In truth, it doesn't matter to me that it's a Romanian film (I tend to love Romanian films), a dark comedy (most of my favorite Romanian films are dark comedies), a story about totalitarian politics (my favorite Romanian dark comedy, 12:08 East of Bucharest, is about the nation's history of totalitarianism), or as the cherry on top, that it's a meta-movie that asks questions about whether it's possible to make politically consequential art while right in the middle of making politically consequential art that's deliberately downplaying its own effectiveness. Or that it won Best Film honors at the 2018 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, the most admirable of the second-tier European festivals. The shameful fact is that all I needed to know about "I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians" was its title,* and that was enough to get me in the theater and guarantee that I'd be kindly disposed to it. I am a simple person with simple pleasures.

The titular sentence - or, to be more precise, the titular sentence in Romanian, "รŽmi este indiferent dacฤƒ รฎn istorie vom intra ca barbari" - was spoken aloud in the summer of 1941 by Ion Antonescu, Prime Minister of Romania, as his not-actually-a-defense for his role in encouraging the slaughter of thousands upon thousands of Romanian Jews even before Nazi Germany had begun actively committing genocide. That both is and isn't the subject of the new film, the sixth feature directed by Radu Jude, and the first I've seen. Explicitly, the film is about the process of making an art piece about the 1941 massacre of not fewer than 25,000 souls in Odessa, Ukraine, at a point in time when that city was under Romanian control. Even more explicitly, the film is about making a film about that process. The second thing we see is actor Ioana Iacob introducing herself to the camera, and letting us know that in the film to follow, she'll be playing a character named Mariana Marin - not the deceased poet, she admits with some obvious embarrassment. She then starts to walk through the set, and cinematographer Marius Panduru's shaky handheld camera wobbles after her; at some point, he (or his camera operator) sets it on an unseen tripod and locks it down with a distinct snap, reframes, and then without otherwise cuing us to notice anything, the fictional narrative has apparently begun. Because before there's another cut, Iacob has begun performing Mariana's actions.

There are bravura openings, and then there's this massive slap-you-in-the-face act of locking us out of the movie before it's even started; it's also the moment that the film won me over even beyond the fact that I was already having a torrid love affair with the title. And as it turns out, it's fundamental to how the movie explores its complicated, nested themes. The main plot concerns Mariana's frustrated attempts to put on a multimedia performance front of the Royal Palace of Bucharest as part of some unnamed commemorative event; she's eager to use the occasion to confront the audience with a well-buried piece of national history, the Romanian people's complicity - their downright eager complicity - with the atrocities of the Holocaust. The show's producer, Movila (Alexandru Dabija) is insisting that she should just present the standard history: that Antonescu was a martyr to the hated Soviet Communists who took power in Romania after the war, and that it is more important to celebrate him and his Romania as a matter of national pride. And he's willing to pull the plug on the whole production if she insists on her radical path. Over the days leading up to the event, the two butt heads while she's busy dealing with the problems that would already be involved with staging a major live theatrical event on a scrawny budget, on top of a crisis brewing with her terrible boyfriend (Serban Pavlu), a married airline pilot.

There's already plenty to gnaw on simply taking the story as a story: Iacob gives a hell of a good performance as a beleaguered-from-all-sides creator, with moral righteousness that bleeds into tetchy irritation. And the film has a wonderfully dry, deadpan sense of humor to augment its severe Euro-art aesthetic of long takes and long pauses. But of course what gives it nearly all its bite is the big questions it asks about history, and representing history through art. Not to spoil anything, but it's fair to suggest - since it is never in much doubt - that Mariana's dream of confronting a complacent populace with the enormity of its past won't amount to very much, though the way it doesn't amount to much is a bit of a surprise. You may have noticed that I mentioned the second thing we see; the first is a vintage news report of the day that the Romanians tore down the trappings of Communism and raised their own flag again. That event is never alluded to again, but it starts the film off by pointing to the moment that contemporary Romania popped back into existence; the moment, in essence, that Romanian nationalism was reborn. As much as the film is about history and guilt trickling down through generations, it's also about nationalism: the deep set need people have to believe only the best things about their country and their culture. Jude treats this all with a steady hand: it's never in doubt that he's on Mariana's side, but he doesn't pretend that the unreflective national pride of men like Movila is incomprehensible or unmotivated.

So anyway, the film presents somebody who desperately, with all her being, believes that the job of art is to confront its viewer with uncomfortable truths, and that in so doing the artist can transform society for the better, and it then proceeds to suggest that she is, in fact, wrong. But there's a trick to it, which is that we are, ourselves, watching a work of art confronting us with exactly those same truths. By silently reminding us that we are, when all is said and done, watching a message movie, Jude creates a paradox: the object in front of us claims that art is helpless to embody history, while it is, at the same time, going about the business of embodying history. It's as if the movie is playing a trick on people like Movila, telling them that they're exactly right in the hopes that they won't notice the film mocking them to their face.

If that all sounds complicated, it surprisingly isn't. Part of the film's pleasure - and for all the brutality of its content, and its bitter sense of hopelessness in the face of human piggishness, this is a pretty easy, fast-paced 140 minutes - is how cleanly and even inevitably things snap into place. It might very well be the case that movies can't do anything to force a confrontation with an immoral history, but "I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians" certainly leaves no doubt as to why it thinks that confrontation is necessary, and its wry, ironic tone in placing its philosophies into Mariana's mouth makes this all feel much less like medicine and much more like an absurd joke. Moral harangues are rarely more welcoming.




*Complete with quotation marks!