Don’t be alarmed: “Chuck Norris vs. Communism” is not a remake of “Invasion U.S.A.,” the 1985 Cannon Films extravaganza that pitted the double-barreled action star against hordes of Russian guerrillas trying to turn America into a Soviet republic. But Norris’ films, and others like them, may have played a small but significant role in stoking the fires of dissent in 1980s Romania — or so argues director Ilinca Calugareanu’s lively documentary about censorship and cinephilia in the darkest days of the Eastern Bloc. Bolstered by an irresistible title and stylish, re-enactment-heavy direction from first-timer Calugareanu, this breezily entertaining bonbon can expect ample fest and niche theatrical exposure, plus brisk international TV sales.
Calugareanu’s film is nominally an extended love letter to Irinia Nistor, a noted film critic who began her career as a translator for Romania’s lone state-run television network (TVR), where she bristled at her role in censoring parts of foreign films and programs deemed unsuitable for Romanian audiences (an overly well-stocked kitchen here, a comical cartoon character outfitted in the colors of the Romanian flag there). It was during this time that Nistor was approached by a colleague with an illicit offer: to voice Romanian-language soundtracks for banned movies from the “imperialist” West (i.e., America) that had been smuggled into the country as clandestinely as illegal drugs. The smuggling was done by one Teodor Zamfir, a shadow man worthy of Graham Greene, who also set up a dubbing studio in the basement of his Bucharest apartment. Soon, Nistor was busily at work, becoming — in the words of one interview subject here — the most well-known Romanian voice after that of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
The Romanian black market for bootleg VHS tapes, and the secretive group screening parties that grew up around them (since VCRs were, at the time, rare and expensive items in the country) has backgrounded a number of Romanian New Wave films, including Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.” But “Chuck Norris” puts that phenomenon front and center and digs into it with the flair of a good espionage yarn. After originally conceiving of the film as a more straightforward piece of talking-heads reportage, Calugareanu then reconsidered, going back with a fiction film crew to shoot extensive, Errol Morris-esque dramatizations that play out in sleek widescreen (courtesy of d.p. Jose Ruiz) while the voices of the real Nistor, Zamfir and other first-person witnesses (including Romanian filmmaker Adrian Sitaru, who also helped to stage the re-enactments) fill up the soundtrack.
That dissociation between nonfiction sound and fictionalized image feels like a playful extrapolation of Nistor’s own work in the dubbing booth, where she translated more than 1,000 banned films, and not without a touch of poetic license. More than one of Calugareanu’s interviewees recalls Nistor’s habit of glossing over sexually explicit dialogue (see: “Last Tango in Paris”) and reducing almost any expletive to the milder “go to hell” or “get lost” (evidenced here in hilarious excerpts from the Nistor-dubbed versions of “Scarface” and “The Exorcist”). But even slightly adulterated, “Chuck Norris” suggests, the glimpses of the West and Western democracy afforded by American films highbrow and low- did much to counteract the influence of Ceausescu’s powerful propaganda machine, laying the groundwork for the December 1989 revolution.
In the process, Nistor herself became, like so many movie stars, a kind of fantasy object for those who listened to her performances (including, Calugareanu reveals, more than a few members of Romania’s state secret police, the Securitate). What, they wondered, did the possessor of that smoky voice look like? What kind of life did she lead? Now Nistor has her moment in the spotlight, in a movie that says movies alone may not be able to change the world, but sometimes they can cast the first stone.