For a long while, Andrei Ujica’s darkly ironic compilation film about dumpy, disastrous Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu feels like a pie-in-the-sky daydream. Nicolae toddles about as guest of honor/Mr. Popularity/most valuable comrade at state ceremonies and diplomatic visits everywhere from the U.K. to China, standing before Jimmy Carter, Charles De Gaulle, and hundreds of terrified North Korean dancers. It’s the utopian official vision of the Romanian state purring right along. But “utopia,” according to its Greek etymology, means “nowhere,” and the old-school Communist glory only truly existed one place—on film, as shown through the propaganda footage reappropriated by Ujica and editor Dana Bunescu from national archives. Call the film’s voice first-person-dictator: Reorganized, this is Ceausescu’s—and Communist Romania’s—life flashing before his eyes, a tweaked official record bookended by the tyrant’s final, camcordered moments with his wife in rumpled captivity, during the 1989 Revolution.
Ujica’s strategy is threefold. Above all, he lets the film’s deafening silence about Romania’s suppressed and depressed reality drown out the apparatchik applause that roars repeatedly at rallies and assembly addresses. But he also chips at the illusion from within by letting run, uncut, candid film rushes and home movies (Nicolae vs. a volleyball, in living color), and by paralleling the chronology of Ceausescu’s decline with Romania’s. The truth pokes out, here and there: Ujica plucks 84-year-old politician Constantin Parvulescu’s jaw-dropping 1979 attack on Ceausescu, and later a curiously strenuous speech by Ceausescu about diverting goods for export instead of domestic consumption—a bid to pay off international debt that led to widespread hardship. The camera pulls back to show Ceausescu oddly alone, separated from his stateroom audience.
Autobiography isn’t your standard kitsch, like the glimpses of extravagant Pyongyang madness we get in documentaries or the films of Jim Finn (though Kim Il Sung puts on quite a show here). Instead, as Ujica digs deeper, he enacts a petard-hoisting watchfulness. We get long looks at archival footage all the way up to the regime’s downfall, drawing from unedited rushes that routinely catch telling moments. It’s a long-take look at “History,” a reckoning inspired by Norberto Fuentes’s The Autobiography of Fidel Castro (according to Ujica, who fled his own country in 1981). But a lot goes into this reconstruction, more so than immediately apparent: Ujica completed the original, mostly silent material with matching speech from other sources , effects, and music, including a surprising snippet of Bobby Fuller’s “I Fought the Law,” “Hush Little Baby” for Ceausescu’s U.S. visit, and unsettlingly, some record-skippy Ligeti as he inspects a giant architectural model. At one point, Ujica simply leaves the screen black over screams from the 1977 earthquake.
“Symbolism may be good in the arts but it’s worthless in economics and politics,” blathers the lifelong Party animal, who of course used symbolism to maintain his ruthless and devious rule. Ujica’s film reuses footage that was nothing but an attempt to symbolize success—as desperation-inducing as it is to watch, one can only imagine the film’s effect for someone who experienced the reality firsthand.