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June 30, 2022

Romanian cinema in the loop

Another vision of anti-communism

Two decades after the fall of communism, Romanian cinema cannot boast with many approaches of the previous historic epoch. If the movies with “fascists,” far-rightists and brutal Nazis were the cornerstone of communist propaganda in the past, the film producers of today were not very tempted by “denouncing” approaches, because of various reasons. First, the equivalent of yesterday’s propaganda movie has these days turned into a film with an ideological background, in the context of democratic globalisation. Usually leftist, this new kind of cinema promotes multiculturalism, feminism, the rights of minorities, the liberalisation of morals, often using a classic scheme of compromising the target of its blame (values/trends/events), seeking to increase the empathy of the public by refusing “unacceptable,” degrading or plainly foul situations (domestic violence, ethnic cleansing, ritual mutilation of women, marginalisation of homosexuals). But the communist era is rather incompatible with such an approach, as it was the case with the fatal consequences of abortion in Ceausescu’s times, in Cristian Mungiu’s ‘4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days’ – a theme that can be integrated in the present trends, reflecting the ideology of individual rights. It was also Mungiu who approached the communism in his later works (‘Tales from the Golden Age’), turning it into folklore, thus making it more palatable for the Western public that prefers a criticism of manners (via an anecdotic approach) to a criticism of principles, which would imply a domino of responsibilities and guilt. Though still active in the Romanian public life, the so-called ‘denouncing of the communism’ is just commonplace political rhetoric, without moral implications. In the history of filmmaking, the few attempts of this kind easily turned into a cartoony rendition of atmosphere and moral portraits. Constantin Popescu’s “Portrait of the Fighter as a Young Man” is unique in this context. Apart from a few brief and “marginal” dialogues (the film’s structure does not feature dramatic intensity changes and rather suggests the daily “banality” of the chase), it has no ideological discourse. The group of young partisans is portrayed in a rather Robin Hood-esque light, with a military strategy: re-supplying, avoiding ambushes, extreme mobility, hit-and-run tactics, and permanent retreat. The purpose, too, is military: proving the resistance of an anti-communist “army.” There is no political indoctrination, no Christian ritual (specific to the far-right Romanian movement – The Legion – that formed the bulk of the resistance). In order to avoid going to political extremes, the director chose a counterpoint. The images of a short movie captured by the communist secret Police – the ‘Securitate’ – and provided as a documentation material give a completely different idea than that of the fighting: the young partisans are relaxed, make jokes, swim in a lake and have fun. It is the image of a missed youth, absorbed by the drop in a time of “war,” still marked by a salutary vitality. The only love scene takes places in low light, like in an inset of the soul. To prevent any accusation of bias, the director brings elements of moral antagonism: certain sadism of killing, openness to betrayal, irresponsible stubbornness. But the images are generally positive, from solidarity between comrades to the care for people in the vicinity (occasional tourists, supporting people, relatives, potential comrades), from manly self-control to the courage of freedom. On the other side of the barricade, the communist law enforcement officers are not just hollow shells. From the half-learned ideologist (played by a Mihai Constantin that is slightly unconvincing for his elocution) of repression to the sadistic torturer (admirably played by Razvan Vasilescu), from the “day-to-day banality of evil” embodied by a civil servant (a correct, yet unenthusiastic Mimi Branescu) to the brutality of field officers, the panorama of the regime’s criminal coercion is granted a realistic portrayal. All in all, the big problem of conscience related to depicting the communist era is the credibility of representing the repression (even if it’s just a mental one). Constantin Popescu took the risk and ranged within the particular trend of history movies that are trying to recover any form of heroism, with emphasis on marginal cases. If this is the wide framework (a humanism of moral resistance against totalitarianism), in Romania the film made itself a name through the controversial theme of collective memory. The communist regime implied a moral stance, even though largely ambiguous. The film will be granted a reception that will depend, above all, on its sensitivity towards the drama of moral choices in exceptional conditions. In terms of aesthetics, the movie directed by Constantin Popescu attracts through the contrast between its natural landscapes (forests, crops, mountain tops) and the unnatural condition of human beings (fugitives, chased, always under pressure). Images are bright, suggesting a lost Paradise, still protective but tragically vulnerable. Such a perspective becomes metaphor, though the film is far from any aesthetic of the symbol.

Portrait of the Fighter as a Young Man (Portretul luptatorului la tinerete) (Romania 2010)

Directed by: Constantin Popescu Jr.

With: Alexandru Potocean,Mihai Constantin, Constantin Dita, Constantin Lupescu

Opens nationwide as of October

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