October 18, 2022
By Călin Boto
Between the Lines
Sebastian Mihăilescu’s debut You Are Ceaușescu to Me came out at a very particular moment on the Bucharest film scene, one equally intense and confusing, curious in both ways, to which the filmmakers of the New Wave seem to be late. They are being slowed down by their mannerism, their ideal of the masterpiece, and, above all, the impression that they have something urgent to share about the state of our times, something that looks better on their applications to the Romanian Film Center than, years later, on the screen. And the fact that Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, the liveliest most film of the pandemic, was released around the same time as Malmkrog (d. Cristi Puiu, 2020), Întregalde (d. Radu Muntean, 2021), and R.M.N. (d. Cristian Mungiu, 2022) only served to further age the latter three, these former avant-gardists of the New Wave, now safely tucked in dad’s film shelf, for whom time stands still. But those few young critics and curators of the here and now are tired of waiting. And, even if this has been going on for years, it is still a single moment, by definition not indefinite, too short for its people to eulogize their own victories (Porumboiu over Mungiu, Muntean, and Puiu) or to lament their early shortcomings (Adina Pintilie over Ana Lungu). I don’t know if this moment will become a monument, if it will last, but, whatever the case, You Are… dropped in right on time.
It is an odd project in both ways. Being both charmingly laid-back and unnervingly un-rigorous, it takes it a while to convey the rules of the game. The beginning pays homage to Lucian Pintilie and his Reenactment (1970), using the iconic takes of the fight that, after allegedly taking place in real life between two drunk boys, played by George Mihăiță and Vladimir Găitan, leaving a waiter with a nasty gash in the head, must now take place again before the camera for an educational documentary. This is their punishment, and, in short, one of them dies at the end of that obsessive attempt by the film crew to capture that swift, careless moment of violence in as realistic a way as possible. In the end, Mihăilescu doesn’t engage with Reenactment that much, only to allow himself to quote the famous “why’d you hit me, man?” (“de ce-ai dat, bă?”) from Mihăilescu’s film, following an exchange of slaps between two “more 2020-ish” teenagers, animated by the voice behind the camera. But the reference is worth noting, because a lot of You Are… connects to it, and it’s not just the obvious parts.
The movie proves to be a sort of experimental documentary at a casting-turned-history-workshop: a number of teenagers, more or less non-professionals, from Bucharest and roundabout are called in to reenactStrangely enough, they are told they are only taking part in a simple documentary, even though something isn’t quite right – and yet nobody questions the multiple takes and the script of this supposed non-fiction. Introducing himself, one of the characters says that he came to play a role, upon which he is quickly told from off-camera that he has in fact come to be himself. And that’s sort of true, as, among all the takes and lines, …Ceaușescu to Me spends enough time with this selection of teens for a certain social agitation to emerge: one is a gigolo, another asks himself how he’ll spend the money earned from his successful business in his brilliant future, some Roma kids talk about abuse from cops, the psychology student is interrupted by some high school students eager for philosophical debates – anyway, the few things they all have in common pertain to age, social media, taking the baccalaureate, and, within the film’s setting, the story of young Ceaușescu, about whom none of them knows too much. Mihăilescu was brilliant in choosing the other face and the other story of the late C (Ceașcă, the Communist, the guy who got shot, the one and only), which are somewhat unknown to the many, and are therefore sheltered from the aggression and mockery that have become pop-cultural reflexes, perfectly played out in the two trailers that Radu Jude made for The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu (d. Andrei Ujică, 2010), and which just happened to come to mind.
To get back on track: once they are framed in a sparse setting, the boys recite from memoir documents (researched and selected by historian Mihai Burcea), especially the former leader’s autobiography. I call them boys because that’s what most of them are, even Elena Ceaușescu being played in drag. One girl appears, sings the International in her own rhythm, and leaves: one of the best moments of the film, whose audio returns for the credits. Another stands around without much to do: an extra in some reenactments, playing a waitress, and, at one point, being Romani, she talks about the early marriages in her family. Some come, others go, Ceaușescu’s role is played by almost each character in turn, while the others play other illegal communists, which seems natural given the set-up’s rules, but, more than anything, it augments the inability to represent the former leader, who will never be a mere image, regardless of how much ambiguity as the passage of time might add. As an aside, among the scanned documents displayed on screen is Ceaușescu’s personal file at the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party, with no beginning or end date.
When there are only a few participants left, after a sort of selection process, the camera’s attention moves from the reenactments to the interactions between the characters and back. Mihăilescu parades the unedited nature of his materials and the participants’ amateurishness, stripping the film of any possible illusion of action and role – in other words, of fiction – allowing its performativity to walk blindly forward, towards a comparison that remains rather unarticulated, between Ceaușescu’s historical youth and the average youth of today. Which is not too much and not too little, like any good idea that walks forward on its own, with the inevitable risk of dawdling towards the end. And it is this anti-illusionism that relates to The Reenactment, a film made at that moment of modernism when more and more filmmakers were interested in film’s reflection within itself.
But what I find truly special is that the presence of the camera crew, far from stifling in fact agitates a certain reality, the personality of the one in the frame. Towards this, Mihăilescu takes care to leave his directions open to improvisation, to see how far the characters can go with things like violence (not very far), indirectly documenting them. Conceptually speaking, it all comes together, including the destabilizing presence of the oldest of the boys, a pious cantor at a church somewhere, with a certain languor about him. Some have questioned his presence, asking if someone so obviously vulnerable should be used for the film. I don’t know what to say to that, but I understand his presence, somewhat of a tribute to Vuică from The Reenactment, provocative in a different way, through his unpredictability which proves to be fruitful in the end, as the director wanted to organize an unlikely encounter between very different young people. And it must be said that nobody in the film proves insensitive, plus that the boy takes part in this ineffable, photogenic zeitgeist of youth that the film wants to portray, especially in order to show its heterogeneity. In any case, it is strange, perhaps unjust, that this Mihai was not asked as many questions as the others – or perhaps they were cut – making him seem even more of a foreign body. And it gets even the stranger, perhaps unjust, because, after disenchanting film, Mihăilescu cannot enchant it back, and the simple truth is that he and nobody else had power over those young people, perhaps too much of it. And that not every abstract gain is worth a concrete loss.
Translated by Rareș Grozea
Călin Boto is the editor-in-chief of the cinema magazine Film Menu and the coordinator of its weekly film club. As a freelancer, he collaborates with several publications and film festivals, includin...