This week, I watched three Romanian films. All three were in Romanian, and all three were made around 2006 or thereabouts. Why was I watching Romanian films? Simple… because they’re interesting, and surprisingly entertaining, even if I do have to read the subtitles. I also find Romania’s recent history fascinating.
A few years ago, after I saw a couple of Romanian films and mentioned them online, my Italian friend, Vittorio (whom I never talk to anymore because he got disgusted by Facebook), recommended that I see The Way I Spent the End of the World. This film, made in 2006 and directed by Romanian Cătălin Mitulescu, is about the love between two siblings, Eva and Lilu Mattei, born ten years apart. The story is set in a village near Bucharest in 1989, just before the Romanian Revolution, when former dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife, Elena, were run out of power and publicly executed.
Eva (Dorotheea Petre) is 17 years old and, at the beginning of the film, is a student at a high level school– probably akin to a Gymnasium in Germany. One day, her boyfriend gets a fake note from the principal sent to her so he can steal a few minutes with her outside of class. The two of them are typical hormonally charged teenagers, horsing around in the school’s hallways, when they accidentally knock over a bust of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s head. It shatters, causing them to fear for their lives. It wasn’t unusual or strange for them to be so frightened. At that time in Romania, people were terrified of Ceaușescu’s secret and brutal police force, the Securitate.
Naturally, Eva gets in trouble and winds up being expelled from her hoity toity school– voted out, no less, by her classmates, who probably just wanted to avoid getting into trouble themselves. She gets sent to a technical school, where she meets a rebellious young man named Andrei (Cristian Vararu), the son of a dissident. Eva hooks up with Andrei and the two decide they want to cross the Danube into Yugoslavia and escape to Italy.
Meanwhile, Eva’s seven year old brother, Lalalilu “Lilu” Matei (Timotei Duma) has already figured out that Ceaușescu is bad news. He loves his sister, Eva, who is more motherly to him than their actual mother is. In a sweet scene at the beginning of the film, Lilu has a loose tooth the family is trying to help him lose. Lilu says he’ll never open his mouth again and Eva tempts him with delicious cherry jam. With much coaxing and sweet talk, she manages to yank the loose tooth. This scene always sticks with me, because it sets up just how close the siblings are, even though they are ten years apart in age.
Lilu has a lot of friends and they all talk amongst themselves about their leader. They whisper about what happens to dissidents, such as Andrei’s father, who is punished for speaking out against Ceaușescu. Moreover, Lilu is convinced that Ceaușescu is the main reason his beloved sister, Eva, wants to defect from Romania. So Lilu and his friends hatch a plan to kill the leader. Lilu tricks his way into a children’s choir scheduled to sing for Ceaușescu as he addresses the nation on what would turn out to be his very last day terrorizing Romania.
I have watched this film several times, having invested in my own copy a few years ago. I find it fascinating on so many levels. First off, there’s the fact that Eva and I were both 17 years old in 1989. I grew up hearing about the Eastern Bloc nations, the Soviet Union, and how terrifying communism and socialism supposedly are. In 1989, it was never in my dreams that I would one day live in the former Soviet Union for a couple of years and then, after that, move to Germany and visit so many nations that were once closed to Americans. I have not been to Romania yet. Bill went in 2008, when we lived in Germany the first time. I have visited Bulgaria, though– back in 1996, when it was still pretty recently open to westerners. Those experiences in the 90s really blew my mind and have made me want to know more about what it was like before the fall of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain.
Secondly, I love watching the chemistry between Eva and Lilu. I am much younger than my three siblings are. When I was a child, they seemed more like my aunts than my sisters. When I lived in Armenia, I briefly lived with a young woman who was my age and was raising her nine year old brother, since their parents had died. I only lived there for two months, but I remember how she took care of him. I don’t think she was as affectionate to her brother as Eva and Lilu were… and Eva and Lilu still had their parents. But it’s clear that Eva takes care of her brother as if he was her child. The actors portraying these two characters did a remarkable job of connecting and being convincing– so much so, that I didn’t even really need subtitles to understand it.
Thirdly, I like the music in this film, along with the imagery. In one scene, when Eva is at her new “reform”/technical school, she’s asked if she can sing. She starts singing a lovely folk song. The song leader stops her and says, “That’s pretty, but it won’t do. Do you know anything else?” She answers that she only knows similar songs– she was not taught the pro-Romanian nationalist songs the song leader is looking to perform for Ceaușescu. It’s at that point, that everyone realizes that Eva had been a student at a much better school before she was sent to “tech” school, and it causes the other characters to wonder about her. Why is she going to an inferior school, where she will be forced to sing boring nationalist songs rather than the complex, beautiful folk songs she was taught at a school with a much better reputation? I thought that scene lent an interesting layer to the story. Eva doesn’t belong– she’s at the lower school because she’s being punished for having a “bad attitude”, not because she’s got a poor intellect or no talent. It’s like an unspoken warning to the others to behave.
And finally, I really liked the way the Romanian people were portrayed in the Mateis’ neighborhood. There was a time when neighbors knew each other and mingled. We don’t see that so much today, especially in the United States. I’ve seen it a bit more in Germany, although even here, people are kind of distant and keep to themselves. Before COVID-19, our village had a biweekly wine stand, where we’d all gather in the “Dorfplatz” and drink wine. Although Bill and I are far from German speakers, that wine stand provided a chance for us to mingle with others in our neighborhood. Wine is a good social lubricant, when consumed in moderation. There’s a nice scene in The Way I Spent the End of the World where all the neighbors are eating and dancing, drinking plum brandy, and bonding. It kind of warmed my heart, especially after our year of “social distancing”.
This film ends on a triumphant note, too… as Lilu and his friends are preparing to carry out their “diabolical” plan to execute Ceaușescu so Eva won’t have to leave home… and the public takes care of the deed for him. Later, we see Eva dressed in a Holland America Line cruise uniform as she reads a letter from her beloved brother. She’s earning money to send home to her family– quite a realistic ending, as I have encountered a number of eastern European nationals on my cruises and from reading the excellent book series Cruise Confidential by Brian David Bruns, an American who worked for Carnival cruises as a waiter, then an art dealer. At the time he wrote his first book, he had the distinction of being the only American to actually complete a contract waiting tables in the cruiseline’s history. And he also dated a Romanian waitress named Bianca. I have reviewed several of his books and referenced one of them in this post. Maybe some of us wish Eva had stayed in Romania with her brother, but she looks happy and somewhat regal in her uniform… and she has escaped to see the world, something that would have been unfathomable during Ceaușescu’s regime. She would have been expected to bear babies for the state, instead.
I do think it’s helpful to have some understanding of Romania’s recent history– particularly as it pertains to Ceaușescu’s era. Younger people who weren’t around during the Iron Curtain times might not appreciate this movie as much, because they will be less able to understand the context. Also, because it’s in Romanian, you have to pay attention to the subtitles to get what’s happening, unless, of course, you know the language. I suspect that Europeans would enjoy this more than Americans would, because a lot of Americans have no concept of life outside of the United States. However, as an American, I will happily state that I love this movie, and I think it’s worth the effort to watch it, if you’re willing to try to understand it. At the very least, it might encourage younger folks to learn about why charismatic wannabe dictators, like Donald Trump, are so dangerous.
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