Contemporary Romanian cinema is usually identified by moody, real-time dramas about modern social dysfunction. Radu Jude’s recent work offers a notable exception: With last year’s “Aferim!”, a black comedy set in the 19th century about a Roman officer and his son transporting a Gypsy slave, Jude cast a wider net to explore Romanian identity through the ages. “Scarred Hearts,” a lush drama based on the life of writer M. Blecher, continues that tradition. Whereas “Aferim!” explored a dark period in the country’s history, “Scarred Hearts” strikes a warmer note by resurrecting an unsung hero of its literary canon.
Alternately funny, raunchy and sad, “Scarred Hearts” is an intimate look at one writer making the best of awful conditions. Starring extraordinary newcomer Lucian Tedor Rus in his first lead role, the movie tracks the experiences of 20-year-old Emanuel, who spends nearly the entire film hospitalized with a spinal disease — specifically, bone tuberculosis, which looks as awful as it sounds — that leaves him mostly immobile and bed-ridden. Blecher was himself afflicted by such a condition during the final decade of his life, perishing from the disease in his twenties and only finding posthumous acclaim. (“Scarred Hearts” is based on his semi-autobiographical novel.) But the movie focuses less on the plucky young man’s literary ambitions than the insular world that becomes his natural habitat. Set in 1937, as Adolf Hilter rose to power and the early stirrings of WWII put Europe on edge, the movie lingers with Emanuel and the various patients and doctors he befriends while lying around.
Many viewers outside Romania won’t know Blecher’s work, but Jude makes it easy for them by interspersing various scenes with passages of the late author’s writing. Some of these fragments hold more appeal than others, but as a whole they round out a fully realized narrative strategy. Shot on 35mm in the square-shaped Academy ratio with bright, elegant colors, most of the film’s scenes are captured with a static camera while the film ventures through a series of engaging tableaux.
Described by the scribe in one intertitle as “the impalpable realities of passing days,” the structure of “Scarred Hearts” doesn’t always gel as a complete narrative — but it’s littered with colorful exchanges, passionate romances and emotional asides. The evocative setting provides a keen entry point for capturing the nuances of attitudes from the time. As the hospital rooms transform into a forum for intellectual debates and drunken excursions, they adopt a cozy dorm room vibe.
“This place is like a drug,” Emanuel says at one point, and depending on the scene, that assessment could go a number of ways. A quick-witted raconteur when he’s not struggling from searing back pain, Emanuel ultimately manages to romance sultry young bedside companion Solange (Ivana Mladenovic), who used to be a patient herself and now just hangs around. While the writer’s prospects of developing a long-term relationship have their limitations, at the sanatorium, time stands still. Sustained by the consistency of its chatty characters, “Scarred Hearts” veers through a series of disparate tones, from melancholic to humorous to tragic, in its focused portrait of young man who grows old and wise in the face of forces beyond his control.
This is familiar territory for the filmmaker. Jude’s work to date, which also includes the outrageous black comedy “Everybody In Our Family,” deals with disgruntled characters trapped by a dispassionate society. In “Scarred Hearts,” with its range of patients bickering and joking while barely aware of the world outside, the hospital becomes a metaphor for a confused European identity on the verge of a generational shift. A stable world is on the verge of falling apart, and all they can do is argue about it.
Because of its vignette-based structure, the film never coalesces into a single, engaging narrative, but it’s rich with wonderful moments, from the slapstick of Emanuel’s attempts to have sex in a hospital bed to the chaotic sequence in which the entire ward gets drunk together. Faced with a bleak reality, these dejected characters find respite in companionship.
That’s not enough to rectify Emanuel’s worsening condition, but at least it keeps him creatively inspired until the end. By chronicling Emanuel’s perseverance, “Scarred Hearts” successfully makes the case for the author’s work. But with its endearing characters and poignant themes, the movie doubles as a discovery for the filmmaker as well. Blecher’s career came to a sudden end early on, but “Scarred Hearts” suggests that Jude’s just getting started.
“Scarred Hearts” premiered at the 2016 Locarno Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution