Most contemporary Romanian cinema – the New Wave is still going on strong – focuses on either the present day or the last years of the communist regime that ended in 1989. Acclaimed directors such as Cristi Puiu, Corneliu Porumboiu and Cristian Mungui continue to find plenty of new stories to tell in the present time, but Radu Jude – whose international breakthrough came with 2012’s Everybody in Our Family – keeps looking back. In 2015, he took us all the way back to the early 1800s with Aferim!, for which he won the Best Director prize at the Berlinale, and followed it up a year later with another period piece, the excellent Scarred Hearts. Coincidentally or not, that film concludes in 1938, the start of a period that has inspired Jude’s latest two films.
Jude first tackled the topic of the Holocaust in Romania in last year’s documentary The Dead Nation. Using a matter-of-fact approach, he juxtaposed old photographs with the diary of a Jewish doctor chronicling the rise of antisemitism that ended in one of the bloodiest chapters in Romanian history. The harrowing film provided no commentary and on its own, it certainly didn’t need to – but that’s when his next film comes in.
I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians is set in the present, but it deals with the past as directly as Jude’s period pieces. The story follows theatre director Mariana Marin (Ioana Iacob) as she goes through preparations and rehearsals for a spectacle dealing with World War II, specifically the genocide of Jews by the Romanian government. Throughout the film, she clashes with individuals opposing or questioning her choice, including a theatre representative who threatens to cancel the show, and extras who refuse to take part when they realize the show would be sympathetic towards Jews and other minorities.
The subject matter is clearly very important to the director as he uses the film to show the place this dark piece of history has in contemporary Romania, from people who know absolutely nothing about it to those who deny it, and – perhaps the worst of all – those who don’t think it necessary to discuss it and remind the nation that it did happen. There’s a pervasive sense of guilt running through the film as the author struggles with patriotism for a country that has committed such crimes and then, years later, has no problem forgetting all about it. His anger and disbelief are communicated best through Ioana Iacob’s energetic performance. Most of the film’s characters are mere soundboards and the focus on events not shown but spoken about in lengthy dialogues provides a very loose narrative, but she anchors the film by combining a fiery outward conviction with internal struggle in the face of opposition and ignorance.
The film is not without its shortcomings – the dialogues are occasionally hard to follow and repetitive, and at 140 minutes it’s slightly overlong – but it’s so entirely idiosyncratic that those are minor flaws. While dealing with a heavy subject, the tone refuses to settle into one mood as the film moves at a brisk pace, filled with both shocking moments and hilarious one-liners. It even defies the conventions of cinematic form as it involves elements of meta-cinema, theatrical productions, television broadcasts and even literary passages. The film’s international prospects, despite the victory at Karlovy Vary and selection as Romania’s Oscar candidate, are likely limited as this is a specific film with little appeal at first glance (apart from its eye-grabbing title). But viewers who choose to unpack it may very well be as overwhelmed by its issues as I was.