Susan Granger’s review of “The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu” (The Film Desk)
This exhaustive – and exhausting – three-hour epic by Romanian filmmaker Andrej Ujica concludes his trilogy that began with “Videograms of a Revolution.” Assembled from decades of propaganda films from the Romanian national archives, it’s an epic montage/chronicle of the 25-year (1965-1989) reign of an arrogant, autocratic 20th century dictator.
Opening with the interrogation of Ceausescu and his wife Elena by a military tribunal just before their execution on Christmas Day in 1989, the narrative delves back into his rise from the son of a rural peasant to international statesman, greeted with dignity and formality by world leaders including Queen Elizabeth II, Leonid Brezhnev, Mikhail Gorbachev, Charles de Gaulle, Imelda Marcos, Kim Il-sung, Mao Tse-tung, and U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. During his US goodwill tour, Ceausescu even paid a visit to Universal Studios in Hollywood.
Much of the material is shown without sound and, often, unedited. There are neither subtitles nor voiceover commentaries, often leaving viewers speculating exactly what and when these events occurred. There’s the tradition-laden 1965 funeral of his predecessor, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, with protégée Ceausescu serving as a pall bearer. Later, in one ironic instance, fashionable young Romanians are seen dancing the Twist to the rockabilly tune “I Fought the Law and the Law Won.” Interspersed are footage fragments from the home movies he commissioned to remember his Black Sea beach holidays and Carpathian hunting trips.
History reveals that Ceausescu was celebrated in the West as a Communist leader, primarily because he refused to join the countries of the Warsaw Pact in the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. In Cannes, Ujica told reporters that, for him, making this film was a form of therapy. Having left Romania for Germany in 1982, Ujica is understandably enthralled by the world remembered from his childhood, noting, “A dictator is simply an artist who is able to fully put into practice his egotism. It is a mere question of aesthetic level, whether he turns out to be a Baudelaire or Bolintineanu, Louis XVI or Nicolae Ceausescu.”
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu” is a staggering 7, a meticulous, monumental achievement.