Once Upon a Time There Was a Revolution

in 33rd Festival of East European Cinema, Cottbus

by Angelo Mitchievici

“Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death,” the motto of the French Revolution, is reassembled – or more precisely – broken down into a comic-absurdist portrayal in Tudor Giurgiu’s film Freedom (Libertate, 2023). Equality is out of the question; fraternity is uncertain, negotiable and fluctuating, although the terms “us” and “ours” still function here and there. Death is omnipresent, it’s the only thing democratically available to all.

Giurgiu’s film arrives unexpectedly after a lengthy process of decantation and filtration of the most significant event of recent decades, with considerable consequences for Romania’s history. This event suffered from a lack of interest that dulled all the major questions that had consumed its intensity. Following on from Radu Muntean’s film The Paper Will Be Blue (Hârtia va fi albastra, 2006) to Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) and Cătălin Mitulescu’s How I Celebrated the End of the World (Cum mi-am petrecut sfârsitul lumii, 2006), all three of which were released in the same year, Tudor Giurgiu depicts a highly difficult subject with real, carefully documented events that occurred in Sibiu during the December revolution.

Radu Muntean observed the revolution in Bucharest, focusing more on the periphery immersed in darkness and relative numbness. Corneliu Porumboiu offered an enormous comic retrospective on the revolution as it (did not) happen in a provincial city in Moldova, featuring a retiree known in the neighborhood for playing Santa Claus, an alcoholic and mythomaniac history teacher as witnesses to the ‘Great Event,’ and a dreamer, the owner of a makeshift television. Even Radu Muntean’s film bubbled with a comic-absurd essence despite the tragic ending, which initially closed with a deceptive calm.

Between the center and the periphery, between the capital and the provinces, the revolutionary intensity can significantly diminish to extinction. In Tudor Giurgiu’s film, we have a medium-sized city, Sibiu, where the revolution took place, recording 99 victims, plus an episode that seems detached from another film, a Kafkaesque episode that caught the director’s attention.

Giurgiu’s film starts in medias res, amid revolutionary turmoil, with the army on the streets, awaiting new contradictory orders, with the police defending their headquarters, unsure how to respond to the raging crowd assaulting their gates, and with the bewildered security personnel overwhelmed by the unfolding events. In the chaos, it’s hard to understand who wants what, with whom discussions are held, and what these discussions imply, punctuated by invectives.

Once anomie is established, anything is possible; apocalyptic and fantastical characters emerge. For instance, an individual played by Nicodim Ungureanu issues orders to everyone, both military and civilians, with a hoarse, imperative voice, and no one dares to contest his imagined authority. The director escalates the intensity as if this was an action film, shooting with a handheld camera, alternating frames in a dizzying succession. When the shooting begins and everyone tries to escape – police abandoning their uniforms, civilians advancing through corridors among the dead and wounded – the confusion is total.

The army fires at the police and security headquarters, where someone seems to have fired in the direction of the unit, killing a soldier, repeatedly mentioned as a fragile explanation for what seems to be a vendetta. “Now we are on different barricades,” says a high-ranking officer when reminded that the army, police, and security were once a whole, “damn, we barely know each other.”

The police are lynched by the revolutionaries and arrested as terrorists, amidst rumors (such as that the tap water has been poisoned) and even more fantastical reports that reflect the psychology of the crowd. Finally, from among the surviving security agents, some feigning death, the captured and beaten police, Roma thieves, and citizens playing revolutionaries, including an enthusiastic young man holding a Kalashnikov, ‘Şoaită’ (Ştefan Iancu), a proper penitentiary colony takes shape, stored in a disused swimming pool where Cisnădie rugs for the People’s House were made.

One of Tudor Giurgiu’s goals is to present an unembellished image of the revolution as it was, reflected in a tightrope-like frame, a clichéd framework, with a hysterical poet and dissident Mircea Dinescu on television in vintage shades of gray-sepia, amidst a whirlwind of alarming news and rumors. The first part is a full-fledged action movie, a war film, with shots from all sides, killings, street fights, prisoners taken, situations escalating everywhere, accusations and threats flying, violence permeating everything, anarchy prevailing.

The second part gradually relaxes the situation; socialization occurs in the swimming pool, relationships are established, although not always the friendliest ones. The division outside is present here as well; a football game with a socker ball is organized, care packages arrive, New Year’s Eve is celebrated, communication with increasingly relaxed soldiers—one even accidentally drops his Kalashnikov in the pool and is politely handed it back—ends with each one being released. After the revolution comes no terror; death; ‘us and ours’ remain valid in the end.

A cocktail of hysteria and fear infuses most scenes in the film. In addition, there’s a genuine desire for generalized revenge from a society brimming with hate and frustration, now channeled against the police, security agents, broadly designated as terrorists, and any other victim as a substitute, akin to the anthropological-psychological mechanism of sacrificial violence described by René Girard in his book Violence and the Sacred.

There are two essential elements that consolidate the director’s perspective on the events. The first is the suspension of any moral judgment; there’s no distinction between good and bad. Accusers are in turn accused, those set as prosecutors are themselves suspected of moral lapses. Even Prosecutor Socaciu (Andi Vasluianu) is accused of participating in the repression of the 1987 revolt in Brașov. Everyone has something on everyone else. The police have beaten people, but they claim they’re no longer criminals, as that was just how things were back then; some organized parties for comrades in Păltiniș, others had access to good cigarettes and oranges, expressing a certain Western capitalist lifestyle. There’s a complicity in the misery, a petty villainy in which everyone wallows, except the youths caught in the events’ turmoil. In other words, there are no heroes; any possibility of heroism is blocked.

The second novel element in the director’s vision is that Tudor Giurgiu places those who were part of the repressive apparatus, the security and police, in the position of victims, emphasizing the often purely circumstantial nature of being on the right side of history. The army positioned itself on the right side of history; Lieutenant Colonel Dragoman (Iulian Postelnicu) exemplifies the perfect case of ambiguity. We are invited to see those accused as terrorists, police, and security agents, as regular people, not absolved but banal, sometimes banally evil, just as good people who have suffered or been afraid can, in a banal manner, become violent and ready to pull the trigger.

Corneliu Porumboiu’s film raised a fundamental question: to what extent did a revolutionary spirit truly exist in Romania, a spirit that aimed for profound change? The answer was given by a character playing Santa Claus, “We made our revolution as best we could, as we understood.” This response caricatured and mocked the Great Event. Tudor Giurgiu heads in a direction that I’d phrase starting from a Gogolian apothegm turned upside down. Gogol said that if you look closely at a comic story, it becomes sadder and sadder. For Giurgiu’s film, the Gogolian phrase could be reformulated as follows: if you look closely at a sad/heroic story, it becomes more and more comic. This comic is not one of character, situation, or language, as we find, for instance, in the works of the best-known Romanian playwright, I.L. Caragiale. It refers to what Milan Kundera addresses in his books – a more subtle comic, a comic of history in which roles are randomly and foolishly distributed.

You can be a terrorist or a reactionary, just as well as a revolutionary; you can be a victim, but also a repressive force; you can be the saving hero or the service scoundrel, in short, vice versa.


Angelo Mitchievici
Edited by Pamela Jahn