Scarred Hearts (2016) / Casting (2017)

Director: Radu Jude / Nicolas Wackerbarth

2018 Chicago European Union Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Romanian director Radu Jude has said, “I think that cinema has this quality, to see things from a certain distance, a quality which can offer to a viewer the possibility of looking at something told in an objective way and to form his/her own opinion.” His latest film, Scarred Hearts, adapts the autobiographical novel by avant-garde Romanian Jewish author Max Blecher in a style that is both traditional and experimental, focusing primarily on telling the story in as objective a manner as possible.

Blecher was diagnosed with Pott’s disease, a tuberculosis of the spine, at age 21 and died of it in 1938, three months shy of his 30th birthday. Likewise, the Romanian Jewish protagonist Emanuel (Lucian Teodor Rus) receives the same diagnosis at a hospital that specializes in bone diseases. We see Manu’s medical treatments from beginning to end, from the painful draining of abscesses that form from his disintegrating spine to having a plaster cast formed around his torso to prevent his back from breaking.

We also see what daily life in the hospital is like: drunken camaraderie in the common room among the sufferers, days spent in transportable hospital beds facing the Black Sea on an outdoor promenade, and lonely nights. A particularly eerie discussion in the common room covers the relative merits of Hitler, with his supporters declaring they aren’t anti-Semites and ending with a hilarious imitation of the dictator by one of the patients who is able to sit up.

Jude, shooting with a static camera that rarely gets too close to the action and framing in the square Academy ratio, offers the objective quality he craves, while creating a box of confinement emphasized by the long lines of the corridors and boxy elevator through with the patients and staff move. He uses title cards that quote from Blecher’s book to tee up scenes in his episodic film, thus offering an approximation of reading and contextualizing the witty, intellectual banter in which Manu engages.

Much of the film is shot in cool hospital blue and rich sepia. The warmest shot in the film comes just after Manu’s diagnosis, when he and his father, Lazar (Alexandru Dabija), sit outside near the seashore and express their awkward affection. This crucial scene allows us to invest in Manu’s medical outcome and worry about the fate he, his parents, and the rest of the infirm patients face as the horror of Nazism gathers strength. Scarred Hearts is a moving slice of life at its most essential.

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A lot of people wondered why Gus Van Sant decided in 1998 to replicate Alfred Hitchcock’s near-perfect Psycho (1960). His answer that he thought it would be fun didn’t satisfy anyone—and neither did his film. One wonders if the same fate will befall Vera (Judith Engel), the director who is about to begin work on a TV movie remake of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1972 masterpiece, The Bitter Tears of Petra Van Kant, transforming the central romance of the film from lesbian to heterosexual.

The film opens with Almut (Ursina Lardi), an older actress donning a wig Petra might wear as she prepares for her fifth reading for the part. Vera has already cast her leading man but cannot seem to find the right person for Petra. Almut complains about the repeated callbacks, and particularly about being forced to read with a stand-in for the leading man, who is out of town. The stand-in, Gerwin (Andreas Lust), has left acting to become a general contractor, but does the reading as a favor to the beleaguered casting director.

Casting is essentially a comedy that skewers the pretensions and practicalities of the entertainment industry. Vera has never made anything but documentaries, so her “vision” of this rethought “Petra” is clear as mud. One wonders along with several of the would-be cast and crew what idiot in the greenlighting department bought this high-concept project. At the same time, Vera’s imperious treatment of the legendary older actors who are auditioning for her is as offhandedly callous as their less-than-humble treatment of her.

The real lead of Casting is Lust, who slowly starts angling for the male lead when the original actor drops out of the project. Lust builds his character’s ambivalence and emergent ambition with precise pacing, even finding the right actress to play Petra as his growing dominance starts to mimic the power dynamics in Fassbinder’s film. It seems unlikely this new version will ever get made, but the suspense director/coscreenwriter Wackerbarth sustain the film through some of its repetitive outbursts and make Casting a pretty enjoyable experience.

Scarred Hearts screens Wednesday, March 21 at 7:30 p.m. Casting screens Sunday, March 25 at 5:15 p.m. and Monday, March 26 at 8 p.m. Both films show at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

Previous coverage

Indivisible: Conjoined 18-year-old twins Dasy and Viola struggle to break free of their controlling father and, literally, from each other in this original coming- of-age drama. (Italy)

Mademoiselle Paradis: This biopic of blind musician Maria Theresia von Paradis captures the world of 18th-century Vienna society with poignancy and a subtle feminist message. (Austria/Germany)

Catch the Wind: Loneliness drives a textile worker to reject a severance package and move with her company to Morocco. Sandrine Bonnaire superbly captures the emotional life and resilience of her character as she struggles to adapt to a new way of life. (France)

The Miner: Economic uncertainty and an uncovered war crime collide in this powerful drama about a Bosnian miner haunted by the loss of his sister in the Bosnian War who must decide between exposing a crime and keeping his job. (Slovenia/Croatia)

Hitler’s Hollywood: A comprehensive and probing look at the films Germany made during the Nazi era highlights the ideology offered by Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels to the German people in support of Hitler’s agenda. (Germany)

Song of Granite: An experimental biopic of Irish folk singer Joe Heaney offers the sounds of his world while somewhat obscuring his life story. (Ireland/Canada)

Happy Birthday: A fictional look at the confrontations between police and students during the 2008 Athens riots highlights the difficulties of reconciliation, as a riot cop and his rebel daughter try to reconnect at during a weekend in the country. (Cyprus/Greece)

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