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January 27, 2023

When Justice devours its offspring

Cluttered, monotone and dull blocks as alienating background. Interiors with a frowsty atmosphere, shuttling between immobilism and smouldering violence. Characters slowly devoured by the surrounding nothingness. Often mere phantasmatic existences. Common, repetitive gestures, reduced to a minimum. Everything preferentially rendered through lingering fixed frames. In brief, this is the aesthetics of the ‘new wave’ in Romanian cinema. While their manifesto was a radical criticism of current affairs, by associating the cross section of an abyssal ‘mal de vivre’ with decoupages from an dehumanising social reality, because of a persisting ambition to sketch metaphysical parables, these directors have been tempted to neglect the concrete dialectics of daily life. To them, the choice of a realism emphasised down to stridence, with serious symbolic claims, means a cleansing of perspective. The consequence is that concrete references to political contexts, for instance, are programmatically absent. The local political film is one of the most neglected of the current epoch. The genre experienced a discreet flourishing in the 1990s, with a majority of such movies primarily exploring people’s suspicion about the mechanisms of the new democracy and mainly preferring a conspirative hermeneutics: an occult centre of power corrupts and manipulates reality. The perspective is not a specifically local one, as it was consistent with the tradition of films on authoritarian temptations and derailments of power in democratic regimes, however backed by a nuance of ‘absolute evil’, of confrontation with a perfidious and monstrous threat. ‘Why me?’ – Tudor Giurgiu’s latest film     successfully re-launches the genre, also bringing a blow of fresh air into a world of cinematographic aesthetics emasculated by mannerism. Characters that remind of people who are still in positions of leadership or influence in real life. Events rendering tragic conflicts of a more nuanced psychological complexity. A transforming world, with alternative dynamics. A wider range of colours, both literally and figuratively. A satire that pinpoints its targets without ‘metaphysical’ subterfuge. A different kind of cut with stakes other than the constructivist game with reality. Even a manner of using music that ceases to be a mere subversive counterpoint for an ‘atonal’ reality. All this breaks the conventions of a now redundant style. ‘Why me?’ revisits the real case of prosecutor Cristian Panait who, in 2002, at the age of 29, was dying by falling from the balcony of his home in Bucharest. The film captures the context of the pressures being put during the days that preceded the tragedy by his superiors who were insisting that he arrested another prosecutor who, in turn, had dared arrest the son of the Bihor prefect at the time, released a few days later following Prime Minister Adrian Nastase’s public intervention. The Oradea prosecutor had discovered an oil smuggling affair with major political ramifications. The director Tudor Giurgiu had the documentary-fiction dilemma. He inspiredly chose a fiction deeply rooted in documentary reality. Naturally, the shuttling to and forth, underlain by subjective choices, is subject to controversy, but the final impact depends to a large extent to the recipe used for producing such subtle alloy. The intention is not so much the classic biopic, as it is a serious political debate. If it is of best quality, a political film can be a robust weapon. And it should have no shame in pursuing targets some hypocritically denounce as aesthetically impure. It has, as needed, point the finger in the direction of abuse or injustice. ‘Why me?’ dramatizes the highly politicised atmosphere in the Romanian judiciary during Adrian Nastase’s social democrat rule. However, this is more than a simple historical movie, covering a period of very recent history, but anyway left behind by the unfolding of events. A very current character appears in Giurgiu’s film – Victor Ponta. Not as such, with this name, but his features are lent to several characters, first of all the protagonist’s office mate. Cristian Panait and Victor Ponta were indeed co-workers and Tudor Giurgiu picks up on the detail to paint a double portrait,–suggesting an antithesis of substance. An antithesis of two destinies and, most importantly, of two attitudes. Two attitudes that are not only subjective, the produce of individual moral and professional choices, but also representative of two human typologies.

The representative of the former collided, tragically, at times – with the corrupting clientelism of the Nastase age. He trusted not necessarily that he could defeat it, but that he could at least oppose minimum resistance. He hoped it was just a perverse transient moment. The representative of the other typology, on the other hand, takes advantage of the opportunities the system has to offer. Just as the young Victor Ponta, the unknown university lecturer propelled by the professor-politician Adrian Nastase, Cristian Panait was backed by top lawyers of the regime, beginning with Rodica Stanoiu, at the time Minister of Justice. Backed as a trusty young man with solid professional background and driven by ambition. An ambition which, unlike n the case of the prime minister now in office, at some point came head to head with a veto of conscience. Both Panait and Ponta in 2002 were in similar positions from an institutional point of view. The former was investigating magistrates and the other one was theoretically investigating ministers. They represented that self-control function of the institutions of power in a democratic regime. One could even say that the genuine quality of political democracy is appreciated by how well its self-control and, by that, self-punishment mechanisms operate. Whilst Cristian Panait had a tragic death following intense pressure from his superiors and political power, Victor Ponta did not stand out by any significant unmasking of government abuse. He showed total conformism and was promptly rewarded by a skyrocketing political ascension. We could go as far as saying that he was ‘a sheep put to guard the wolves’, for he did not disturb any of the potent of the day, although he was supposed to give his position. Apart from this well-targeted political satire, the film is a success also from another point of view. The director Tudor Giurgiu chose to focus on the dramatic estrangement of his hero. Why did the young prosecutor suddenly find himself abandoned by all those around him? The political net of the Nastase regime was so perfidious that it would speculate on all interstitials of social vulnerability. Panait suddenly saw his entire career ruined, discovering in the most dramatic way that he was completely dependant on the benevolent complicity of the power. A power capable of perfidiously playing the role of protective authority. Panait discovered the hard way that the pseudo-paternal solicitude was coming with strings attached – obedience and moral corruption. He found out that his ‘spiritual father’  – represented not by just one person, but by a political-professional circle in which he had trust and on which he lad relied, in fact looked like an abusive and unjust autocrat. Another suggestion the film is making is in the tail of an older debate, the one on the ‘commonness of evil’. We often then to find some serious allegation incredible because the person – politician or prosecutor, for example – seems a ‘normal’ person, a family man or a ‘fine’ intellectual. We always forget that most torturers, at least in the last century, were tenderly giving their children a sweet good night kiss before bed time.


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