Nicolae Ceaușescu for Beginners

A hit with cinephiles at last year's New York Film Festival, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu is a singularly fascinating documentary that tracks the more than 20-year reign of the Romanian communist leader through archival footage painstakingly gathered and cut together by director Andrei Ujică and his editor Dana Bunescu.  Autobiography concludes Ujică's de facto documentary trilogy about the fall of communism in Eastern Europe started by his Videograms of a Revolution (1992), a more detailed account of the Romanian revolution of 1989, and continued by his critically acclaimed Out of the Present (1999) about a Soviet cosmonaut stranded on the Mir space station during the dissolution of the U.S.S.R.  With the exception of a small amount of narration in Videograms, Ujică consciously avoids any explicit commentary in his films.  This gives his work a hypnotic and engrossing quality, but also means the viewer benefits from a certain amount of historical context going into the films. 

Born poor in 1918, Ceaușescu became involved with the then-illegal Communist Party of Romania as a teenager in Bucharest.  During one of his stints in prison he shared a cell with—and became the protégé of—Gheorge Gheorghiu-Dej, who would go on to lead the party and the nation from 1948 until his death in 1965.  After succeeding Gheorghiu-Dej, Ceaușescu quickly became popular with the West for his independent foreign policy, unique amongst the Warsaw Pact nations, and his challenge of Soviet authority.  His later years, however, were marked by an obsession with his own cult of personality and increasing delusion about the daily hardships facing the Romanian people, caused in large part by debt he had accumulated with the West.  Growing unrest culminated in demonstrations in the city of Timișoara in 1989 that were violently suppressed by Ceaușescu's military forces, which in turn sparked the revolution in Bucharest that would end his reign.

Autobiography opens (and closes) with footage of Ceaușescu’s refusing to acknowledge the hastily conducted kangaroo court that convicted him and his wife Elena of genocide and other crimes and sentenced them both to death by firing squad.  From there, Ujică snaps us back to the funeral of Gheorgiu-Dej and Ceaușescu’s rise to power.  What follows is an astounding collection of official and private footage, alike, in which Ceaușescu is shown receiving world leaders including Charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon, Queen Elizabeth II and Mao Zedong and delivering rousing nationalistic speeches replete with the wooden language characteristic of communist leaders of the era.  In a telling piece of propaganda near the film’s end, Ceaușescu is shown visiting a store overflowing with bread, meat and other foodstuffs at a time when, in actuality, breadlines at nearly empty stores in Bucharest stretched for blocks.  In this way the film’s title is incredibly apt: this is Nicolae Ceaușescu as he would have himself remembered by history, and as such the film is a fascinating combination of documentary at its most formal and performance at its most artificial.

The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu opens at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center this Friday, September 9.

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