The Other Irene
When Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were executed by firing squad on Christmas Day 1989, the event was documented with a handheld video camera. The footage is posted on YouTube, and it’s highly cinematic: Bullets slam into a courtyard wall, kicking up dust and brimstone. The camera weaves forward into the cloud, which clears to reveal two awkwardly sprawled corpses. “Lift up his head so we can see,” someone says, and a man in a doctor’s coat complies, displaying the dictator’s face. By that time revolutionary forces had taken control of the Bucharest TV station, and the Ceausescus’ show trial and execution were broadcast again and again, providing irrefutable proof that the regime had been toppled. “They showed it all day long,” says one witness in the documentary Ceausescu: The Unrepentant Tyrant Host (2004). “We couldn’t get enough of it.”
With its grainy images, minimal cutting, and unusual juxtaposition of the mundane and the terrifying, the footage could be the template for the Romanian new wave, a series of stark, poker-faced dramas that have been collecting international awards in recent years. Collectively, these films—among them Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective (2009)—consider the ineluctable grip of the state on the mind and body of the individual, a conflict that plays out in such drab spaces as the back of an ambulance, the floor of a hotel bathroom, or a tobacco shop. The films are overtly political, and their stories come off as acts of post-traumatic reintegration, a sort of cinematic shudder as Romania makes the transition from Soviet client to member of the European Union.
Romanians were well prepared for the sight of their oppressors’ fresh corpses, having been steeped in political theater for the previous 25 years. Ceausescu emulated North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung in his creation of a totalitarian personality cult (giving himself the official title “Genius of the Carpathians”), and naturally this involved complete control of Romania’s film production. There were also spectacular stadium events, similar to the Super Bowl halftime show but lasting several hours—and incorporating everyone in the stadium. “We were taken out of the factory for two months before every show,” recalled one participant, interviewed for the BBC documentary The King of Communism (2003). “We were rehearsed eight hours a day.” In the face of starvation, political imprisonment, torture, and assassination, Romanians were required to declare not just satisfaction but joy and gratitude for their miserable lot, in newspapers, public art, and innumerable public celebrations. The paranoia induced by the secret police and their estimated 700,000 informants surely contributed to this psychological dislocation, creating a nation of resentful actors.
National trauma becomes the national narrative when the people have the tools to create and disperse it—our own cinematic history offers countless examples, from The Birth of a Nation to The Messenger. “The first Romanian films which were made about communism just after the fall of the Berlin Wall were very bad,” Mungiu told the British magazine Prospect. “They were just authors’ comments about communism through the mouths of their characters. Now we are making films about the period with way less anger.” It’s astonishing how quickly Romania has made the transition, and the filmmakers of the new wave have embraced that mutability. “The movies that I make are about people living in this in-between world,” Porumboiu told the San Francisco Examiner. “My characters have this past, and they are living in this transitory world, like myself, of course.”
This is an essential notion in Andrei Gruzsniczki’s The Other Irene (2009), which screens twice this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center as part of the 13th European Union Film Festival. What’s nifty about the film is how well it works as a national allegory, a psychological murder mystery, and a meditation on marriage. Aurel (Andi Vasluianu), a solemn and sober fish out of water, has been steered from his rural village to bustling Bucharest by his ambitious young wife, Irene (Simona Popescu). He works as a security guard in a downtown galleria, a gleaming complex whose patrons’ urbanity only accentuates his reserved manner and deliberate movement. Even in his black uniform and paramilitary gear he seems lumpen and reasonable. “Four hundred thousand for a pair of underwear,” his coworker mutters as they scrutinize a lingerie mannequin with their flashlights, “I’d rather set myself on fire.”
Aurel seems unsure what to make of his new life or how to handle his wife’s somewhat narcissistic enthusiasm for her work, which involves chemical supplies, Arab men, money, and long trips to Africa. After three months in Cairo, Irene returns home, transformed by the Egyptian sun and all that time away, and as the plot thickens, red herrings and narrative feints compound a feeling of metaphysical duress. In his relentless campaign to solve the mystery, Aurel clears one bureaucratic hurdle after another, but each seems to make the situation more ambiguous. In the end his wife proves unknowable, and Aurel struggles to comprehend his fate. “Maybe she was mad because I wouldn’t buy her a dishwasher,” he muses. With an endless supply of black humor, The Other Irene recasts the trauma of national rebirth as the trauma of marital identity.
Adrian Sitaru’s Hooked (2007), the EU festival’s other Romanian entry, recalls Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962) with its uneasy tone and two-lovers-and-a-stranger setup. A pair of bickering adulterers (Adrian Titieni and Ioana Flora) drive to the country for a picnic, where they cross paths with Ana-Violeta (Maria Dinulescu), a roadside prostitute who wiggles, jiggles, and giggles while driving a wedge between them. She’s a coarse bumpkin with the slutty dress and full-on body rock of a Maxim model, and she’s hell-bent on dragging them through a disquisition on normative ethics. Sitaru suffuses this bucolic outing with confusion and dread, untoward sexual desire and visceral anxiety. There are some great touches, worthy of Polanski: a gunshot from the adjacent wood is never investigated or explained; a repellent forest ranger wanders in and out of the picture with a bloody rabbit dangling from his knapsack.
Hooked was made with handheld digital cameras and a big stylistic conceit: every shot uses the first-person perspective of one of the characters. Sometimes this experiment produces a unique narrative dimension and other times it just calls attention to itself. In combination with the remote setting, it persistently invokes the uncouth vibe of a low-budget slasher, which, as it happens, augments the script’s creeping paranoia. Sitaru doesn’t seem at all concerned with capturing a national sensibility, which makes Hooked a notable departure from the so-called new wave. It also makes you wonder whether the next wave of Romanian cinema will have any national identity at all or will just look like the rest of our globally marketed entertainment. I’m reminded of a scene from Catalin Mitulescu’s The Way I Spent the End of the World (2006) in which a seven-year old boy cries out for what he craves, but can’t have, under the communist dictatorship: “Cartoons! Cartoons!”