Saturday, September 21, 2019

I Don't Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians (Îmi este indiferent daca în istorie vom intra ca barbari)

Director Radu Jude

I DON’T CARE IF WE GO DOWN IN HISTORY AS BARBARIANS (Îmi este indiferent daca în istorie vom intra ca barbari)   B                    
Romania  Germany  Bulgaria  Czech Republic  France  (140 mi)  2018 d:  Radu Jude

Winner of the top prize at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, this film essay is a rather provocative attempt to examine Romania’s complicity with the Nazi’s in WW II, as Romania was never occupied by German forces, spending the majority of the war as an ally fighting side by side with German soldiers, contributing 585,000 Romanian troops to the Nazi cause, committing revolting crimes against humanity that are among the worst atrocities in recorded history, something the country has been in denial about since the end of the war, burying the truth (with the director claiming it was taboo to even speak about it when he was growing up), even though Romanian historians have corroborated the facts determined by the Wiesel Commission, which investigated Romania’s part of the Holocaust, incident by incident, determining the country is responsible for the extermination of 380,000 Jews.  Nonetheless, Romanians have continued to blame that all on the Germans, claiming they had no choice, though philosopher and humanitarian Hannah Arendt has claimed that after Germany, Romania is the second most anti-Semitic country in Europe, while also responsible for killing more Jews during the war than any other country but Germany.  And while this film often chooses to intellectualize the subject, it also creates comic sarcasm and absurd black comedy, resorting to an experimental semi-documentary style, where it also comes across as an intriguing follow up to SHOAH (1985), Claude Lanzmann’s epic exposé on the Holocaust, revealing how neighboring bystanders watched and did nothing to stop the organized train of transporting European Jews to crematoriums for extermination, finding nothing wrong with this practice, with ordinary citizens still holding Jews in contempt nearly half a century later.  The degree of hideous anti-Semitism on display in the film is eye-opening, actually constituting hate speech, yet it passes for public discourse, revealing just how entrenched this subject is in the minds and hearts of Europeans who accept this as the norm.  For a Romanian director to tackle this subject is in itself a provocation, much like Croatian director Nebojsa Slijepčević’s Srbenka (2018), featuring the innovative imagination of theater director Oliver Frljić using the stage to reveal Croatian atrocities, which inflamed Croatian audiences, of course calling for an examination of Serbian atrocities, which this theater director claimed he was perfectly willing to do, and has done, but only before Serbian audiences.  The point is, none of this is easily digested by audiences anywhere, but this resistance to reexamine one’s own history is a particular sticking point.  Romania, once the second-largest Jewish population in Central Europe, has eradicated any remaining presence almost entirely.  What we’re left with is centuries of bigotry, where entire cultures have been conditioned to hate Jews in particular, still viewing them as vile creatures, continuing a thought process that has never been educated.  And while this film may attempt to address that shortcoming, despite the meticulous scrutiny shown, the director is also questioning who’s really listening?  Too few will actually see it or understand its implications, going way over the head of an ordinary viewer who probably wouldn’t have the patience to sit through this, where the power of bigotry on the other hand is simply too overwhelming, organically passed on from one generation to the next. 

