A reflection of a reflection of a reflection: You Are Ceaușescu to Me | Ji.hlava 25

30 October, 2021

The feature-length debut of young Romanian filmmaker Sebastian Mihăilescu was highly anticipated by the local industry. After all, his 2016 short film, Old, Luxurious Flat Located in an Ultra-Central, Desirable Neighborhood, an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story in the vein of the Romanian New Wave, had competed in the prestigious Pardi di Domani section of the Locarno Film Festival. In this sense, You Are Ceaușescu to Me comes across as a surprise, but one can feel the presence of a (critical and reflexive) preoccupation towards the means of fiction and moving images in this film, one that seems inspired both by Cristi Puiu, whom Mihăilescu named as a mentor of sorts in 2016, and Radu Jude. A combination that, at least on paper, might sound as unlikely as it may get, but that, in practice, transpires under the shape of a non-fictional hybrid which banks on performative techniques in order to question the ways in which history turns to fiction, turns to interpretation (rhetorically and performatively). Of course, the film also flirts (in an intervention belonging to the director, nonetheless) with Andrei Ujică’s 2010 The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu. A reference which might be read as the key towards Mihăilescu’s aesthetic and formal positioning, as an apparent counterweight – given that the latter’s feature heavily borrows both from docu-fiction and the participatory mode of documentaries – but which, at its core, transmits the very same sensation: that one can never really tell where reality ends and fiction starts, and vice-versa.

You Are Ceaușescu to Me is also notable because it lies outside the traditional paradigms of Romanian non-fiction, deviating from the observational/found footage binary, while still borrowing elements from both. Yet, strictly from a formal perspective, it might be that the closest film to it is the masterpiece of Iranian maestro Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Salaam Cinema (1995), not in the least due to its fundamental device: an audition for non-professionals where they are given various parts to perform. But if in the case of Makhmalbaf, the given lines were archetypal and universal, using them as a hook to get the people showing up to the audition to reveal things about themselves  by using his authority as a director, Mihăilescu (himself oftentimes coming across as authoritarian) starts from a situation with very fixed parameters to gauge the reminiscences of the communist era in the collective consciousness, particularly in the case of young Romanians. That is, a re-enactment of the youth of the late, nationalist-communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, based on a series of documents which seem to be culled from the Romanian Secret Police Archives, and some of his few extant photos from the pre-communist era.

Mihăilescu starts his film off by introducing the actors one by one, most of them youth hailing from Bucharest and its surroundings, belonging to various social backgrounds, who will then be given various roles to perform – ranging from that of Ceaușescu, which most of them end up performing, to various character typologies belonging to the era’s imaginary (policemen, resistance fighters, torturers and so on). In some scenes, the choice of costumes almost comes across as random at times, thus potentiating the Brechtian elements of its dispositif, while in others, it is intriguing to observe how the performers take on an increasingly brutal approach on set. Somewhat naturally, considering the film’s economy, the filmmaker’s role in this construction is also put under the magnifying glass. Right after the title card (which arrives about fifteen minutes into the film), Mihăilescu, or rather, his character, bluntly expresses his intentions: holding on to a plastic cover in the rain, he explains to another member of the film crew that he is interested in tracing a parallel between contemporary youth and the young Ceaușescu.

But the director doesn’t simply stop at portraying re-enactments and interpretations. A large chunk of the film is composed of scenes in which the actors discuss about what they have just performed, thus revealing not only the ways in which they relate to their work and the mechanisms of fiction (a particularly funny scene sees them talking about how one of them “didn’t die” after being shot twice), but also to the figure of the fallen dictator. It’s captivating to see them analyzing his possible motivations through various lenses – from the all-consuming desire for power (which is put forward by a teen who aspires to become an entrepreneur) to more nuanced approaches about the intersection of history and biography (belonging to Mario Rădulescu, who proves himself as a native acting talent, especially in the scene in which he performs a Ceaușescu that is tortured during questioning).

Of course, the film also has some lows, which is mostly inevitable for a debut feature – amongst them, the ethically questionable choice to cast a young church singer as one of the actors, although he seems to be mentally impaired, and his capacity for discernment is, as such, relatively uncertain. Of course, some of the situations borne of his inclusion are absolutely fascinating, but it is a fascination that is voyeuristic in nature. Another aspect that would have benefitted the film would have been a much tighter editing, especially in its latter half, which would have condensed the film’s aims much better (especially since they are clearly announced from the get-go). But, at the same time, I can understand why the nature of the footage might seduce a filmmaker to save some scenes from falling to the cutting floor. Last, but not least, the cinematography’s interchange between black-and-white and color doesn’t seem to have a clearly-defined raison d’etre, coming across as a sort of knee-jerk reaction to underline the mechanisms of fictionality.

Even so, as a whole, For Me You Are Ceaușescu is certainly one of the year’s most interesting titles when it comes to Romanian cinema – and the possible future crystallization of the topics that Mihăilescu announces here – a preoccupation for concepts such as representation and adaptation, a hybrid approach, and an interest towards non-professional actors – in his future works (the director is currently working on his feature fiction debut, Double Happiness) is definitely something to keep an eye on.

“You Are Ceaușescu To Me” was screened yesterday evening at the Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival in the Czech Republic, where it is competing for the Opus Bonum award.


Director/ Screenwriter



Film critic & journalist. Collaborates with local and international outlets, programs a short film festival - BIEFF, does occasional moderating gigs and is working on a PhD thesis about home movies. At Films in Frame, she writes the monthly editorial - The State of Cinema and is the magazine's main festival reporter.