To fully deconstruct Romanian director Radu Jude’s meta-on-meta “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians” (the quote marks are part of the title) would require page upon page of single-spaced footnotes, swathes of Hannah Arendt, a deft repackaging of Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” and a crash course in Romanian anti-Semitism and the nation’s participation in World War II, amid formal nods to Godard, Straub-Huillet, and Marxist critical theory, while martial music plays in the background. Clocking in at an unwieldy 140 minutes, Jude’s extraordinary opus can be overly didactic and unapologetically intellectual at times, but it is also startling —a provocative, sarcastic, and momentous act of interrogation between the past and the present that escalates to an impasse, with the hands of each locked around the neck of the other.
In a military museum, in front of a glass case filled with old rifles and guns, actress Ioana Iacob wanders into frame and introduces herself. She explains that she will be playing the role of Mariana Marin — not the 1980s Romanian poet, but a theatrical director (an obvious proxy for Jude himself) who has been tasked with designing a public spectacle relating to Romanian history. Instead of something uncomplicatedly patriotic, Mariana is mounting a meticulously researched reenactment of a much disputed 1941 atrocity, in which the collaborationist leader Ion Antonescu (who would later be executed for war crimes) ordered the murder of tens of thousands of Jews following the capture of Odessa by Romanian troops.
Mariana’s days are spent choosing costumes, coaching her non-professional “cast,” selecting gunshot sound effects, and so on, her nights padding semi-naked around her apartment reading and researching, while her personal life also intrudes as she worries she may be pregnant by her married pilot boyfriend (Șerban Pavlu). Some of the re-enactors bring their own agendas, like the old man who refuses to work alongside the Roma actors, or the young guys who are a little too eager to don SS uniforms but who recoil from playing Soviet soldiers.
The project also brings Mariana into conflict with Movilă (Alexandru Dabija), a city official nervous about potential backlash over the show’s “anti-Romanian” content. Mariana and Movilă have long, fractious but fascinatingly erudite debates about historical relativism and “comparative trivialization,” by which she means the tendency of nationalists to downplay the severity of the massacre by comparing it to “worse” atrocities, especially those of which Romanians were not the perpetrators, but the victims. (It is essentially another term for “whataboutism,” a tactic that also plagues political discourse stateside these days.)
On the one hand, fans of Jude’s recent output might find the docu-drama aesthetic here to be relatively anodyne: There’s nothing to compare to the punchy high-contrast black-and-white of “Aferim!” or the dreamy period pictorialism of “Scarred Hearts.” But Marius Panduru’s camerawork (along with Iuliana Vîlsan’s clever, offbeat production and costume design) is deceptively rich, considering its spontaneity, and its behind-scenes glimpses at on-set tussles and troubles have a playfully Brechtian feel, reminiscent of Truffaut’s similarly self-aware “Day for Night.” It all comes together best in one electrifying scene during a thunderstorm when a vicious argument is surreally backdropped against the museum’s collection of rusting tanks while nearby the parping tubas of a live brass band rehearse their pompous tunes through the downpour.
Even the climactic staging of the reenactment, shot on garish video as though for a news report, serves a function in the investigation of truth and falsehood, calling attention to the reality of the massive spectacle, and to the non-actor spectators whose reactions appear to be unsimulated. Add in the archive footage and photographs like those featured in Jude’s photomontage doc “The Dead Nation,” and it feels like “Barbarians” as well as being a withering indictment of Romania’s refusal to face up to its uglier episodes, is a culmination of all Jude’s recent formal and thematic preoccupations. And gluing it all together, there’s Iacob’s unassumingly riveting performance, so naturalistic that its immensity could almost be missed, the way one misses the forest when looking at the trees.
With the reenactment, Mariana hopes to catch the conscience of a population sliding into the comfortable selective amnesia of nationalism. Joshua Oppenheimer’s peerless “The Act of Killing” used a similarly Shakespearean device to cathartic effect, but the most radical aspect of Jude’s film might be its depressingly anticlimactic conclusion, in which neither the reckoning Mariana hopes for, nor the outcry Movilă fears, actually transpires. The project was always essentially futile, an appeal to decency sunk so deep in the sludge of tribalism and prejudice that even harsh, hard-fought historical truth cannot dredge it up. The terrible plausibility of this outcome is confirmed every time a crowd chants a demagogue’s demonstrably fallacious slogan, and every time a dearly won ideal is casually sacrificed for momentary political gain.
Of viciously pointed relevance anywhere populism is on the rise, “Barbarians” is a fiercely intelligent, engaging and challenging wake-up call, a film that leaves you smarter at the end than when you went in, but also sadder and significantly more terrified. It is easy for unprincipled people to act barbarously if they do not care how history will view them. And it is easy not to care about how history will view you, if you do not care about history at all.