'Scarred Hearts' ('Inimi cicatrizate'): Locarno Review

Locarno Festival Scarred Hearts Publicity Still H 2016
Festival del film Locarno
A hospital stay that's unbearably long.

The latest film from Romanian director Radu Jude ('Everybody in Our Family,' 'Aferim!') is an adaptation of the eponymous autobiographical novel from Max Blecher.

A young man suffering from spinal tuberculosis is the largely immobile protagonist of Scarred Hearts (Inimi cicatrizate), Romanian director Radu Jude’s intentionally rather static adaptation of Max Blecher’s largely autobiographical novel of the same name. After making two features that largely followed the bleakly realistic and darkly funny Romanian New Wave template, Happiest Girl in the World and Everybody in Our Family, Jude is to be commended for trying something new, first with last year’s black-and-white Western about gypsy slavery, Aferim!, and now with this altogether very different kind of historical film.

But whereas Aferim! was a thrilling epic that uncovered a piece of Romanian history heretofore largely ignored, Hearts hardly develops a pulse, hiding the faces of the protagonists in immobile medium and wide shots while any possible emotions get snowed under by non-contextualized intellectual musings and socio-politico-historical details.

At festivals interested in auteur cinema, such as Locarno and Sarajevo, the director’s name is certain to draw some attention, though purely as a commercial item, this is beyond a tough sell.

In the mid-1930s, Emanuel (Lucian Teodor Rus), a lanky 20-year-old with an intellectual bent, is admitted to a sanatorium on the Black Coast (changed from the French resort town of Berck-sur-Mer in the novel). Like the other patients there — and like Blecher himself — the protagonist suffers from Pott’s disease, a form of tuberculosis that affects the spine.

In the early going, Jude, who also wrote the screenplay, goes through great pains to detail Emanuel’s various medical treatments in all their vintage glory (an abscess full of puss is emptied and much of the protagonist’s torso is put in a cast so he becomes practically immobile). These clinically observed procedures contrast with the young man’s observations about his interior life, blended in at various intervals as white text (without capital letters or much punctuation) on a black background. They shed some light on what he must be going through, sometimes in a direct sense — like when he feels “disgust mingled with indescribable pity” — but sometimes also in cryptically poetic terms that don’t always translate well (what to make of his declaration that “when you embrace me, it’s a prison of flowers”?).

Since the camerawork of cinematographer Marius Panduru isn’t only always stationary but relies almost exclusively on medium and medium-wide shots, the film’s formal aspects stress the lead’s immobility. But by marrying the protagonist’s physical predicament with the pic’s formal aspects, it becomes practically impossible to make any kind of emotional connection to a man whose face we never really get see up close and whose inner life is otherwise relegated to pieces of text shown at irregular intervals.

This problem becomes most obvious in an unexpected interlude in which Emanuel tries to make love with another patient. The moment is played for laughs because the fact much of his body is in a cast means he can’t really move, which is comical. But since there’s no emotional connection to the man in the cast, we are not laughing with him, only at him and his situation. What should have been a tragicomic moment in the life of someone suffering instead only registers as an opportunity for humor in an otherwise rather dour film.

History buffs will be interested in the story’s socio-political context, as both Blecher and his factotum, Emanuel, are Jewish and the second half of the 1930s saw the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe in general and the ultra-nationalist Iron Guard in Romania in particular (“I’m not an anti-Semite except politically and economically,” one of his fellow patients only half-jokes). But this material feels as superficially treated as Emanuel’s Jewishness, which is mainly signaled by having him once complain that he misses gefilte fish. The problems here are that his ethnicity and religion don’t seem to really define who he is and the outside forces at work in Europe in the 1930s don’t seem to influence his life much or even the general mood or goings-on in the sanatorium, reducing them to not much more than ominous background noise (Blecher finally died of his disease in 1938 before full-scale war broke out).

Jude obviously admires Blecher’s work and together with Panduru, he seems to have wanted to make an intellectual movie that echoes the author’s work and dexterity. But without anyone to relate to, Scarred Hearts feels interminably long at over 140 minutes, with the visuals increasingly detaching themselves from what possible story there might have been. The fact that several shots in the film recall some of the most famous paintings by artists such as Mantegna or Rembrandt, for example, distracts more than it adds something. Ditto the mirror on the wall behind Emanuel’s bed that evokes the famous looking glass in Van Eyck’s "Arnolfini Portrait." They are easily recognizable visual references, but since it’s not clear why this film is referring to precisely these artworks, what is the point?

For the record: German director Maren Ade is credited as one of the co-producers. The film’s main producer, Ada Solomon, in turn worked in a production capacity on Ade’s Cannes smash hit Toni Erdmann, which was largely shot in Romania.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival
Production companies: Hi Film Productions, Komplizen Film
Cast: Lucian Teodor Rus, Ivana Mladenovic, Marius Damian, Bogdan Cotlet, Gabriel Spahiu, Alexandru Bogdan, Ilinca Harnut, Serban Pavlu, Marian Olteanu, Alexandru Dabija, Dana Voicu, Adina Cristescu, Sarra Tsorakidis
Writer-director: Radu Jude
Producer: Ada Solomon
Co-producers: Jonas Dornbach, Janine Jackowski, Maren Ade
Director of photography: Marius Panduru
Production designer: Cristian Niculescu
Costume designer: Dana Paparuz
Editor: Catalin Cristutiu
Casting: Viorica Capdefier
Sales: Beta Cinema

Not rated, 141 minutes