Romanian director Radu Jude’s first film to get distribution in the United States was 2015’s Silver-Bear-winning Aferim!, whose eccentric humor and twist on western tropes made it a minor arthouse hit. Uppercase Print is his fifth film since then (his sixth, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, will arrive next week) and his third documentary. Though it lacks the accessibility of Aferim!, it shares that film’s absurdist bent and deep historical intelligence. Yet these same qualities that make Jude singular also threaten to keep him on the outskirts of distribution. That would be a shame, as his ability to avoid sanctimony and amplify both hilarity and horror positions him as a filmmaker with few analogues.
In Uppercase Print, the horror is provided by playwright and stage director Gianina Cărbunariu, whose “documentary theater” appropriates materials from the records of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Securitate (secret police) to tell the story of Mugur Călinescu. In 1981, Călinescu was arrested for tagging anti-government and pro-democracy graffiti, then watched helplessly as the investigation consumed his family and social life and arguably led to his death at 19. Jude provides the humor, scouring the state TV archives for images of the spectacular (folk singing and dancing), the banal (industrial production updates), and the propagandistic (military and youth parades). These threads, the adaptation of the play and the discontinuous television broadcast, are intercut extensively, so that the story remains rooted in stifling bureaucratic routine.
The film derives its power from this juxtaposition, which is less between reconstruction and archive, or between the narrative and the non-narrative, than between varying operations of the means of control. Călinescu’s graffiti would have been seen by very few if not for the authorities’ elaborate attempts to catch the perpetrators (a foreman notes that he simply had his men scrub it away the morning it first appeared). The Securitate gathered countless handwriting samples and conducted dozens of interviews not only to catch the perpetrator but also to find more damnable thought crimes (tuning in to Radio Free Europe was a major one).
Meanwhile, controlling a populace rather than a single bad actor happens much less disruptively but much more pervasively, accomplished through media. Romania in the early ’80s was a site of profound disillusionment (like in much of the Warsaw Pact), yet dissent was conspicuously absent from television. In its place were celebrations of a culture increasingly stifled by Ceaușescu’s policies, stories about increased production of goods already abundant in neighboring countries, fabricated threats of Western invasion, and praise for the supposedly self-effacing and self-sacrificing Ceaușescu family. State control manifests both through what is presents and what is absent.
Surveillance is the major motif not only of Uppercase Print, but also of much of 21st-century Romanian cinema. The long takes of Cristian Mungiu and Cristi Puiu, major figures of the Romanian New Wave, were not in service of realism, as one might presume, but in fact approximated the perspective of a surveillant. Such shots were but one strategy for creating an atmosphere of paranoia. This atmosphere is present in films set both during and after Ceaușescu, a testament to how firmly fear and helplessness were imprinted into society. But Jude is less interested in life under the regime than in larger historical questions. It is precisely that tendency to zoom out that keeps his work urgent. Too often arthouse trends search for the proper combination of the universal and the exotic. The Romanian New Wave had the perfect mix; the country was culturally Western but historically communist, and those films focused on people battling stifling bureaucracy and corruption. Jude is more concerned with Romania — a nation of little relevance to American or even European affairs — than Romanians.
It goes without saying that all governments exercise similar means of control, to varying degrees. But Uppercase Print (and Jude’s work more generally) succeeds because of its specificity, which never falls into didacticism or condescension. The decision to home in on a single case and combine it with contemporaneous broadcasting presents a picture specifically of Romania in 1981. Jude shades slightly into analogy only in the ending, when he turns his camera from people to advertisements (including a Barbie ad) for prolonged shots (the same technique is developed more fully in Bad Luck Banging) because he knows that any historical case study tells you primarily about itself. There are lessons to be drawn from this history, but a film that drew them for us would likely do so in broad strokes. Jude prefers the fine details.
Uppercase Print is now playing in select theaters.