Kino Lorber is releasing this documentary on DVD next week. I watched and reviewed it prior to its screening at the 2011 San Francisco International Film Festival. I’m finally posting the review now.
Written and directed by Andrei Ujica
This is what an inept filmmaker can do. What should have been a fascinating story about one of Communism’s worst dictators becomes a three-hour slog through a quarter century’s worth of propaganda footage and what appear to be home movies. Whatever irony was intended gets lost in the countless and repetitive shots of massed crowds, choreographed rallies, and apparent good times.
From 1966 until 1989, Nicolae Ceaușescu ruled Romania with an iron grip. While he was more open to western leaders and cultural influences than most Warsaw Pact leaders, his disastrous economic policies turned his country into a basket case. He also created a Mao-like personality cult that allowed for no dissent. A lot of Eastern-European dictators fell in 1989, but Ceaușescu fell hardest. Unwilling to peacefully give up power, he and his wife were quickly tried (interrogated would be a better word) and executed. The new government waited until after that execution to outlaw capital punishment.
That’s a great story, but Andrei Ujica misses most of it. Instead, he gives us three hours of propagandistic “news” footage and the dictator’s home movies, bookended by two fascinating but brief glimpses of the Ceaușescu’s “trial.” There’s no narration, and if you don’t already know the history, no context. Through significant chunks of the movie, there’s not even a soundtrack.
Presumably, the idea is that you watch between the lines and see the truth behind the façade. But at three hours, there’s just too much footage and not enough cracks to peer through. How many times can you watch him honored by the Chinese? How many birthday pageants must you attend? How often can you watch his family happily hunting big game while you think about Sarah Palin?
There’s a compelling story of great evil inside this footage. But rather than finding it, Ujica just presents the footage.