I'm an Old Communist Hag

By Jared Young

Mailed on November 25, 2013

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Dear Nicolae Ceausescu
Former Dictator

Dear Nicolae,

Your specter looms large over modern-day Romanian life in Stere Gulea's new film I'm an Old Communist Hag. Televisions buzz and chatter with impending news of a DNA test that will determine whether the bodies buried in your gravesite indeed belong to you and your wife. Meanwhile, a documentary is being shot about life during The Golden Era of Ceausescu (as you, yourself, so demurely christened it), requiring hundreds of volunteers to recreate the scenes of state-orchestrated adoration that used to greet you each time your helicopter alit or your motorcade zipped through the streets. Thankfully, this film doesn't have to strain nearly as hard to make an impression.

One of those volunteers is Emelia, a sixty-something woman living modestly in a Bucharest suburb with her vendor husband. When she receives word that her daughter and soon-to-be son-in-law will be visiting from Canada, she seeks a small loan to feed her guests for the week. And it's at one of these dinners that Emelia is revealed to be the communist hag of the title; pressed by her daughter, she admits that, yes, she preferred your good old days of communism to the shaky free market that threatens each day to swallow her family up.

This is a surprisingly common sentiment. Democracy hasn't been a cakewalk for Romania. And neither has membership in the European Union. Many who lived through your rule are nostalgic for its security and steadiness. Romania always seemed to be the most progressive of Eastern Bloc nations (at least from the West's point-of-view), but while you were careful to distance yourself from Russia's geopolitical influence, you were, perhaps, the leader who carried forth Stalin's style of authoritarian rule most vigorously--what with the crippling economic policies and the brutal suppression of dissenting viewpoints and all.

Those aren't necessarily the things Emilia is pining for in this film. Even she isn't sure what she misses exactly. For all the talk of the halcyon years of stable housing and employment, Emilia recalls, in a series of flashbacks, being kept away from her family in the days leading up to one of your factory visits. The reason? It's never clear whether it was your phobia of germs or your sense of paranoia that required her to be quarantined before shaking your hand, which makes the situation even more disturbing. There is no reason. But Emilia nonetheless complies.

As played by the renowned Romanian actress Luminita Gheorghiu, Emilia is stout and strong-hearted and also completely adrift in the contemporary world; she frets over the worldwide financial crisis; she goes to get her hair cut and comes back with a bright-red punkish do. This sort of incarnate performance is deserving of no small number of superlatives, though what those superlatives might be, I can't quite say. All of the adjective and metaphors typically used to describe great acting all seem a little too pompous. And if there's one thing her performance isn't, it's pompous.

See, that's the problem with epithets, Nicolae: they don't aggrandize a person; they obscure. You may have created around yourself the most impressive cult of personality in Eastern Europe when that part of the world was replete with big personalities, but the names you gave yourself - genius, demiurge, titan, Prince Charming - are heavy with their own meaning, and do nothing, today, to define what kind of man you were. They do, however, shed a bit of light on what kind of leader you were.

Director Stere Gulea is a survivor of the lean artistic years under your rule - he made several films in the 70s and 80s, during the Communist studio system - and whether or not he shares Emilia's conflicted feelings about Romania's past, this much is for certain: he knows better than to give you credit for her wistfulness. It's herself that she misses. The innocence of her daughter. The simplicity of youth. But not you. Sure, your specter looms large over this film. But that's all you are, anymore: a ghost.



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