What, If anything, have people in Romania learned from history? The disconcerting answer comes with an upsetting bang at the conclusion of Romanian writer-director Radu Jude’s noble fictional effort to explore Romania’s role in the massacre of Jews and others in Odessa in 1941. The anti-Semitism depicted in the director’s aim at exposing the Romanian complicity, necessary to make the point, ultimately becomes in itself harrowingly difficult to endure even in this righteous cause.
Jude approaches the subject via the creation of the character Mariana, forthrightly played with solemnity and dedication by Ioana Jacob. Mariana is a theater director who thinks up the idea of staging a pageant in a public square that will portray the role of Romania in the slaughter that has been long-buried by the effort to avoid history. The mass killing has been attributed to the Nazi forces and the general fighting in World War II. Mariana aims to remind the Romanian public that the guilty party is Marshal Ion Antonescu, the fascist and anti-Semitic Romanian leader executed in 1946 for war crimes, with the complicity of the Romanian military. The title of the film is an arrogant statement that Antonescu made.
With government funding, Mariana wants to bring in tanks and has recruited actors to play soldiers needed. She encounters resistance from cast and crew as the project develops. Most of all, there is resistance from a government official who argues with her that it is unwise to dig up the past and that she would do better portraying Romanian heroism. He threatens to call of the project if she doesn’t tone everything down. A secret plan made with a leading actor is to agree to the official’s demands, and then go ahead as originally planned to vividly dramatize the slaughter of the enacted Jews by leading them into a building and burning it down.
What Mariana doesn’t count on is the possibility of the public gathered for the spectacle to cheer on the anti-Semitic shouting and killing instead of being aghast at what takes place and thus demonstrating that anti-Semitism still virulently exists.
The film is a mighty blast for historical accountability. Unfortunately it also contains diversionary scenes. In order to depict Mariana’s life, the director has her walking around nude at times, and there are nude scenes with her married lover and the depiction of problems in their relationship, relatively minor in the larger context. I could also do without Mariana picking at her toes while quoting passages from Hannah Arendt.
However, that said, what overrides such detractions is the film’s overall concept of attempting to set history straight and remind Romania and the world of what still must be addressed. That is where the film’s power lies. Reviewed July 19, 2019.