The Soviet Union and its followers believed in a utopian ideal of forced equality. Under its government controlled and mandated share and share alike policy, everyone would work, everyone would have the same opportunities, and no one would be more powerful or prominent than anyone else. Yes, there would have to be those in charge, making sure these core conceits were enforced, but for the most part, the factory drone or the long suffering farmer would be no more or less important than the suited man sitting in the Parliament. Of course, none of that was true. The minute any individual or group of individuals seized power in a place like Russia, Romania, or Poland, they would immediately set themselves up as the bourgeoisie that Marxism rallied against, their elaborate lifestyles often in direct contradiction to the value they were spewing in speeches and proclamations. When he was overthrown by his own people in 1989, Romanian General Secretary of the Communist Party, Nicolae Ceausescu was considered such a monster, responsible for unthinkable genocide and internal horrors that warranted a speedy trial and execution. He also lived like a king in a realm populated by paupers. Even today, many of his most disturbing acts are just being uncovered.
So it's with great interest that one walks into the documentary entitled The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, a fascinating compilation of State-sponsored footage from the tyrant's 24 years in power. Indeed, from 1965 to his death in '89, the more or less dictator of Romania made it a point of polishing up his country's image. The result was an almost obsessive filming of his professional life and routine. When the National Archives were finally opened to the public, director Andrei Ujică saw an opportunity to expose the blatant hypocrisy in Ceausescu's regime and used his kangaroo court trial as a bookend to more haunting, happier times. Following his life in office, we see a man melded with the pro-Red pomp and circumstance ordered by his Soviet overseers as well as someone with his own agenda within the international arena. After walking through most of this initial rise, we see Ceausescu entertaining a succession of world leaders. Everyone from de Gaulle to Nixon show up, as do many members of the Iron Curtain crew. Ceausescu even travels to North Korea to witness one of those eye popping human displays that only a marginalized people under a suppressed regime can promote without criticism.
The visions here are stunning, if slightly inert. We see the man obsessing over building and construction, huge dioramas of a future Romania spread out like presents for a child at Christmas. Ceausescu even tours works in progress, looking over the outsized opulence like a proud papa. One thing the Soviet style countries could handle was the sterile, featureless look of a post-modern, post-Capitalism society. All the edifices are gray or white, glass and metal making up for any real architectural personality. These were the future vistas, the way in which the Communists saw their countries against the decadence of the West. On the other hand, they are also a massive drain on the country's economy, so much so that Ceausescu had to borrow from around the world to fulfill his vision. This resulted in an indebtedness that occasionally cost the people their place. In order to try and solve this dilemma, Ceausescu exported most of the country's resources to try and balance the books. Such shortages and restrictions laid the seeds for his eventual overthrow.
Yet The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu suffers from a lack of outrage. Since this is the State-sponsored resource of information on the man, there's no hints of his horrible genocide, no inkling of the workhouses and orphanages were enemies of the country were housed in horrific conditions. There are no signs of the secret police who murdered millions. The opening has the leader accused of orchestrating a mass murder in a Romanian village of Timisoara, but we never see any sign of this. Hunting wildlife is one thing. Seeing people slaughtered in the name of politics is another. As the aged man and his harried wife deny each and every accusation, we wait for the counterbalance, to see the actual images that both are so vehemently speaking against. But Ujică never offers it. In fact, to do so would go against his desire to stay within the parameters of the archive. One imagines a more devastating film with the various investigative news sources and post-execution material edited in. What we end up with is indeed eye-opening, but it's not shattering. Without your own knowledge of the subject, the extravagance on display is rather empty.
When you consider that the filmmakers had to pour through hours of archival footage, that they were mixing and matching formats (videos, newsreels, state-sponsored shoots, and other visual documentation) as well as dealing with age issues and an overall need to focus the approach, the tech spec results are fairly impressive. The 1.78:1 anamorphic image is colorful, sharp, and almost pristine in places. We get a real sense of the pageantry and the pathetic grasp for attention surrounding much of this material. The sound situation is a bit different. Sure, the old aural science leaves a lot to be desired, especially in a backwards Soviet Bloc situation, but the mix has been cleaned up a bit so that there are few scratches, pops, or moments of distortion. The subtitles are not removable, by the way, so if you don't like having to read along with your movie, you're stuck (of course, you'd have to be able to speak Romanian as well...). As for added content, there is a trailer and DVD-Rom access to information on the various political players on display. That's it. Frankly, the film could use some context, explaining the importance of the sometimes silent events playing out in front of us.
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu is one of those powerful films that make you eager for more: more information on the man's specific crimes; more of a counterbalance between the propaganda offered by the State and the truth captured by other cameras; more insight into the leader's personal problems and provocations. As it stands, it's an incomplete picture, a Recommended experience but one that only provides a portion of the real story. Sometimes, the party line explains it all. In the case of The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, it's only a small fraction of the truth.
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