The Reenactment, over and over again (II)

5 May, 2022

As if the entire story behind the Great Communist Heist weren’t complicated enough, the niece of Monica Sevianu arrives to Bucharest in the late nineties in order to shoot her second feature, a documentary titled — surprise! — The Reenactment. Once more, the archives of the Ioanid Gang are turned inside out, witnesses are called to explain what they’ve seen and heard. Only this time around, this isn’t a state secret, but rather, a family secret; and secrets are made to be told.

That Irene Lusztig was to become a famous documentarian was not yet apparent when one regarded the frame of this timid, hesitant and luminous presence that lent her voice to the film’s off-screen narration. Back then, she seemed to be a young American woman that knew much too little about the “story” – “Do you know it? / Not quite. / I’ll tell you”. Every single person tells is differently, some barely remembering, others remembering all too well, especially those belonging to the family. But not all – Miki Lusztig, erstwhile, Irene’s mother, and such, Monica’s daughter, puts a light on incessant absences, intimate idiosyncrasies, her subtle aging and sudden death (in 1977); all the rest is mythology: thoughts on how Sevianu was no Zionist, in contrast to her first husband, and no communist either, in contrast to her second, but just in love, a woman in love with being in love, a comedy protagonist landed in the middle of a tragedy. She recalls the exact time and atmosphere of a single day – that of their arrest in 1959, which as to send her step-father (Igor Sevianu) into the grave and her mother in prison. Others, such as Monica Sevianu’s sister and brother-in-law, acting as adoptive parents of sorts to Miki, prove to be much less romantic. To them – especially to her –, Igor was nothing more than a good-for nothing, the bad company in which Monica, who was once a standard-bearer of the petit-bourgeois common sense, and then of then communist one, fell into the disgrace of a dolce far niente, be it ideological or, rather, capricious in nature. It might have been for the money, say the in-laws, raising their shoulders. Nobody contradicts their assertion, because young Lusztig isn’t looking for confrontations. Besides, the family discussion about the theft has never really died down along the years, because it seems to have never been alive in the first place. The answer must be lying somewhere in Romania, scattered across the town that was abandoned by Sevianu’s ilk. 

The filmmaker’s fascination with this place that she has never seen before, a provisional Bucharest transitioning from the communism of yesterday to the capitalism of tomorrow, along with a (self-)pathologizing instinct of hoarding images, act as a prolongation of observation, with its Dacia cars, its stray dogs, its metal cranes and wobbly axes, even slowing down to contemplate for a moment in a clothing bazaar, of the kind that smelled like rain and plastic. Making her way around the town, Lusztig is careful not to miss the common spaces, such as the story of the Eastern Paris and other such tales, just as she doesn’t miss the meandering nature of history lessons. Her grandmother’s story is waiting to be understood, but the memories, the faces, the institutions, the archives of Bucharest prove to be much too much – too secular, too untrustworthy for an understanding that aims to be more than simply clarifying. Few are capable of offering this to the filmmaker: her mother, just her mother, and Sevianu’s Israeli lover, maybe her grandfather – precisely through his refusal to talk, maybe her cellmates, but that’s about it. Once she lays her hands on her grandmother’s Secret Police files, the filmmaker takes a step backwards – “words seem meaningless, fats seem to obscure what was truly going on in the minds of the six”. 

Reconstituirea (Irene Lusztig, 2001)

In this sense, if not though the information that it purveys, but rather through its effect, the file resembles Calotescu’s film, which was most likely first unearthed from the dank cellars of the Archive by Lusztig herself; there, it was nothing more than yet another communist propaganda film, in her hands, it became a family movie. Operator Nicolae Marinescu doesn’t seem to recall much of the film’s genesis; in any case, he explicitly tells the director that “it was not the kind of documentary that would capture reality as-is”; besides, just as Pantelie Tuțuleasa, his assistant on the set, he searches for a justification in the “beautiful images” that he crafted. But Lusztig wasn’t in search even of reality itself, but rather of a sort of philosophical outlook that she had inherited from Monica Sevianu. In fact, a throwaway observation made by her mother proves to be more generous than any contemporaneous document of the era; as she recalls the day of the arrest, Miki Lusztig retains the detail of a horseshoe that her mother picked up on her way home, for good luck.

