The world, but especially Romania, still waits for a definitive docu on communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu and the revolution that brought him down in 1989. Unfortunately, vet helmer Radu Gabrea’s re-creation/docu hybrid “Three Days Till Christmas (The Last Days of the Life of Elena and Nicolae Ceausescu)” only highlights the lack of an analytical cinematic account that could shed light on vital discrepancies. Notwithstanding the inherently dramatic material, the pic has no dramatic thrust, and a highly charged yet unenthusiastic home reception is the most that can be expected from theatrical.
Journalist Grigore Cartianu adapted his own investigative books for the occasion, and Gabrea’s concept is a good one. The helmer brings together footage from those electric three days before the Ceausescus were executed, adds interviews with people involved, and edits them all into a thesp-driven re-creation. Archival elements — of street demos, TV broadcasts, etc. — convey the sense of urgency during that confused period, and avoid any shots of the Ceausescus, restricting visuals of the couple to their onscreen avatars. The result conveys the chaotic nature of the revolution and reveals, though not strongly enough, the contradictory accounts of who ordered what and why.
More controversial, at least at home, is Gabrea’s justifiable decision to show Nicolae (Constantin Cojocaru) and Elena (Victoria Cocias) as human rather than one-dimensional monsters. So a scene of her getting into a narrow bed with him, and later her insistence that they stay together (taken directly from video of the trial), shows them as a vulnerable, loving duo. The conception doesn’t lessen their atrocities — after all, Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth adored each other — but depicting these two as capable of genuine human emotion can still be problematic even 23 years after their deaths.
The pic kicks off on Dec. 22, 1989, when the Ceausescus flee the besieged Communist Party’s Central Committee building via chopper. Forced down by the army and taken into custody, the increasingly desperate couple attempts to bribe guards who are waiting for instructions from their conflicted superiors. Elena largely remains calm while glowering, and Nicolae seems stuck in angered incredulousness. It’s unclear here, as in real life, whether his denial of culpability was due to dementia, mendacity or true cluelessness (likely a combo of all three).
The overall impression of the event is one of squalor and confusion. While most likely an accurate assessment, the pic’s lack of narrative force robs such judgments of any power. Perhaps Gabrea means to make the impromptu trial and execution anticlimactic as a way of pointing out still-lingering inconsistencies, including who ultimately gained from the couple’s fall, yet stronger editing and a more powerful vision are needed. While Andrei Ujica’s vastly superior “The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu” requires even more foreknowledge of his subject’s crimes and is twice the length, it has a vigor “Three Days” can’t muster.
Leads Cojocaru and Cocias took home the acting prize at the Transylvania fest, though many will question what the jury saw apart from a furious intensity (the pair also played the Ceausescus onstage). Undynamic visuals succeed all too well in imitating cheap amateur footage of the time.