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Ceausescu documentary a missed opportunity

CANNES (Hollywood Reporter) - “The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu,” a fresh-from-the-laboratory documentary on the former Romanian dictator, is informative and -- especially in its last hour -- surprisingly dramatic.

It’s too bad that director-screenwriter Andrei Ucija decided to offer not a single word of explanatory voiceover over its entire three-hour running time, an unfortunate aesthetic decision that will make the film much less informative and dramatic than it should be.

Given the exotic nature of the material and the fact that no contextual aid is offered the non-Romanian viewer, sales of this excellent film will be limited, even to television, its natural home.

Ceausescu is interesting and historically relevant because he was one of the few Iron Curtain dictators ushered out of office at the end of the Cold War 20 years ago with a bullet. He was executed in a rough and ready style -- along with his faithful wife -- by his outraged countrymen on Christmas Day in 1989.

The documentary begins and ends with the mock trial of the condescending dictator conducted by offscreen figures who soon would murder him. Significantly, but mysteriously, the additional footage that some viewers will remember, showing the corpses of the freshly assassinated Ceausescus, has been omitted. It is difficult to know whether this decision was prompted by an ethical fastidiousness or another motive.

After the glimpse of Ceausescu refusing to recognize the legitimacy of his interrogators, the film “autobiography” begins with the funeral of Ceausescu’s predecessor, Gheorghe Georghiu-Dej, and footage of the tremendous public outpouring of grief that accompanied his death. Non-Romanians will struggle to figure out exactly who has died and, even more importantly, how Ceausescu succeeded to power.

What we get instead is a two-hour collage of various world figures coming to pay homage to the dictator over his 25-year career, including Leonid Brezhnev, Charles De Gaulle, Alexander Dubcek of Czechoslovakia, Mao Tse Tung, Queen Elizabeth, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon. This visual documentation, while more than a bit repetitive, is fascinating. Even more repetitive and more fascinating are the endless shots of tacky national ceremonies honoring the dictator, sequences that bear an uncanny resemblance to the more familiar ones honoring Adolf Hitler three decades earlier. Welcome laughs come from the over-the-top celebrations during a state visit to China (it didn’t start with the recent Olympics) and seeing the vertically challenged dictator, improbably occupying the front line of a volleyball team, miss most of his shots.

Despite the lack of an explanatory voiceover -- and one presumes that even younger Romanians would benefit from that 20 years later -- the raw, uncontextualized footage slowly begins to accumulate a power of its own.

Still, it would have been useful to spell out the fact that the enormous, legendary building project seen near the film’s end was meant as a kind of castle for the Ceausescus, not just another government building.

The most dramatic moment comes when a lone member of the rubber-stamp Parliament rises to complain that Ceausescu has been illegitimately plotting to remain in power. He is shouted down by a virtual unanimity of zombie politicians clapping and shouting over and over in unison for Ceausescu’s continuation as party secretary. It’s absolutely chilling footage.

Various ironic choices of music, as well as overwrought sound effects and sometimes pretentious fades-to-black, indicate that Ujica deliberately chose to let the images speak for themselves. Is it too much to hope that he might swallow his artistic pride and, with a view toward European and North American sales, now write a script explaining what’s going on behind the pure visual facts that could be even more compelling than they already are?