A true story with Kafkaesque overtones, Romanian director Radu Jude’s latest Berlin world premiere dramatizes a real-life case that took place almost 40 years ago under the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu. Adapted from a 2012 “documentary play” play by Gianina Carbunariu, Uppercase Print draws on the files of the notoriously brutal “Securitate” secret police to reconstruct a tragic episode in recent history that resonates as both a local, personal story and a timely universal allegory about authoritarian abuse of power. Willfully stern and mannered in style, this somber docudrama will be a very niche sell, but Jude’s high critical standing and solid track record as Romania’s two-time official Oscar nominee should boost its festival and art house credentials. The pic opens in domestic theaters this week.
Unlike many of his Romanian New Wave contemporaries, Jude typically takes a longer view of history, and has so far largely avoided directly addressing his country’s grim Communist past. In recent years, the director of Aferim! (2015) and Scarred Hearts (2016) has concentrated more on Romania’s often-overlooked role in the Holocaust with his experimental essay film The Dead Nation (2017), his terrific Oscar-submission meta-drama I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians (2018) and his collaborative documentary The Exit of the Trains (2020), which is also set to premiere in Berlin next week. Uppercase Print is tinged with tragedy, but it almost feels like sunny farce compared to those grand-scale horror stories.
Carbunariu’s text forensically lays out the case of Mugur Calinescu (Serban Lazarovici), a 17-year-old high school student who anonymously chalked “subversive” slogans calling for freedom, justice and human rights on the walls of his local Communist Party branch in the city of Botosani in October 1981. The paranoid authorities swiftly mobilized an army of informers, undercover agents and handwriting experts, and Calinescu was captured within weeks. He escaped jail but suffered harsh treatment at the hands of his friends, family, teachers and police interrogators, who accused him of trying to topple the Ceaucescu government under the brainwashing influence of the CIA-sponsored Radio Free Europe. He never recovered from this trauma, dying in murky circumstances just four years later.
Jude shoots these procedural excerpts mostly as straight-to-camera monologues using a stylized set adorned with giant graphics of TV screens, tape recorders and Securitate logos. This cartoonish aesthetic has a satisfyingly surreal edge, Kafka meets Brecht with a splash of Pop Art. He punctuates dialogue scenes with archive montages from Romanian television of the period, with its quaintly gauche Europop music, creepy forced smiles and fawning propaganda reports about the utopian achievements of Ceaucescu. The jarringly ironic contrast is hardly subtle, but it does provide welcome tonal variety and amusing detours into gaudy totalitarian kitsch.
Uppercase Print concludes with Calinescu’s suspiciously sudden death from leukemia in 1985 at the age of just 21. The implication is that Securitate doctors deliberately irradiated him, a macabre technique used to silence dissidents under Ceaucescu, though Jude does not offer a firm verdict. He then jumps forward to include the recent testimony of former Securitate agents justifying their methods during the Communist era. Insisting they never harmed anyone with their “youth protection” policies, they exhibit zero remorse for routinely torturing, bugging, harassing and ruining lives: “Coercive methods? No way!” One even likens the old regime’s surveillance tactics to Cambridge Analytica — the banality of evil, 21st century style.
A little too austere and overlong, Uppercase Print is a demanding watch at times. Jude would probably have achieved more dramatic impact if he had compressed Carbunariu’s text and given the archive material a tighter edit. Even so, this dry story becomes progressively more absorbing over the long haul. It ends with monochrome photos of the real Calinescu and the chalk slogans that caused him so much trouble, both looking tragically innocent today. This may be one of Jude’s minor works, but it delivers a quietly devastating emotional punch.
Production companies: Romanian Public Television, Hi Film Productions, MicroFilm
Cast: Serban Lazarovici, Ioana Iacob, Serban Pavlu, Bogdan Zamfir
Director: Radu Jude
Screenwriters: Radu Jude, Gianina Carbunariu
Cinematographer: Marius Panduru
Editor: Catalin Cristutiu
Production designer: Irina Moscu
Producer: Ada Solomon
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Forum)
Sales: Best Friend Forever, Brussels