The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu | Film review
A Romanian found-footage documentary hoists a disgraced dictator with his own petard.
Not the biography, the autobiography. The distinction is crucial. Ceausescu, who ascended to the presidency of Romania in 1974 and was overthrown in 1989, had no involvement in the construction of this decade-spanning recapitulation. Yet the movie has been made, to a bitterly ironic extent, in his spirit. Assembled from 1,000 hours of found footage, almost all of it officially sanctioned by the disgraced political leader, Ujica’s long, near-great doc experiment offers a version of history endorsed by Ceausescu’s regime—and, the film implicitly suggests, one that existed solely in the head of state’s brain.
Autobiography is three hours of celebration: parties, parades, festivals, cameos by visiting dignitaries, one public appearance after another, all filmed with the intention of positioning Ceausescu as the beloved and benevolent leader he presumed himself to be. The footage, most of it in black-and-white, is presented without commentary or context; there is no narration or interviews, no dates or explanatory title cards. Only through sly editing and marathon duration does Ujica’s agenda take shape.
“I know its pains and its wants,” Ceausescu says of Romania, in one of many speeches he delivers over the course of the movie. But we see little of the hardships he inflicted upon the country. Through their omission, these injustices become the film’s invisible subject.
Another demanding triumph of the Romanian New Wave, Autobiography works best perhaps when placed in conversation with the polemics of Ujica’s contemporaries. Compare, for example, the horrors of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days—set in the waning years of Ceausescu’s reign—to the frivolities of this presidential diary; both films gain a new dimension of sickened outrage. Yet what greater revenge could a Romanian filmmaker enact upon the dead dictator than recutting his legacy materials into an indictment? Talk about being hoisted by your own petard.