Sunday, January 15, 2017

NYJFF ’17: Scarred Hearts

They thought they were like the Romanian Algonquin Round Table. They just happened to be confined to a sanitarium. As they quip and carp their days away, some will get better, but most will not. Sadly, 1930s Romanian medical treatment engenders little confidence in Radu Jude’s Scarred Hearts (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 New York Jewish Film Festival.

Scarred Hearts is not precisely based on the writings of M. [Max] Blecher, but it is inspired and informed by his autobiographical fiction. Emanuel will be Jude’s stand-in for Blecher or rather lay-in. Like Blecher, the waggish merchant’s son is afflicted with Pott’s Disease (spinal tuberculosis). Soon after his arrival, the rather dubious Dr. Ceafalan will slap a restrictive body cast on Emanuel. Generally, he does not mind, because he was never the outdoorsy type, but it makes his infrequent attempts at hook-ups rather awkward.

Solange is one of the sanitarium’s rare success stories. Aside from an unobtrusive leg brace, she is as good as new. However, she keeps returning to the clinic as a visitor, because the patients have become her only social circle. Emanuel will do his best to woo her with poetry, standing a better chance than he really ought to.

Jude uses static long takes and the boxy Academy aspect ratio to make viewers nearly as antsy and cabin feverish as the unfortunate patients. Frankly, he is probably too effective. In general, Scarred feels like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu reconceived as a vehicle for David Hyde Pierce. Lucian Teodor Rus’s Emanuel is just insufferable in his suffering, but Jude does him no favors by constantly interrupting the drama with super-title extracts from Blecher’s writings. Presumably, something was lost in the translation, because they generally have the ring of failed haikus.

Without question, the most rewarding aspects of Scarred are the character of Solange and the performance of Romanian documentary filmmaker Ivana Mladenovic. We pick up hints of her uncertain social position. We can assume she was once well-to-do, given her former residency in the pricey sanitarium, but she now works in a clerical position. She is also now single, since her husband abandoned her during her convalescence. She looks rather glamorous in spite of it all, but she still shares a kinship with the plastered-up patients. Mladenovic invests her with tremendous sensitivity, but also a mostly appealing flirtatiousness.

You probably already suspected it, but Jude conclusively proves it was a very bad idea to get sick in 1937 Romania. Occasionally, he has characters drop references to the rise of the Iron Guard and Romanian fascism, but nobody really seems interested, so it comes across like a transparent attempt to shoehorn in something properly “serious.” The result is a decidedly mixed bag, so patrons should make no herculean efforts to see Scarred Hearts when it screens Wednesday night (1/18) and Thursday afternoon (1/19) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYJFF.