Uppercase Print review – a fierce denunciation of Ceaușescu's Romania

Radu Jude dramatises the case of a disenchanted teenager turned in to the secret police in 1980s Romania in this chilling work of filmed theatre

 Şerban Lazarovici in Uppercase Print.
Scoured of emotion ... Şerban Lazarovici in Uppercase Print. Photograph: Mubi
Scoured of emotion ... Şerban Lazarovici in Uppercase Print. Photograph: Mubi
Peter Bradshaw

Last modified on Mon 15 Feb 2021 10.01 EST

The anger and despair in this Romanian filmed theatre work are kept in check by its ice-cold manner: it is spoken throughout in the kind of deadened official style that Ceaușescu-era apparatchiks might have used for reports on wrongdoers and dissidents, and the style that these same people might have used to defend themselves, and convince their political masters that they had internalised the right kind of torpid, soulless submission.

Director Radu Jude (who made the much-admired I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians) has adapted a verbatim-theatre stage play by Gianina Cărbunariu, working with the writer herself; it chillingly dramatises an actual 1981 Securitate case file concerning a high school student called Mugur Călinescu. This teenager was discovered to be chalking protest slogans on walls (in scandalously large “uppercase print” letters) calling for an end to poverty and for free trade unions of the sort permitted by Romania’s ally Poland. To discover and punish the author of these innocuous sentiments, hundreds of informants were mobilised, phones bugged, schoolchildren bullied into turning snitch – all with coldly fanatical pettiness.

Mugur (here played in reconstructions by Şerban Lazarovici), his mother (Ioana Iacob) and estranged father (Serban Pavlu) were all called in for questioning and threatened; his teachers lost their nerve en masse and denounced the boy – who died some years later in suspicious circumstances. The resulting monologue and dialogue scenes are taken from the various enforced “statements” and bugged conversations, but these scenes are interspersed with eerily bland TV footage and propaganda newsreels showing happy Romanians under Ceaușescu’s rule. Fridge manufacturers receive awards, folk dancers cavort in the city streets and a would-be escaper sorrowfully reveals in an interview how he was ejected from a detention camp in Austria, the moral being the westerners don’t want you, so don’t even think about it.

It is chilling when you see Mugur at first: a closeup right up to the camera lens, the blank face scoured of emotion. This is how people have learned to live and survive, it is the lingua franca for both the oppressor and oppressed, and the reconstructions give us a window on lives lived under tyranny. When Mugur’s dad chillingly warns him that the Securitate might be on his case for the next 10 years, it is no satisfaction for us in 2021 to realise that Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu will be shot dead before that time is up.

This is a long film, and some might think it has made its point a while before the closing credits have arrived. But it is a fierce and impassioned denunciation of evil, part of a continuing wave of Romanian film-making dealing with the Ceaușescu and post-Ceaușescu eras. I incidentally repeat my plea for some Romanian director to collaborate with Peter Morgan to make a film about Ceaușescu coming to the UK in 1978 to meet the Queen and get his honorary knighthood.

Uppercase Print is released on 17 February on Mubi.

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