This past week, the Miami Jewish Film Festival announced the prize-winning movies of its 20th annual edition of the festival. The Hungarian movie 1945 won the Audience Award for Narrative. The documentary Aida’s Secrets won the Audience Award for Documentary and “In Other Words” won the Short Film Competition. This writer joined a group of film critics, including my colleague at the Miami New Times Juan Barquin, The Sun Sentinel’s/Jewish Journal’s Sergio Carmona, Miami Art Zine’s Ruben Rosario and Michelle Solomon, to give the fourth prize. The Critics Prize went to the Romanian movie Scarred Hearts. Beautifully shot and incredibly performed, the movie we chose speaks to the tensions between life and death under a cloud of nationalism with enthralling cinematic poetry. Unfortunately, this movie has yet to secure distribution, so allow this review to stand as an open letter to distributors for consideration.
Writer-director Radu Jude adapted the writings of the early 20th Century Romanian writer Max Blecher for the film, which previously won the Silver Leopard/Special prize of the jury at the 69th Locarno International Film Festival. It presents a surrogate of the writer as he recuperates from treatment for spinal tuberculosis in 1937 at a seaside sanitorium. Blecher himself died at the age of 28 from the disease after being moved around from hospital to hospital. The treatment is brutal, involving the draining of pus without anesthesia from vertebrae that have practically melted due to the disease. Though the film’s protagonist, Emanuel (Lucian Teodor Rus), spends much of the film laid out on his back in a body cast, he is not for lack for wanting to live life vivaciously. As the surrealist writer’s stand-in, Emanuel accepts his lot with sardonic humor and hardly any self-pity. Instead, he falls in love with a former patient and finds inspiration to write, which in itself is a sort of path to transcend death. Meanwhile, as World War II looms, the specter of nationalism begins its rise in Romania.
Scarred Hearts is shot with great precision within a 4:3 frame in a manner that allows actors to act and sets to exude meaning. Jude presents nearly every scene in long, distant takes with a fixed camera on meticulously crafted scenes that speak to the era and Emanuel’s constrained state. Life still beams forth buoyed by vibrant performances by the actors, who, in these long takes are allowed to perform with unfiltered gusto. Rus makes an impressive debut, as he recites long passages of poetry and philosophy with a spirited quality that masks an inherent dread of his circumstance. His love interest, Solange (director Ivana Mladenovic, also making her acting debut) also has a dichotomous quality. With only a brace on one leg, she doesn’t have to be at the hospital, yet she visits and entertains the flirtation bestowed on her by not just Emanuel but other patients. Still, as the more experienced person, falling in love is not on her agenda.
Jude does more than create sympathy for these characters. Something more startling is happening here. Scarred Hearts reminds us of the cruelty in the joke that is living life under the shadow of social change that challenges how we live it while it all ultimately ends in death. Early on, Victor (Bogdan Cotlet), a patient who seems to be recovering, dies. In an earlier scene, he’s up walking, drinking and arguing with Emanuel about the revolution in Germany (a revolution that Emanuel writes off as built on “sophisms,” not unlike the current U.S. administration under President Trump). Not long after this scene, we are confronted by the stark distant glimpse at Victor’s white face inside a pine coffin before the lid is nailed on top and the casket is lowered into a grave filled with water where it floats as flowers and dirt is first kicked then tossed in by a passing hand. A patient, who was wheeled out with Emmanuel, wails in the background, as the coffin bobs around and shovels begin their work, brutally throwing chunks of dirt that jar the coffin in the water. The scene captures the sadness and banality of death while still feeling rich in life. It’s followed with a cutaway to black, one of many throughout the movie that feature some appropriate words by Blecher. These say, “A man’s life is to worms no different from his body; he ends in stench with all the fine objects of his life.”
As depressing as that might read, this movie never feels like a downer. It’s more of a reality check peppered with grand sardonic humor. It seems to rail against the notion that death is a sad and tragic thing as much as a grim and inevitable thing. Also key to the film are vibrant, earthy period sets that show how uncomfortable everything was in Romania during the time, including one terrific transitional insert showing horse-driven carts sharing the road with cars and bicycles, which sometimes collide incidentally. There is a scene early on revealing an X-ray tech in a hilariously awkward, bulky lead suit. There’s also the way the nurse assigned to Emanuel, who’s constantly puffing on a cigarette, jostles about the hospital bed through the crowded passages of the sanitarium. At one point, he must push another patient’s bed further into a door. He jams the bed as far in as he, as if he were maneuvering nothing but a bit of furniture. Throughout the film, there are bursts of humor that speak to the urgency for life, no matter what it’s state, be it sick in body or in social revolution.
Scarred Hearts shows that sickness and death are not tragic. How can something that will befall all living things be a tragedy, anyway? Circumstances in life, however, are tragedies. The bigger calamity is the numbing of humanity as nationalism rears its brutal head over the radio, in the concern of the intellectually developed Emanuel and finally at a train station where Emanuel must be transported by bed to receive urgent surgery. Jude finds a way to show the value of love and life in a place and during a time profoundly informed by death by propping up the seeming insignificance of a certain group of people who stand-in for the downtrodden in a world that is beginning to prop country over its people. Though this is about what gripped Eastern Europe at the time, the similarities of today, in the United States, cannot be denied, giving this movie a greater urgency to be seen.
Scarred Hearts runs 141 minutes, is in Romanian with English subtitles and is not rated. It has no U.S. distribution but is currently being managed by Beta Cinema in Germany. Contact them here.