Surprisingly, this film is wrapped up in patriotism, starring Mariana Marin (Ioana Iacob), a stand-in for the director who introduces herself directly facing the camera as a character in the film, an idealistic theater director commissioned by the city council to stage a grand outdoor historical pageant that is, in effect, a reenactment of a significant moment in history.  Typically these are jingoistic displays of nationalistic pride and fervor, where everyone brings their children and comes out to wave flags and applaud the celebration of their independence, often accompanied by music and fireworks, and the mandatory political speeches by local officials.  This event is no different, except Mariana has done her homework, displaying a new era of enlightenment, becoming obsessed with Romania’s role in the Holocaust, reviewing archival footage on her computer, finding the truth starkly different than what she was taught in school, which blamed it all on the Germans.  Surprised by the degree of cooperation by Romanian military officials, the title of the film comes from a pronouncement by Romania’s military dictator Marshal Ion Antonescu to the Council of Ministers in the summer of 1941, literally opening the doors for massive extermination of Jews, enabling Hitler to carry out his Final Solution.  While extensive research allows her to develop a more accurate historical view, she is among a cultured elite, a privileged few, as ordinary citizens still believe what was handed down for decades, with the country still reeling from the postwar effects of Russian occupation and the autocratic rule of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu who ruled with an iron fist from 1965 to 1989 with a muzzled public forced to accept what they were told.  This blind allegiance for generations requires renewed knowledge, something the country has been loath to do, preferring to hide behind a fabricated mythology that lets them off the hook.  Yet when Romania was granted entrance into the European Union, several historical records were corrected and made public, including the acknowledgement of a 1941 Odessa massacre of tens of thousands of Jews who were shot or burned alive by Romanian troops under direct orders from Antonescu, among the largest massacres of Jews in the entire war, occurring during a joint German/Romanian occupation of what is now the Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union.  This was part of a massive Nazi military campaign to exterminate European Jews, carrying out similar Babi Yar massacres in Kiev with Ukrainian collaborators and later the Aktion Erntefest mass shootings in Poland, wiping out the entire Jewish population of the Majdanek concentration camp, burying them in mass graves.  Still viewed by some elements as a Romanian war hero, Antonescu was captured by the Soviets, tried for treason and war crimes by pro-Soviet Romanian authorities, duly convicted, and executed in 1946 by a firing squad at Jilava Prison near Bucharest.  A thorough account of his relationship to Hitler and his war involvement, one of the first to orchestrate ethnic cleansing on a massive scale, and one of the central figures of the Holocaust, is written by Robert D. Kaplan, The Antonescu Paradox – Foreign Policy, citing multiple historical sources.  After his death, Romania switched sides during the war, aligned with the Allied powers, with an official report compiled in 2012, FINAL REPORT International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania (pdf).    

One of the sources of Mariana’s personal disgust is Sergiu Nicolaescu’s quasi-historical film THE MIRROR (1994), a propaganda film that attempts to resurrect Antonescu’s reputation as a war hero, beaming into all Romanian homes through the medium of television.  We hear her fuming dialogue alongside clips of the film, which inspires her as an artist to set the record straight.  When Mariana decides to publicly reenact the Odessa massacre at the Palace Square in the center of Bucharest, using tanks and rifles from war museums, but also non-professional city volunteers, she discovers their opinions are divided, as many don’t wish to be associated with Jews, none wish to portray Gypsies, while others disagree on the degree of accuracy in the way it’s being portrayed, where the layers involved in the performance reflect the overall population and remain deeply divided on the subject.  This divisiveness, however, is part of the film, as history is subject to interpretation, and here people haggle over their roles, with a boisterous few threatening to walk out altogether.  In this same vein, Mariana is visited by a city official named Movilă (Alexandru Dabija) whose office granted the authorization, expressing concern over the explicitness of the performance, engaging in an intellectual argument on the uncertainty of truth, suggesting all sides have their reasons to distort what actually happened, claiming the mayor is uncomfortable with the public portrayal of war crime atrocities on an occasion that is a day of heroic military celebration.  Their extended argument is the heart and soul of the film, as both are intelligent-minded, yet he sarcastically derides all her sources, suggesting people aren’t interested in spending their holidays witnessing such a gruesome event, that “educating the public is a comical illusion,” with many still objecting to the historical accuracy, including apologists claiming Antonescu is a war hero, a martyr murdered under Soviet authority, also claiming people were forced to say what was necessary in order to gain entrance to the EU, that it was all an agreed upon compromise, with generations of ordinary citizens still believing the official force-fed mythology from the Ceaușescu regime that anointed the military into worshipped heroes.  Mariana, however, is insistent in her artistic intent, refusing to compromise, claiming no government censorship, revealing the actual sources of her meticulous documentation, suggesting she will not be a part of a whitewash of history, contending  “We don’t have the right to be subtle,” as Romanians need to know what actually happened rather than suffer from collective amnesia.  These contentious opinions are spoken forcefully but politely under civil discourse, with Movilă actually showing signs of flirtation and romantic interest, though not afraid to implement power plays threatening to shut down the performance altogether, with Mariana then devising a subversive plan to agree with the compromise, openly rehearse the compromise, then perform what she originally intended on the day of the pageantry.  The length of the film allows plenty of interludes, revealing a pattern of men trying to control her behavior, including Mariana’s personal discussions with her boyfriend (Serban Pavlu), a married airline pilot, that grow contentious, reading aloud various passages from books, or soaking in a bath at the end of the day with a glass of wine and a book in her hand, regurgitating this same material.  The performance itself before a live audience is stunning in the anti-Semitic language used, morally abhorrent and despicable, with no revisionist views offered, literally stirring up and inflaming anti-Semitic sentiment under the guise of a patriotism, so the unfiltered hatred of the 1940’s refuels on the streets of Bucharest again today.  When the reenactment parades Jews through the city streets, hanging some in the city square while others are herded into a wooden building and burned alive, it turns into a grotesque public spectacle, but viewed with nonchalance, as the audience actually applauds (remaining ambiguous whether or not this was scripted), leaving viewers aghast at the extent of public bystander approval, clearly misunderstanding the intent, still blinded by the deeply ingrained effects of historical negationism.  

