bonnie and Clyde`-like boldness of amoral gangsters, motivated by the pride of living beyond the law, but through their idealism. Caranfil’s ‘good’ guys are ex-partisans who fought Hitler’s troops and struggled for ideals of social justice, taking upon themselves the responsibilities of building a better world. And when the paradise they dreamed of turned into hell, they revolted, gave up pragmatism and sacrificed themselves only for the sake of a nonconformist gesture meant to restore their dignity of free people. Historically speaking, however, this naive idealism is very debatable. Let’s place the film in the context of still actual polemics about communist responsibilities. There still exist people who, for having snitched in the past, can see their post-communist careers damaged, even shattered now, if CNSAS unveils their occult past. The problem of responsibilities is still open and generates multiple confusions. The snitch is an odious person in principle, but snitches were only the screws of a much larger mechanism.
Let’s take a film character, for instance: the chief-investigator of the case receives the operator of the propaganda movie in pyjama, in order to recruit him as informant, comfortably living in the fancy house that had belonged to the gang boss, who had been an important chief of communist Militia in the past. The message is clear: ‘the bad guys’ put ‘the good guys’ in prison and stole their homes. But if we push historical arguments even farther, we realise that ‘the good guy” was himself one of ‘the bad guys’ in the past and the homes like this were stolen by the regime from others, who probably were in turn sent to jail, camp or in front of the firing squad. And who probably had committed no crime or murder, except for being wealthier, more democratic or more bourgeois. And could have been Jews themselves.
Unfortunately, Caranfil’s film will increase the confusion over an issue that has not been approached `sine ira et studio` by Romanian historiography. Until now, staunch anti-Semitics supported the thesis of ‘Jews having brought communism to Romania,’ while their opponents limited themselves to denunciating the anti-Semitism that soared in the regime of Gheorghiu-Dej, turning communist Jews into victims of party anti-Semitism. As a matter of fact, Caranfil shares this second option, because one of the reasons why his heroes suddenly become robbers is that they start seeing their careers compromised.
The competition that existing among Romanian communists should not surprise. Same as the other communist parties of pro-Soviet countries, PCR functioned without tolerating rival factions. The model was Stalinist, with continuous ‘cleansing’ in a terrorist climate, resulting in countless victims. Some Jewish communists were eliminated, others just marginalised in the context of renewed anti-Semitism and also of denouncing the new strategic ally of the USA, Israel. As always, history is complicate and its ball of thread hard to follow. What matters most is the moral judgment. In his book ‘Jews for sale,’ Radu Ioanid recollects the collaboration of the new Israeli state with the communist Securitate, in order to negotiate the emigration of Romanian Jews. At the beginning, the payment was made under the form of technological help, so there were chicken, turkey, pig and livestock farms built by Israelis and administered by the Securitate. Any form of diplomacy can have its legitimacy, and Israelis were the adepts of a pragmatic Realpolitik. But in post-communist Romania accusations were launched for as little as having worked in certain institutions of foreign trade, in diplomacy or press, for being a professor of Marxist philosophy or a prosecutor. ‘Collaborationism’ has thousands of faces in a totalitarian regime. And we generally judge emotionally, without real ethical criteria: either we are too lenient, or we hastily make drastic accusations. And some use the political game in a shrewd way, accusing some of ‘collaborationism’ and whitening others who are much more guilty.
But who were the robbers? Alexandru Ioanid (born Leibovici – the investigator in the movie is ironical about all those who changed their names) had been the chief of the Judiciary Department of the Militia, with the rank of Colonel. His brother Paul Ioanid, an expert in aeronautics, had participated in the Soviet space programme as a professor of ballistics and head of seat at the Military Academy. Sasha Musat (born Glanzstein) was pro-dean and party secretary at the Faculty of History of the Bucharest University, after being a spy in the West. Igor Sevianu (born Herscovici) head been head of Service at the National Tourism Office, after being a lieutenant with the Militia. Monica Sevianu worked in the foreign countries department of the Radio. Harry Obedeanu (born Lazarovici), a former journalist with `Scanteia`, the newspaper of the party and then a professor with the Superior Party School, also an ex-officer of the Ministry of Interior. They all had occupied key jobs in the regime: repression, propaganda, relations with foreign countries.
How did Colonel Ioanid behave with those he had investigated (often for imaginary responsibilities)? What was he thinking about the torture used on suspects? What was his opinion about the simulacra of trials based on statements obtained using torture? Did he think of the future fate of convicts or their families? What kind of articles did journalist Obedeanu write? How much truth was contained by his journalism with the main propaganda instrument of the era? What image about the ‘communist heaven’ could present on the radio Monica Sevianu for her foreign audience?
Nae Caranfil’s movie actually is detrimental to the correct understanding of those years, trying to transform into idealistic heroes some people who never repented for their activism at the peak of Romanian Stalinism. Even if they stole the money to finance the emigration of other Jews to Israel (a hypothesis that requires a serious demonstration in order to become credible), the accounts of their own consciences with the past could not be solved through such a spectacular, but very ambiguous act. Though it claims being a fiction freely inspired by reality (the kind of Benigni’s film `La vita e bella`), `Closer to the moon` implicitly mystifies the very complex history of a community like the Jewish one, which gave both tormentors and victims after 1945: some were communists in power, others were incarcerated as capitalist bourgeois, some were anti-communists while other were the regime’s profiteers, some stayed and other emigrated. A history that is still waiting for its true historians, capable to shed light on this maze of intricate and often contradictory lives.