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Film

The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu

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The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu

Directed by Andrei Ujica

At the Charles Theatre Feb. 18 at 10:30 a.m., Feb. 20 at 7 p.m., and Feb. 23 at 9 p.m.

For nearly three hours, you watch former Romanian Communist autocrat Nicolae Ceausescu give speeches, greet other heads of state (e.g. American President Richard Nixon), tour factories, vacation, don a few odd ethnic costumes and sport natty hats (he favored a sort of oversized newsboy cap), smile at public appearances alongside his wife, preside over outsized party meetings and grand celebrations of one thing or another, and more. There is no narration, only subtitles and the occasional signage translated. There are no title cards or talking heads giving context for what you’re watching. What you’re watching, as you soon divine, is raw superego, film of Ceausescu shot officially by the government he took over in 1965 and presided over until 1989. Ceausescu didn’t oversee this “autobiography,” of course—he was shot at the end of a hasty hearing (footage from which bookends the film) shortly after he was deposed. But director Andrei Ujica and his collaborators combed through more than 1,000 hours of film to create this version of the dictator’s life, a post-facto official portrait that is as subtly revealing as it is strangely engrossing.

There are no images here of the brutal repression Ceausescu heaped on his people, but knowing that it’s happening as he shakes hands with yet another Western head of state or reviews yet another colorful parade of costumed dancers provides a chilling undertone—as does Ceausescu’s own evident humanity. The Ceausescu of the early reels is young and vital, a relative rube doling out smiles and kisses to his people—even an attractive young woman clearly uncomfortable with such attention. As his regime extended (and, behind the scenes, stiffened into a nightmare autocracy), Ceausescu aged and grew less of a physical force, the state ossifying into place around his slightly slumped shoulders. By relying on footage that would have been snipped out of any official newsreels—a shot of a deflated-looking Ceausescu standing over the corpse of a bear drawn in by a planted carcass so he could “hunt” it—Ujica captures the human banality behind the all-powerful head of state. In the process, he creates a portrait of 20th-century Communist power unlike any other the screen has seen to date.

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