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Princess Cyd


Director Stephen Cone on the set with producer Grace Hahn


PRINCESS CYD                   B+                  
USA  (96 mi)  2017 d:  Stephen Cone

This is an atypical coming-of-age tale that cleverly entwines youthful exploration with what normally passes for a midlife crisis, though in this near idyllic setting of neighborhood Chicago there is a pungent smell of sweetness that seems to define life for both young and old, providing an exuberantly optimistic view about the unfolding challenges that await us at every stage, and while there’s no overwhelming dramatic issues, this is a small gem of a film that explores the intricacies of daily living, finding pleasures in tiny details often overlooked, offering a surprising amount of probing intelligence in such a brief period of time.  Winner of the Chicago Award at the Chicago Film Festival in 2017, the director is a professor at Northwestern University who is a transplant from South Carolina with a religious upbringing, raised by a Southern Baptist pastor father, where an understated morality pervades, but it’s more new age, with an accent on tolerance and love, which apparently starts with accepting yourself.  These parameters are open for exploration throughout, never rigidly fixed, but the openness of this gentle Rohmeresque journey is simply sublime.  Opening with a 911 call, an unseen tragedy occurs, the full extent of which we don’t realize until near the end, with the film picking up in an aftermath 9-years later as we are introduced to a survivor from that incident, 16-year old freckle-faced Cyd (Jessie Pinnick) making her presence felt on the soccer field in Columbia, South Carolina.  A call is made by her exasperated single father (her mother killed in the opening) to an aunt in Chicago, Miranda Ruth (Rebecca Spence), who still lives in the same home where she (and her sister) grew up, proposing Cyd spend a few weeks in the summer paying a visit, suggesting the change would do her good.  And just like that, Cyd arrives at Miranda’s door, offered the same room that was her mother’s, pointing out there’s a nice reading area, but Cyd bluntly responds, “I don’t read,” asking instead for the Wi-Fi codes (which have literary references, of course), immediately hooking up on the Internet.  We soon learn Miranda is an accomplished writer of several books, famous enough to be recognized in public, with strangers coming up to her asking for autographs, where her literary background is her career, with a social life built around readings and academia, which seems to be the farthest thing from Cyd’s mind.  Instead she goes out for a morning run, stopping at a local coffee shop afterwards asking for directions, where she happens to run into Katie (Malic White), a boyish looking tomboy wearing an androgynous Mohawk strip that catches her eye.

Meanwhile, Miranda is reviewing the work of a striving first-time novelist, Anthony (James Vincent Meredith), a handsome black man separated from his wife, where throughout the film there are implied innuendo’s about a developing relationship, but she’s all business, offering an extremely critical assessment that would have him discard nearly two-thirds of what he’s written, which comes as a bit of a shock for Anthony, who’s not sure what to make of this excoriation, obviously invested in the material he’s written.  Cyd arrives back home at the tail end of the discussion and after a quick shower, heads into the back yard to lie in the sun.  What’s of interest here is not what’s happening, but the reactions to what’s happening, as the director is carefully illuminating internalized characterization through subtle differences that are not entirely off-putting, but noticeable, even at times jarring, suggesting these small events have profound effects in the trajectories of our lives.  Cyd’s interest in sunbathing piques the interest of Miranda, as that’s not something she’d dream of doing herself, but she’s curious about the things that Cyd likes, perhaps retracing her own adolescence, though her interactions with Cyd thus far have been awkward at best.  Cyd’s free-spirited and open acceptance of her own body is probably the exact opposite of how Miranda felt at that age, safely retreating into introspection, while Cyd simply blurts out whatever she thinks or feels, often uncomfortably, but her honesty, and the film’s awareness of it, feels like a breath of fresh air, as it’s heartwarming to see a relatively happy teenager, even though the backdrop of her story is so traumatizing.  Within a day or so, Miranda is in the backyard with Cyd sunning herself as well, like a girl bonding experience, when Cyd calls out the obvious, asking when the last time was when she had sex.  For Cyd, this is at the forefront of her curiosity, while in Miranda’s repressed world of academia, this thought has been sealed off in mothballs, completely off limits, as if in quarantine.  Just this simple question, however, has reverberations, as it means something so completely different to each one at the differing stages of their lives.  Thankfully, no judgments are made, as this kind of honest and open inquisitiveness is a central thread of the film, as a novelist with any skill applies this same process to themselves, constantly internalizing their thoughts in search of new ideas. 

When Cyd returns to the coffee shop, she and Katie have an instant chemistry, perfectly expressed on a rooftop setting where a film crew shooting nearby calls out for them to slow dance and pretend they’re in love, mistaking them for a girl and boy, which the couple doesn’t correct, going with the flow.  When Katie recognizes one of Miranda’s books, describing it as an influence, suddenly her aunt doesn’t seem so distant, growing more curious about her.  Miranda’s life revolves around literary social gatherings, something rarely seen in films, causing Cyd to search through Katie’s wardrobe to find something to wear, settling on a tuxedo outfit worn to the prom, allowing Cyd to make an impressive entrance, easily a focus of interest, as she’s the youngest thing there, where the interaction with others is strangely forward, yet revealing, particularly when she asks an older lesbian couple how they discovered they liked women, a question obviously dominating her own mindset, but the playful interchange grows humorous, with the adults turning the tables, asking what she likes, hesitating a bit before stammering, “I like everything.”  While still processing her burgeoning sexuality, the evening focuses upon readings, where we hear the voices of Emily Dickenson or James Joyce, or described personal experiences that may actually be a bit of living fiction, remaining ambiguous whether or not they actually happened, which adds to the curiosity surrounding the personal nature of the material.  Like any teenager, she soon grows tired of listening, preferring to retreat into her bedroom with the youngest boy there to smoke pot and make out, with more likely to happen had they not been interrupted by his parents who were leaving, wondering what happened to him.  There’s a beautiful monologue by Miranda afterwards, clarifying her own sense of personal autonomy, suggesting it doesn’t revolve around men or a relationship, that she’s perfectly comfortable in her own skin, where one of the joys of her life is spending hours reading Melville or Virginia Woolf, or talking endlessly discussing T.S. Eliot or James Baldwin with a friend.  The gist of it is that no one way is the right way, that everyone’s experiences are unique, leaving the road to happiness wide open, where there are no rules.  As the evening winds down, Cyd finally contacts Katie, who’s been attacked by one of her male roommates who remains passed out in a drunken stupor, not wanting to be there when he wakes up.  Miranda goes into protective mode, sheltering the girl from the storm, which opens another door for the two girls to finally explore, all shot with a poetic sensibility.  One of the strengths of the film is the complexity of the female characters, who are extremely well developed, surrounding them with secondary characters that are equally fascinating, continually probing at what’s underneath the surface, becoming a delicate journey of self-discovery.