“I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians” is a movie about history that cites its sources.
At several points during Romanian writer-director Radu Jude’s uncomfortable satire, the movie stops dead in its tracks to give time to an outside source. The camera films a TV monitor showing historical footage, or a character reads a lengthy excerpt from a book, or the camera lingers on an archival photo of an atrocity, such as the haunting image of executed Jews.
Jude’s emphasis on objective original sources comes in the middle of a film that is all about subjectivity, and the struggle over who gets the power to tell a country’s story. Countries always whitewash their own histories (check out the shock and outrage when the New York Times published its “1619 Project”) but Jude’s film feels especially relevant in an age where inconvenient facts are dismissed as “fake news.”
“Barbarians” premieres at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 227 State St., as part of its Spotlight Cinema series. Tickets are free for members, $7 for all others.
In the film, theater director Mariana Marin (Ioana Jacob) is attempting to mount a performance art piece depicting the 1941 Odessa massacre, in which over 100,000 Ukranian Jews were killed, many by Romanian soldiers. Jude presents anti-Semitism as a persistent thread in Romanian history; as one author puts it ruefully in the film, only Nazi Germany killed more Jews than Romania.
It’s a shameful legacy that Romanians are reluctant to confront, and Marin faces stiff headwinds in her attempts to pull off the performance. A wry government official suggests some sort of tasteful compromise — maybe the production could show the Jews being escorted away, but not killed. Even some of Marin’s own actors, World War II reenactment enthusiasts, would prefer to recreate a more glorious battle from the country’s past than the mass execution of innocents.
Jude is satirizing the willful collective amnesia of his country, but he’s also satirizing Marin, whose reliance on in-your-face provocation is in its way as dogmatic and unyielding as the government’s. The production also is something of a disaster, and Jude gets chuckles showing how Marin is trying to hold everything together, dealing with difficult actors, weather problems and cheap props (including mannequins left over from a zombie movie).
Like other filmmakers in the Romanian New Wave, Jude isn’t beyond testing his audience’s patience at times with long takes and minimalist technique. Much of the film is devoted to arguments between characters, with the movie's themes articulated rather than dramatized. And while the historical references in the film will resonate with Romanian audiences, others not as well-versed on Romanian history might feel a little lost.
But the film pays off at the end when Marin finally stages her performance, provoking a reaction from the crowd that is darkly funny, chilling and yet utterly believable. “Barbarians” cynically suggests that, deep down, people really don’t care that much whether something is true or not. They just want a good show.