What makes the film quiet and nuanced is that my conscious use of “waning” is appropriate only in retrospect, and quite obviously none of the characters around whom the story revolves in the latter half of 1989 can read the future and foresee the December revolution and sudden fall of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s long-serving, self-anointed Conducator, or leader.
Of all the Eastern European locales where such a coming of age story might conceivably be set, none is more appropriate than Ceausescu’s stunted and strangulated version of the North Korean hermetic kingdom that he had visited in the 1960’s, and subsequently spent decades of serial misrule in an ultimately doomed effort to graft the personality cult of Kim Il Sung onto the pathetically grandiose architecture of Benito Mussolini’s Milan train station, and to situate the result in one of the continent’s least equipped milieus.
As befitting a crazed leader dubbing himself “Genius of the Carpathians” in spite of a peasant background as a semi-literate cobbler, Ceausescu’s dubious praises, as well as those of his even less educated wife, Elena, literally were sung by Romanian schoolchildren prior to the commencement of their daily classes, and it is here that the film’s viewers drop into the lives of 17-year-old Eva (Dorotheea Petre) and her young brother, Lalalilu (Timotei Duma).
As the tale unwinds, the director Mitulescu contrasts the dark and leaden idiocy of the “official” culture of Communism in Romania, as exemplified by the country’s regimented educational apparatus, with the relative normalcy of family life at home, but critically, nostalgia, bathos and the false positives of the Pollyanna principle are mostly avoided.
Eva’s and Lalalilu’s extended family is a loving one, and life is far from wretched, but the unfathomable pressures of existing in an increasingly impoverished and stressful atmosphere are duly illustrated. Random acts of violence punctuate the narrative, the presence next door of a Securitate (secret policemen) officer’s privileged and amorous son has tremendous consequences, and the oppressive political climate has a way of making an otherwise sane patriarch strip to his underwear in a tragicomic rooftop protest that results in his removal by ever-present government flunkies.
Forced by circumstance to make a series of momentous decisions for herself and her family, Eva is abruptly rescued by fate, as Ceausescu’s run of good fortune, which had been exacerbated on more than one occasion by Western nations willing to overlook human rights violations, finally is trumped by a groundswell of resentment. Eva’s neighbors watch on television while the elements of the Conducator’s own party cronies, aided and abetted by the military as well as hundreds of thousands of ordinary Romanians, take to the streets. In the end, even all but the most culpable and compromised Securitate elements also melted away, to be rehabilitated in an early post-Communist government almost indistinguishable from the one preceding the Iron Curtain’s collapse.
If we were to locate Mitulescu’s fictional siblings now, they would be 36 and 26, respectively. More importantly, they would be carrying provisional European Union credentials, for the Romania of systematization, Communist party congresses and agro-industrial complexes is in the process of completing its belated switch of ideological sides. Ceausescu’s ever-present photo no longer glowers from classroom walls, but how many of the people from the generation of the sister’s and brother’s parents, aunts and uncles now sometimes look backward with rose-colored glasses?
More than we might think, even if.