Every nation has its own ideas about what makes a political leader, its own variations in principle and ideology. But whether government is big or small, leaning left or right, behind an iron curtain or a red-white-and-blue flag, supported by Islamic or Judeo-Christian values, there’s one constant, one quality that most agree on as a requisite for a position of immense power: charisma. And such magnetism needs to be rewarded, with elections, yes, but with pomp and circumstance, too. Speeches need not only content but also form (and formula); the theater of politics is well known to all but only the most naïve, but we still all are naturally in thrall to idolatry. When that delusion touches not only the masses but also the elected leader, danger lies ahead. For then it’s image that must be maintained above all else. The new film The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu—a thrilling three-hour whirlwind through tumultuous late twentieth-century Romanian history that focuses exclusively on the deposed president and tyrant—reminds us that the public face is often all we are privileged to see. As the title jestingly implies, we’re only getting things, troublingly, from one point of view.
Andrei Ujica has made a documentary without voice-over narration or talking-head commentary of any kind, without introductory titles for principal personages, without scene-setting placards that provide context. It’s a film structured around absence, yet the infamous man at its center is constantly present. The more this complex, largely linear tapestry of images and sounds goes on, the more pronounced that sense of absence grows. We gradually realize that it’s not only those touchstone documentary functions that are missing but history itself: if the twentieth century as represented in the media is a history of obfuscation, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu is a canny cataloguing of elisions, a sly paean to the prominence of the public record. Read Michael Koresky’s review.