I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday July 19, 2019

'I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians'
'I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians'  

As authoritarianism spreads like fallout across the world and nationalism increasingly replaces cooperation within and between countries, Romanian filmmaker Radu Jude's incisive - sometimes torturous - film "I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians" clatters onto the scene like a cinematic hand grenade.

The title is taken from a longer quotation from WWII-era Romanian strongman Ion Antonescu, which an actor int eh film named Traian (Alex Bogdan) - playing the part of Antonescu in a museum-sponsored historical reenactment - delivers while looking right into the camera. "Show no mercy!" he declaims, fully dressed in the proper military costume. "Who knows when we will get freedom of action again for ethnic cleansing and national reform?" The words could not be more shocking had then been shouted out at Charlottesville during the neo-Nazi marches there two summers ago, a display of American fascism that reached its nadir when a white nationalist plowed his car full tilt into a group of peacefully marching counter-protesters, killing one and injuring a number of others.

To be sure, the historical parallels are cleanly etched: Not on purpose, really, since Jude isn't talking about American politics. But he is talking about the way human beings, political animals though we are, tend to ignore the costs we've paid for our past mistakes and, as a result, prove all too eager to make those same mistakes. As one character notes, you can examine any massacre you care to as closely as you please; it won't stop the next one from happening.

In this instance, the massacre is the one that took place when, after a long siege, Nazi and Romanian forces overran the Ukranian city of Odessa in October of 1941. What followed was two days of anti-Semitic genocidal butchery so appalling that even Nazi leaders were taken aback.

This is the historical events that main character Mariana (Iona Jacob) is attempting to portray in a kind of big-budget street theater presentation for the citizens of Bucharest. Mariana is the film's most volatile character, sizzling with passion, loaded with historical facts, and highly articulate about her political positions and artistic visions. Jude allows Mariana to get into so many extended debates - with everyone from her married lover (whose child she's carrying) to a city bureaucrat trying to get her to tone down the spectacle's more challenging elements - that it sometimes feels semi-improvised. In fact, from time to time the film takes on the quality of a rockumentary - only, as funny as some of the passages are, the humor is darkened chilly, and Jude has a way of focusing on the more disturbing details of both history and contemporary treatments of events that should be more instructional to our generation than they are. From archival footage of wartime atrocities to the absurd - and yet a viscerally powerful - sight of mannequins hanged publicly, in a cluster, Jude has got us in a historical chokehold and he's not prepared to ease up.

Antonescu was tried for war crimes and executed in the wake of WWII, but at least some in Romania are all too willing to gloss over his atrocities and recast him as a hero - as Jude points out in a long scene in which the adoring film "The Mirror" plays on TV in the same room where Mariana (naked in this scene, as she often unselfconsciously is) and her lover Stefan (Serban Pavlu) repose in post-coital relaxation. As for the massacre that took place in Odessa, and the hand Romanian soldiers had in it, the film suggests that the contemporary response ranges from indifference to downright admiration.

Jude's film is sharp-edged, implacable, and sometimes punishing in the length of its scenes; clearly, the director is out to make us uncomfortable, which is part and parcel off his exploding of easy national myths and the gilding of bloody history. But Jude also finds room for the humanistic in his film; even when she's fighting with Mr. Movila (Alexandru Dabija), the bureaucrat who's trying to reign her in with standard censorious sophistry, Mariana finds that he's flirting with her and she's responding. Meantime, the tensions between herself and Stefan resonate in fully dimensional ways: He dismisses her outrage at past and present societal prejudices and frets about the idea of having a child with her and what that will do to his family; she, in turn, puts on an independent front but seems hurt at his pulling back. Then again, Maria isn't someone who'll allow herself to be run roughshod over by men. Questioned by bit players and second-guessed by re-enactment enthusiasts, she holds strong and insists that her expertise be honored.

But is it all for naught? Art is an early casualty of war, and all too often a hostage to prevailing political sentiments. Movila demands compromises that threaten to erase the show's most potent messaging, and he even threatens to cancel the event outright; meantime, some of the actors don't want to "mix with" ethnic Gypsies, in an overt echo of biases that have persisted throughout the ages. The crucial test will be the audience response, though, and... let's just say it won't surprise anyone who's ever seen footage of a Trump rally.

"It burned beautifully, didn't it?" Traian asks Mariana after the show, referring to a wooden structure that's torched as part of the proceedings after all the "Jewish" bit players have been shoved through its door. Certainly, and that's all to the better; theatre excels at such things as blending beauty and horror. But will the light of human bonfires, depicted for the crowd, translate to any real illumination? Jude doesn't leave us in the dark when it comes to his personal convictions on these matters.



Mariana :: Ioana Iacob
Traian :: Alex Bogdan
Movila :: Alexandru Dabija


Director :: Radu Jude
Screenwriter :: Radu Jude
Producer :: Ada Solomon
Cinematographer :: Marius Panduru
Film Editor :: Catalin Cristutiu
Production Design :: Iuliana Vilsan
Costume Designer :: Ciresica Cuciuc
Production Design :: Iuliana Vilsan
Casting :: Viorica Capdefier

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.