Romanian filmmaker Radu Jude (Aferim! and Scarred Hearts) always deals with the artist’s responsibility to portray history and morality. The lead character of his latest film is a female stage director, Mariana Marin (Ioana Iacob), tasked with mounting the reenactment of a historical event that includes disgraced national figures such as Deputy Prime Minister Mihai Antonescu (1904–1946), a dictator whose 1941 speech gives this new film the most startling title of the year: “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians.”
Jude is in super-allegorical mode. Barbarians concerns theater and the communal basis of art, but it is really about the pressure Jude feels in his obligation as a filmmaker, an art intellectual concerned about the past, and a citizen whose work addresses the public today. Exploring political and artistic folly means that Barbarians is also a comedy. (The badass title reproves egotistic boasting about “the right side of history.”) It confronts and partakes of arrogant political will — no other movie this year has a more daring subject.
The avalanche of political and historical details pertaining to Romania’s role in World War II, including a pogrom related to the country’s history of dictatorship and ethnic cleansing, might be obscure for us, but Jude’s focus on Marin’s effort to uncover the past (and the paradoxes of her feminist personal life) feels familiar. Her insistence that her state-sponsored show will be a “political and educative endeavor” is of the moment. Committed to work that is “stylized, compressed, theatrical,” Marin could be an East European Julie Taymor. She repeats the ambitions of our newly politicized female and black media-makers who embark on public reeducation and social engineering through entertainment and journalism.
Barbarians makes the nightmare of Communist oppression, and its continuing effect on the popular and artistic psyche, absolutely clear — and pertinent. A former assistant to Costa-Gavras, Jude revels in his own brand of political rhetoric, adding cultural absurdity. Barbarians mocks and laments Europe’s chaos and Romania’s asperity, yet it is relevant to the hysteria of America’s current cultural revolution in which our media elite consciously attempt to manipulate mass emotion and create mass distraction.
Marin’s own class difference from her common-people audience is revealed when she attempts to cast citizens to repeat their own memories of suffering, or when their political opinions conflict with her own. Calling a bushy-bearded senior citizen “Karl Marx,” she teases herself, “First as tragedy, then as farce!” It’s Radu’s snarky credo.
Barbarians dares art-movie brashness: Actress Ioana Iacob, identifying her real-life self, and Jude’s clapboard intrusion both evoke the self-implicating formal experiment of Godard’s La Chinoise (1968). Surprising nods to Alain Resnais, Straub-Huillet, and Roy Andersson abound. One of many brilliant sequences shows Marin discussing her reflections on genocide and Hannah Arendt (“author of the most demystifying book on evil”) during down time in a bar with her young crew. Jude pans across the relaxed faces, smoothly shifting the focus on these descendants of historical atrocity. It brings Godardian objectivity to the TMZ club; their conviviality and confusion are combined and made fascinating.
Jude counters the glib assumptions of a generation protected from the past by time, remoteness, and media disinformation. “Idiots can kill without hating,” Marin warns, disabusing them of their trendy notions and correcting their shiny coterie prejudices. “Guilt is individual, not inherited,” she declares.
Marin’s effort to reconcile herself with Romania’s shameful past follows Jude’s consistent subject in Aferim! and Scarred Hearts, his own historical spectacles. Marin goes big — her circusy, outdoor commemoration with troops in formation, tricolor flags, and nighttime klieg lights recall Fellini, Miklos Jancso, Leni Riefenstahl, even D. W. Griffith. It’s not clear if Jude is visualizing a hodgepodge or an homage, but he humbles Marin when the public’s response to her high-minded, audacious display differs from her expectations. Reactions to history and entertainment are always unpredictable.
Jude gets to the film’s core concern with art vs. political correctness in debates between Marin and cultural minister Movila (Alexandru Dabija), who insists on compromises to soften the depiction of anti-Jewish hatred. These deep-diving conversations are also performed insouciantly (both sides win points), which makes them relevant to our own concerns: the media’s obsession with reforming and making reparations for the sins of America’s cultural and political past.
Self-hatred has infected American pop culture since the Vietnam years. (Pauline Kael found Apocalypse Now to be definitive: “Coppola got tied up in a big knot of American self-hatred and guilt.”) Jude has chronicled Romania’s self-loathing as central to the bizarre heritage of that country’s filmmakers. Barbarians flips the meaning of Antonescu’s outrageous proclamation – “I do not care if we go down in history as barbarians” — to recognize modern cultural contradictions, yet he is always conscious of our need for spiritual sustenance. Think about Disney, Marvel, and Pixar reducing moviegoers to Philistines while Hollywood and the media elite, operating from their commanding heights, become the new shamelessly arrogant, power-hungry barbarians. Radu Jude is the only filmmaker to dramatize that distinction.