Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Making Waves ’24: Libertate

The 1989 Romanian Revolution was televised, but only partly. People did not have handheld devices like we do now, so there were a lot of gaps. That was especially true in Sibiu, where a veritable civil war broke out between the military and assorted branches of the police, including those formally affiliated with the Securitate secret police and those assumed to be unofficially under their direction. The fighting was chaotic, but the aftermath was Kafkaesque, as recreated by Tudor Giurgiu in Libertate, which screens during the 2024 Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema festival in New York.

Like a cop in an 80’s buddy movie, Viorel Stanese has a bad feeling about going into work, because his child’s christening is only a few days away. Yet, he feels he must, because the station was recently overrun by angry protesters. He soon finds himself in a bizarre standoff with the military, with both sides accusing the other of firing live ammunition at the demonstrators (they call them “terrorists”), who are caught in the middle.

After twenty or so screen minutes of utter mayhem and a good deal of sheer terror, Lt. Col. Dragoman successfully takes control of the situation. However, he arrests everyone unfortunate enough to be swept up in his net, whether they might be Securitate, halfway legitimate cops, or long-suffering protesters. To house them all, he corrals themin a drained pool, posting guards around the perimeter. There they will stay, for weeks into months, as the military tries to sort them out.

Libertate feels like two separate films. The first is an amazing feat of controlled confusion in which bullets are constantly firing all over the place, but it is impossible to tell from where or whom. The second, longer part is an agonizingly claustrophobic exercise in absurdity that will make even seasoned viewers antsy. Arguably, both successfully transport viewers to a very particular place and time, under extraordinary circumstances, but the first is viscerally powerful, while the second is relentlessly uncomfortable.

This is the sort of film that requires the opposite of star power. Instead, the ensemble looks scrupulously grungy and hard-bitten. Catalin Herlo is impressively steely as Col. Dragoman, while Alex Calangiu is appropriately understated as the almost-honest Stanese, who still must come to terms with the consequences of serving a corrupt regime.

Throughout it all, it is important to remember Ceausescu and his brutal “royal” family are the most to blame for all the chaos that erupted across Romania. He oppressed his country for years and then deliberately set the military against the police, hoping to exploit their in-fighting to escape his karma. Obviously, it didn’t work. In many ways,
Libertate might confuse Western viewers, but it features some striking filmmaking. It is also good to see filmmakers like Giurgiu use their art to exorcise the nation’s ghosts and demons. Recommended for smart and reasonably hardy viewers, Libertate screens tomorrow (3/28) and Saturday (3/30) at the Roxy Cinema, as part of this year’s Making Waves.