Friday, November 12, 2021

Radu Jude’s Uppercase Print

In western democracies, nobody would notice a few political statements scrawled on public walls. In Ceausescu’s Romania, they noticed—and there is a ridiculously hefty archive of Securitate files to prove it. Theater director Gianina Carbunariu adapted the Kafkaesque transcripts into a documentary play, which in turn Radu Jude transformed into an even more experimental hybrid documentary. It is aesthetically challenging, but Jude records the name of Mugur Calinescu and the Securitate harassment campaign against him for posterity in Uppercase Print, which is now playing in New York, at the Metrograph.

In retrospect, Calinescu’s political graffiti seems comparatively mild. He protested the food shortages everyone could plainly see for themselves and advocated for a trade unionist movement in the style of Polish Solidarity. He made some general statements about freedom, but that was way too much for Ceausescu’s secret police, who called him in for interrogations repeatedly. So were his divorced parents, school friends, and teachers, with the deliberate intention of socially isolating him.

Not surprisingly, young thesp Serban Lazarovici portrays Calinescu as rather stiff and emotionally withdrawn. It is partly a function of the film’s avant-garde nature and partly reflective of the extreme psychological stress that was applied to the sixteen-year-old boy. Tragically, Lazarovici must literally speak on his behalf, because the Calinescu succumbed to a mysteriously convenient case of Leukemia, five years after the incident.

In between the surreal stagings of Calinescu’s transcripts, Jude intersperses excerpts from Romanian state television, which are either blatantly stilted propaganda or embarrassingly corny. Just watching a few of them will make anyone want to rebel against Communism. It also explains why Calinescu was such an avid listener of Radio Free Europe, which was blamed for leading him astray. Jude vividly makes his point by contrasting these scenes of highly scripted outpourings of love for Ceausescu and the Socialist system with Calinescu’s increasingly existential plight. However, a little bit of Communist-era Romanian television goes a long, long way.

Nevertheless, the film in its entirety serves as a sweeping indictment of the Ceausescu regime, particularly with regards to the orchestrated destruction of teenaged Calinescu, but also generally exposing the atmosphere of paranoia and the crude vacuousness of the state’s propaganda.
 Stylistically, it will challenge many viewers, but if you can stick with it, it is quite a chilling work of cinema. Highly recommended for intelligent audiences, Uppercase Print is now playing in New York at the Metrograph and it opens next Friday (11/19) in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal.