Friday, January 4, 2013

The Ceaușescu Era's Last Action Hero


Sergiu Nicolaescu, died yesterday at 82. Here, I pay tribute to one of my first movie stars and heroes who enjoyed massive popularity in Iran.

In June 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of seemingly never-ending 1979 revolution died at 86. Among few western politicians who bothered a trip to Tehran to pay homage to the deceased Ayatollah, in his recently-built, quickly-expanding tomb (or more likely shrine) was a short man with tie. Seeing a European statesman, even from eastern side of the continent, was a rare sight those days. The country, just signed a treaty with Iraq, after eight years of exhaustive war, was totally isolated. All the western countries were backing Saddam Hussein.

Me, being a curious child, I asked my father who it was, and my father, probably thought that the concept of Romanian president may be too vague for me, answered: he is the president of Inspector Moldovan's country. The answer was solid enough for someone whose movie hero happened to be from Romania: director, actor, producer Sergiu Nicolaescu.

As it turned out, Nicolaescu proved to be a better politician than his Romanian and Iranian counterparts. The now infamous Nicolae Ceaușescu, on 18 December 1989 departed Romania for that visit to Iran, leaving the duty of crushing protesters in his country to his subordinates and his wife. Two days later, upon his return to Romania, he found the situation out of control, and finally the revolution that soon took over many eastern European countries toppled him. He was hurriedly, and somehow cruelly, tried and executed just a week after I saw him alive and well on Iranian TV. Nicolaescu's executioners seemed as inhuman as the man himself. Brutality brings brutality, and the husband and wife were killed like cattle. An immense miscalculation  for a man who was giving one of the longest and most predictable mise-en-scenes to the countless hours of footage taken from him and his "effort for autonomy of Romania."

The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu

On the other end, there was the baffled Iranian politicians who had invited him. A hot debate began about the dubious lack of information among the Iranian government about then current situation in Romania. “How can you invite a president when he is going to be executed a week after the state visit?” That was the question some parliament members asked the Iranian prime minister. The hue and cry was ended by sacking one of the usual suspects - the Iranian ambassador to Romania.

But for me and my limited sources of heroism and bravery in cinema, nothing had changed. Growing up watching East German westerns, Bulgarian war films, and the Soviet Union spy TV series, Nicolaescu was closest thing to that cinema of style and excitement I had only heard about from my father and others in regard to the haven of filmgoers- the pre-revolution Iran.

Inspector Moldovan

The Sergiu Nicolaescu I knew was a popular action hero of the Americanized Romanian popular cinema of the 1970s and 1980s. What brought him to fame in Iran was a thirteen-year delayed screening of his first appearance as Comisarul Moldovan [Inspector Moldovan] in A Police Inspector Accuses (1974, as most of his films, directed by himself). The story, set in the 1940s, is about Moldovan who investigates the murders committed in a prison in Bucharest by the fascists who wear dark leather jackets. It is based on true events, but its history, like Sergio Leone's, is also a scheme for reviving certain dressings, attitude and moods which is closer to fashion than history. Unlike Leone, and mostly revealed in my today's viewing, Nicolaescu barely goes beyond fashionable westernized set-up. For him, the history remains a vehicle for gunshots and revenge stories. Cliches from American films stuff the plot: the funny, faithful deputy; final shoot-out in the suburban landscapes with a nod to Bonnie and Clyde; Don Ellis type of jazzy score' night-time conflict on the pier; and a noticeable absence of female characters which reminds me of The French Connection.

Gangster genre revived as anti-fascist cop story

A Police Inspector Accuses ends in a dramatic climax behind a church in which Moldovan is evidently shot and killed by rows of fascist gunmen, in a kind of daft slow-motion you never see these days: long, heroic and choreographed. It took Moldovan four years to resurrect in Revenge (all the given dates on IMDb are incorrect) which was more violent and more precise in exploiting its goals. The final installment was Duel with electro-disco music and Maurice-Binder title sequence in which Moldovan's silhouette shoots in all directions. Still, no woman is around, even in silhouettes. This one has another role model: Jimmy Cagney and the Dead-End Kids. So the inspector becomes a good friend of marginal people. To avoid any costly sets, most of the film happens in ruins of the war which is nice, and the pictures of Orthodox saints becomes a good complementary to the gangster-in-reverse saga of Moldovan.

A Police Inspector Accuses: the last scene.

Apparently the is a fourth reincarnation of Moldovan in 2008 which I haven't seen.