Such souvenirs of life’s charming side used to be scattered all over the films of Nae Caranfil. Chance has it that his Closer to the Moon (2014), a fictional take on the Great Heist, is Caranfil’s last truly charming film to me, despite the fact that I always had certain reserves when it comes to his cinema. It might just be that all this time that I spent circling around the Ioanid story has made me susceptible to exaggerating the merits of one “inspired by true events”, but I regret none of the smiles that this film elicited, because being one step ahead of history means to also indulge in certain pleasures.

Closer to the Moon (r. Nae Caranfil, 2014)

The motives and justifications behind the heist were rumored about from one documentary to the other. The common denominator is delinquency – be it in the name of Zionism, or the foreign secret services, or personal interests or unknown motives, the bravado is there. When Monica Sevianu’s sister admits to Irene Lusztig’s camera that the six led lofty lives at the expense of the stolen money, her words seem poisonous, somewhat vengeful. Of all reasons, that of egoism, of caprice, of easy living, is the one that impresses history the least. The same sister says that the very same delinquent sentiment lay behind the film, out of a sort of self-infatuation: they wanted to be movie stars. Of course, the petit-bourgeois aunty, proud and petty, wouldn’t be capable of saying anything else. But Nae Caranfil finds nothing blasphemous in such an assertion. On the contrary, Closer to the Moon’s retort sounds along the lines of: “So, what? It must have been wonderful, even so!”

Precisely so, five characters replace the six bandits, while mostly retaining the sum of their biographies and take the stage. In fact, the true protagonist of the film is one Virgil (Harry Lloyd), one of the many handsome Belami boys who slid into the history espoused by recent cinema (such as Sam Mendes’ 1917 and Spielberg’s West Side Story). During a random day at work, a waiter working at a canteen close to the Romanian National Bank witnesses the bombastic shooting of a gangster hold-up scene, something unheard of on Romanian film sets, and even more so on the streets. As such, he decides to become a filmmaker and, cozying up to veteran drunkard and filmmaker Flaviu (Allan Corduner) – a cheeky reference to Calotescu –, he takes up the camera. Only for him to discover, one fateful day, that the film of the heist was a big fat joke, while the money was indeed stolen, and now they’re to make a true film of the robbery; and he’s the one who will shoot it.

Closer to the Moon (r. Nae Caranfil, 2014)

Caranfil rounded up all available corners. His Ioanid gang, the Rosenthals, are part of a History whose protagonists they used to be, only for them to now become secondary characters, almost extras; a fact which they find so repugnant that they decide to attempt a hit on the bank. Of course, the specter of antisemitic communism always lurks about, but the story comes across much more, as a flashy middle age crisis, set in a picturesque Bucharest, one lit by a CGI moon and inhabited by people who seem to always have the headlights on them. Caranfil is the kind of director that fills his films with everything that he is in love with – divas (Vera Farmiga as Alice, inspired by Sevianu), good criminals, bad cops, juvenile love, boyish charm and, finally, the figure of his own father. As I said, history almost seems moralizing in contrast to a line such as “revolution is a bitch”. And so, once they finish lining their pockets with the money, the five being to indulge. Once caught, they play the movie star. They face their judges with roaring laughter, and their execution with eyes wide open. Caranfil’s fantastic five have little to do with the history books, but more to do with the scribbles on the last page of a notebook, the ones that ask themselves “what if?”. And sometimes, history has its phantasmagoric nooks and crannies. What if one of the detainees were sent off to outer space on a rocket? As if he were given a sentence suspended in time and space. That’s what Paul Ioanid did; and it’s no wonder that he charmed Caranfil with it.

Film critic and journalist. He is an editor at AARC and writes the ”Screens” features for Art Magazine. He collaborates with many publications and film festivals as a freelancer and he is strangely attached to John Ford's movies.