Beginning with his third feature, Aferim! (2015), Romanian writer-director Radu Jude has seemed to reinvent himself with every new movie. Aferim! was a 19th-century picaresque filled with landscapes and shot in black-and-white widescreen; its follow-up, Scarred Hearts (2016), was a 20th-century chamber drama shot in the squarish Academy ratio (in which virtually all films were shot until the mid-50s) and notable for its devastating static long takes. Jude moved further into stasis with his next feature, the documentary The Dead Nation (2017), which considered Romania’s Jewish Holocaust (1941-1945) through a montage of still photographs from the 1930s and ’40s. That film generated a popular backlash in Romania, where, according to the filmmaker, many people refuse to acknowledge their country’s part in Europe’s Jewish genocide.
Jude’s path as a risk-taker, at least in the formal sense, has been exciting to follow, not only because his risks have been so unpredictable, but because they feel organically rooted in his films’ content. That is, Jude seems to devise the form of each movie based on the history and narratives he wants to think about. Aferim! depicted the ugliness of Romania’s history of slavery with an ironically majestic style that evoked Hollywood westerns; the claustrophobic feel of Scarred Hearts was designed to inspire sympathy with the paralyzed hero, a Romanian Jew dying from tuberculosis in the late 1930s. A subtler piece of political filmmaking than its predecessor, Scarred Hearts rested on another bitter irony: the hero’s life in the sanatorium is in many ways better than what he’d be suffering through in Romanian society at large in the years leading up to the Jewish genocide.
Jude’s approach to political cinema, which touts its awareness of the political implications of film form, recalls that of Japanese director Nagisa Ôshima during his prolific 60s period, when he made such masterpieces as Violence at Noon (1966), Death by Hanging (1968), and Boy (1969). Like Ôshima, Jude’s overall project might be described as an attack on the national myths of his country and on historical amnesia in general; for both artists, constant reinvention is a key component of the attack. These are filmmakers who like to keep viewers on their toes, in a state of anticipation where they’re primed to engage with and debate the work. This project, particularly in its self-awareness, has roots in the epic theater of Bertolt Brecht, whose legacy towers over Death by Hanging and now Jude’s sixth feature, “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians” (2018), a film explicitly concerned with the staging of history.
One reason why Barbarians is such a successful provocation is that it makes engaging with history seem pressing and vital. The film is funny, sexy, and vibrant; one might get wrapped up in Jude’s strident direction if it weren’t for the force of his rhetoric. Again, Jude is concerned with exposing the history of Romania’s Jewish genocide, but (perhaps now that he’s experienced the consequences of doing so) he’s also concerned with what it means to dig up wartime atrocities today. His protagonist is a theater director named Mariana Marin, who’s received a government grant to reenact an historical episode in a public square. She chooses the 1941 pogrom that started Romania’s Holocaust, fully aware of the controversy she’s sure to incite. Yet Mariana (who shares her name with a famous poet) is gung ho in her mission. The movie begins in medias res, with the director picking out props for her reenactment before instructing an old man who’s volunteered to act in the project how to scream like he’s on fire.
Barbarians gets off to a Brechtian start when Ioana Iacob, the actress playing Mariana, introduces herself to the camera and tells viewers to enjoy the film. Jude breaks the fourth wall only one more time in Barbarians, when Iacob looks directly at the camera after delivering a speech about victims of atrocity, but he employs other means of alienating viewers from the drama. Much of the film takes place during rehearsals for Mariana’s reenactment, and they’re rife with discussions of how to create an air of realism; when Mariana isn’t working, she’s reciting from books about historical atrocities and musing on her historical responsibility as a Romanian. In the film’s first extended sequence (shot in the sort of impressive long takes for which Romania’s art cinema is justly celebrated), Mariana meets with a government employee, Movila (Alexandru Dabija), who’s opposed to her reenactment. He first tries to convince her to choose another historical topic, then persuades her to tone down the violence in her drama when she refuses to relent. Their conversation is by turns intellectually charged and flirtatious; one of the movie’s better running gags is that the conservative Movila is not-so-secretly smitten with the sexy, radical Mariana.
Mariana brushes off Movila’s advances, likely because she already has a man in her life, a pilot with whom she enjoys trysts whenever he’s in town. Another talented debater, Mariana’s lover excites her both intellectually and sexually—often both at once. (In a telling moment, Mariana starts reading aloud from a history text right after she’s had sex.) But things aren’t as happy as they appear. Jude reveals about halfway through Barbarians that the pilot is married, around the same time that Mariana admits to him that her period is late. After Mariana confirms later that she’s pregnant, the film doesn’t resolve whether she’ll choose to have an abortion, though it makes clear that she has the choice to do so and that it’s hers alone. The secondary theme of Mariana’s sexual autonomy dovetails with the primary theme of historical responsibility; in both cases, Jude is asking us to think about what it means to have ownership over our identities and how we act on our knowledge to make choices to move forward.
This is heady stuff, but never daunting. Jude—whose first two features, The Happiest Girl in the World (2009) and Everybody in Our Family (2012), were discomforting comedies in the Elaine May tradition—knows how to infuse nearly any situation with humor, and the cast brings an emotional immediacy to the material even when it turns blatantly rhetorical. “Immediacy” is the critical word here, as Mariana (like Jude) wants to bring the past crashing into the present. Barbarians climaxes with the staging of Mariana’s piece, which touches on Romania’s collaboration with the Nazis, its history of anti-Semitism, and finally the Romanian army’s slaughter of more than a third of a million Jews on the eastern front of World War II. Jude had shot the preceding scenes of Barbarians on celluloid, but he switches to video for this part of the film, exploiting the medium’s immediate quality, with its associations of TV news reporting. (It’s ambiguous as to whether the people watching the performance are actors or simply passersby, and this heightens the sense of creative risk.) The actors playing Jews in the performance may not really burn to death at the end, but Romania’s ongoing responsibility for the atrocity feels very real. v