"As sometimes happens, some of the finest movies in the festival are being presented outside the main event, including The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu," notes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. "Andrei Ujică opens this found-footage documentary with smeary color images of that former Romanian dictator shortly after his arrest in 1989 and then cuts to stark, silent, gripping black-and-white images, shot from on high, of thousands of people massing, surging and running in 1965, when Ceauşescu's predecessor, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, died. What follows are an astonishment of black-and-white and color visuals of Ceauşescu at work and play through the decades — waving at workers, delivering speeches, sampling baked goods, driving a domestic car, meeting the queen of England — official images that helped sustain the lie of success he embodied."
"Who knew that three hours of coarsely edited Romanian state propaganda culled from the ruinous Ceauşescu era between 1965 and 1989 could be so transfixing, illuminating and haunting?" asks David Jenkins in Time Out London — because The Autobiography will be screening at the London Film Festival on Sunday, October 17.
"Cumulatively, it's an unreal, mesmerizing documentary portrait of a political life in spin and a tantalizing internal rebellion from the specter that still haunts Romania," writes Simon Abrams for the New York Press. "Ujică's film is a cinematic rite, a compilation of footage that, without contextualization or overt/vocally pointed criticism, allows the words and ceremonial deeds of the titular dictator to amass and bury him."
Kenji Fujishima at the House Next Door: "On a conceptual level, then, Ujică does for Nicolae Ceauşescu what Sofia Coppola did for Marie Antoinette in the 2006 film bearing her name, and what Todd Haynes did for Bob Dylan in I'm Not There. Actually, one could think of Ujică's film as a synthesis of Coppola's hermetic approach (telling Marie Antoinette's story by sticking almost exclusively within the privileged four walls of Versailles) and Haynes's deconstructive one (creating a whirling palimpsest of Dylan's various public personas in a purposefully failed attempt to try to find the human being underneath). The implications of this completely exterior approach to a biographical subject, however, are distinctive in Ceauşescu's case. Maybe, by giving his film the title The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu, Ujică is suggesting that the Romanian politician really was that clueless about the way things actually were in his own country — that, throughout his whole political life, he really did believe in the cult of personality he so lavishly cultivated, and which this film so extensively details."
"Ujică gives us a powerful sense of how divorced our leaders can become from their constituents," writes Keith Uhlich in Time Out New York. "Any parallels come to mind?"
"By the end, his face is a mask of boredom, a zombie on the national stage who keeps his country in a similar narcoleptic state," writes R Emmet Sweeney for TCM. "Ujică carefully deploys pop songs, including a memorable appearance from 'I Fought the Law' to suggest the alien Western forces that are bleeding in to the edges of Ceauşescu's hermetic frame. By the end, when Ceauşescu looks emaciated inside his ill-fitting suits, his face ravaged with wrinkles and his hair imploding like a collapsed souffle, even his fellow lonely presidents have had enough (in one meeting Gorbachev angrily checks his watch). In the final shot of the post-revolution footage, with Nicolae and his wife Elena looking hollowed out and irascible, he is no longer the totalitarian nightmare of the Romanian imaginary, but just an old man scared to die."
Howard Feinstein, blogging for Filmmaker: "This is one of the strongest offerings in the entire festival."
"As recording devices become more prevalent the repository for historical fiction will grow and I can only hope we see more filmmakers with this type of ambition creating new forms of documentary," writes Aaron Krasnov at Twitch.
For Ed Champion, though, "this film is so oppressively long, with few pleasures laced within its Bucharest Death March, that the viewer feels very much without options, much like a citizen of Communist Romania. If this is the emotion that director Andre Ujică intended to convey, I can safely report that he has succeeded. It was only my commitment to judging the entire film that prevented me from stomping out of this snoozefest and carrying out my own private revolution with a bottle of scotch."
Screens on Saturday. Earlier: Reviews from Cannes and, from Toronto, Daniel Kasman: [T]o carry a line of thought Ceauşescu has when talking about the need not just for love poetry but also social poetry and revolutionary poetry, one could say the film is made up entirely of public poetry."
Update, 10/10: Reverse Shot's Michael Koresky: "Ujica reminds us that Ceauşescu's ultimately self-prophesying tendency toward isolation has initially positive effects, as a good chunk of the film's first hour focuses on his speaking out against Soviet-led military intervention in Czechoslovakia during reformist Alexander Dubcek's Prague Spring; Romania was the only country in the Warsaw Pact that did not invade. ('Among Communists there must be cooperation but no interference,' he decrees in the spirit of comradeship.) After ascending to the throne of president and supreme commander in the 1970s (we see him do so here with tears gleaming in his eyes), Ceauşescu further pushed his autarkic inclinations, insisting on Romania as self-sufficient. Crippling foreign debt told a different story, and Ujica's film infers and implies Communist Romania's gradual breakdown not through concrete images but through ellipses and breaks; cuts to black function expertly as fissures, through which some ghastly reality is waiting to seep forth. It's one of many technical touches that make Autobiography an oddly powerful sensory experience."
Coverage of the coverage: NYFF 2010. For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow The Daily Notebook on Twitter and/or the RSS feed.