History is a fanged presence in Romanian director Radu Jude’s recent films. Since 2015’s “Aferim!,” in both fiction and nonfiction formats, culminating in the heady tangle of the two approaches that was 2018’s remarkable “I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians,” Jude has interrogated various incidents and epochs in his country’s past, with particularly withering reference to the fog of selective national forgetfulness in which a complicit society can shroud its collective sins.
Berlin title “Uppercase Print” certainly continues this course, projecting those concerns onto the oppressive nature of life in the Ceausescu-blighted early 1980s. But while the film feels closest in kinship to “Barbarians” and dances with similar ideas involving theatricality, re-creation and everyday propaganda (here represented by a fascinating array of clips from contemporary television shows and advertisements culled from Jude’s impressively exhaustive ongoing trawl through the National Television Archives), it lacks a little of the shrewd, sparking intellectual electricity that so energized his 2018 Karlovy Vary winner. In “Uppercase Print,” the fangs of the past are sharp, but muzzled.
Partly, this is a factor of the film’s construction as an adaptation of Gianina Cărbunariu’s “documentary play” (she co-writes the screenplay), which is a dramatization of excerpts from the archives of Romania’s secret police authority, the Securitate. Jude alternates between archive footage and an apparently fairly faithful re-creation of that play, in which actors, including “Barbarians” lead Ioana Jacob, “perform” the transcripts of the dialogues of the Securitate officials, collaborators and suspects involved in one exemplary case, against self-consciously abstract backdrops, as on a stage.
But as we skip back and forth between the assembled historical TV clips, with their unforced documentary relationship to the reality of life in 1980s Romania, and the heightened artificiality of the rather static theatrical recreations, there is a jolting sense of disconnect. Although neither strand feels particularly “cinematic,” there is value in drawing Brechtian attention to the artificiality of the form — in not trying, for example, to create some fluidly naturalistic dramatic reenactment from these often skeletal files. It is instructive to be reminded that the real people who made these statements were themselves performing, because a police state makes everyone into an actor, adhering to a proscribed role for the audience of the all-seeing authorities. But it does make for rather uninspiring filmmaking.
The case itself is a curious, involving one, chosen as a chilling example of how a tiny, seemingly banal act of rebellion — here the scrawling of a few slogans in chalk — can have the full weight of a paranoid state brought to bear upon it, and how, through veiled threats, insinuations and appeals to human self-interest, people can be made to betray each other. In the city of Botoșani, Romania, Mugur Călinescu (Șerban Lazarovici) was a 17-year-old high school student whose worst transgression, prior to 1981, was listening to anti-Communist station Radio Free Europe, despite his mother (Ioana Iacob) telling him not to.
But when handwritten chalk slogans like “WE ARE SICK OF WAITING IN ENDLESS QUEUES” and “WE WANT FOOD AND FREEDOM!” start to appear around town and are reported by the locals, the neighborhood is put under surveillance and Călinescu is quickly caught. The police investigator (Bogdan Zamfir) interrogates him, his mother, father (Șerban Pavlu), schoolfriends and neighbors, and even after he is finally released, he and his family suffer ostracization and loss of employment, and Călinescu’s own prospects for the future are drastically eroded. In ’80s Romania, what he did was not classified as vandalism but terrorism.
There is an intriguing moment in which the interrogating Securitate officials are arranged behind a craft services table in a tableau that plays as a startling, if obscure, pastiche of the Last Supper. But otherwise the visual presentation of the play excerpts gets a little repetitive, as the largely immobile actors stare accusatorily at the camera and make their declaratory, often pre-emptively defensive statements, not least because of the depressingly predictable trajectory of everyone’s testimony: The authorities always get what they want in the end.
Still, there is a kind of stentorian poetry in the harsh bureaucratic rhythms of the interrogators’ language, while in the case of the interviewees, it is often the omissions, and the gaps in between testimonies that speak most eloquently. These gaps are filled by Jude’s immaculately selected contemporary newsreel, commercial and TV show footage which gives his film what dynamism it has, and by itself provides perhaps the film’s most persuasive testimony as to the insidious, omnipresent mechanisms of propaganda. It rounds out Jude’s despairing look at a desperate time, and refocuses “Uppercase Print” to be less about reclaiming one forgotten young man as a resistance symbol and more about the processes of collaboration and capitulation which allow an oppressive state to snip through the ties of community until the fabric of society is threadbare.