In the second half of the 1980s, the trilogy did very well in Iran, first in theaters and then on TV. Sergiu Nicolaescu was a substitute for banned American films and stars such as Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson. He even resembled George Segal (via Robert Stack) and tried to be as hip as his American models. Nicolaescu as filling the empty stage of stardom in a starless country. I doubt if he knew it himself.

So when yesterday, for instance, Huffington Post, after referring to him as a director and politician says "Nicolaescu was also an actor, and had several leading roles during his career," and see it sufficient for explanation of a cultural phenomenon, one begins to understand why the comprehension about other forms of popular culture, in opposition to Hollywood, has basically remained limited and impractical.

The Persian dubbed A Police Inspector Accuses

* * *

Sergiu Nicolaescu was born in 1930 in Târgu Jiu, Romania. He discovered cinema when he was eight and the passion for films was taking him to the movie theaters very often, sometimes seeing a film for more than two times.

In 1948 his father was arrested and put in prison for his political beliefs. The theme of prison and justice is repeated in the Moldovan series, which is charged with a fictitious urge for the history of Romania.

Dacii

After graduation from university, Nicolaescu became a mechanical engineer, but one of his fellow polytechnic classmates who was working in film industry encouraged him to take a chance and pursue his passion for cinema. Thanks to engineering knowledge, he became a camera operator and in 1962 he made his first short film, Scoicile nu au vorbit niciodată [Shells Have Never Spoken] which was a success in Romania and France. This seven-minute long symbolic short led to direction of his first feature, a Franco-Romanian co-production, Dacii (1967, in France: Les Guerriers) which made him famous. The film was celebrated in Moscow Film Festival and as a result of that, he started making his most ambitious film, the Romanian epic Michael the Brave (1971) which runs for nearly 200 minutes. Later, Columbia showed an interest in film, bought it for international release, cut to half and release it as The Last Crusade. It was another popular film on Iranian TV.

Michael the Brave

The battle sequences in Michael the Brave were amazingly well-made, and one can not ignore the fact the in 1968 he was technically adequate to co-direct a film with Robert Siodmak (and the eternal technical supporter of the big time directors, Andrew Marton, was there, too), a European all-star epic, made in two parts, known as The Last Roman, starring Laurence Harvey, Orson Welles, Sylva Koscina and Harriet Andersson which more than sets and battles relies on Koscina's sexual aura (there is, too, a scene with Honor Blackman in the bath-tub).

Eroticized history: Koscina in The Last Roman

Nicolaescu who played in most of his films, made his last film in 2012: The Last Corrupt in Romania as a sequel to his one-to-last, Poker. He loved sequels.

Excluding his long flirt with politics as a member of Parliament*, which lasted from Ceaușescu's fall to 2010, he pursued his American vision of popular cinema in Romania and occasionally abroad in half a century of filmmaking. The was even a rumor of him wanting to make a war movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the project was never materialized.

His Moldovan films are coincided with the years of Nicolae Ceauşescu dictatorship in Romania. Both men were politicians and "image-makers." Which one were a better metteur en scène, it's difficult to tell, especially after The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (Andrei Ujica, 2010) which boldly assembles three hours out of hundreds of footage from Ceausescu, during his long reign in power. Nicolaescu's cinema can be read as an attempt, similar to Ceausescu's, for giving a false sense of progression, by using the already tested formulas of populist mass entertainment (Italy of Fascist era; popular Nazi cinema) which pretends that uses history as its elemental source, whilst in reality, the real history is its least concern.


"After all, a dictator is simply an artist who is able to fully put into practice his egotism,"  says Andrei Ujica, the director of The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, "It is a mere question of aesthetic level, whether he turns out to be Baudelaire or Bolintineanu, Louis XVI or Nicolae Ceausescu." To that polarized aesthetics one can add Nicolaescu's in opposition to Ceauşescu's, however the question always remains there that weren't they playing the same game by employing the camera (and in Ceauşescu's case, all kinds of media) to create a deceptive image of grandeur. I strongly doubt if Nicolaescu wasn't conscious about the outcome of that particular approach. I doubt of he was a mere entertainer. I even doubt if the notion of "mere entertainer" can exist at all.



Footnote:

* Nicolaescu was elected to the Romanian Senate in 1992 as a member of the Romanian Social Democratic Party.

4 comments:

  1. The last film with Sergiu Nicolaescu is called LUPU (The Wolf), shot in 2012 and which will have a premiere in 2013. It is one of the few movies in which he is only an actor and not the director (the movie is directed by Bogdan Mustata). The movie was selected for the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.

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  2. The selection for Cannes 2013 is already announced? Do you have a link, Codryna?

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    1. http://www.festival-cannes.fr/en/cinefoundation/ficheFilmAtelier/id/11166519/year/2011.html

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