Director/Coscreenwriter: Radu Muntean
By Marilyn Ferdinand
December 16, 1989, was the beginning of the end of the reign of horror Nicolae Ceauşescu began and intensified over the 25 years he was the Communist dictator of Romania. On that day, the citizens in the town of Timişoara rose up against their abusive government. So severe were the deprivations to which Ceauşescu subjected Romanians, so outrageous the handling of dissent, that Ceauşescu would be the only ruler in the crumbling Communist bloc in Eastern Europe to suffer violent overthrow and execution.
Current Romanian cinema has focused a good deal of attention on the Ceauşescu regime and its downfall. From 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days, to 12:08 East of Bucharest, to The Way I Spent the End of the World, Romania’s filmmakers have looked at various facets of this seminal time in their country’s history. Now we have The Paper Will Be Blue, an intriguing, accomplished film that takes us to ground zero of the revolution, recounting a fictionalized version of a true, widely publicized incident that occurred on December 22, after violent protests that finally shook Bucharest began.
Without an understanding of what happened, The Paper Will Be Blue can be quite confusing. Therefore, here’s a capsule summary I put together with the help of Wikipedia:
The morning of December 21, Ceauşescu addressed approximately 110,000 disgruntled Romanians from the balcony of the Central Committee building. He condemned the December 16 uprising in Timişoara. During the speech, sudden movement came from the outskirts of the crowd. Explosive sounds also could be heard. Bullhorns were used to spread the news that a “revolution” was unfolding, persuading the people to join in protest. They soon rioted.
The speech was broadcast live, with an estimated 76 percent of the nation watching. Although censors attempted to cut the live video feed, parts of the riots had already been seen. More people took to the streets. Soon the protesters were confronted by soldiers, tanks, and other security forces, though the army was split between those who were loyal to the Ceauşescu regime and those who wanted its overthrow. Through the night, forces considered to be loyal to the old regime (spontaneously nicknamed “terrorists”) opened fire on the crowd and attacked vital points of sociopolitical life, including the television station.
The Paper Will Be Blue takes us to this point in time. An armored car is stopped on a street, facing a tank and some soldiers milling around behind a roadblock. Two men emerge from the back of the armored car to stretch and have a smoke. Suddenly, gunfire explodes. One of the men from the armored car drops in place, another is blasted out of the car through a side window, and the third, wearing a civilian’s jacket attempts to escape and is hit. Yells of, “Whose firing? Who started firing?” are heard, probably from the soldiers behind the roadblock. Several come over to inspect the perhaps accidental damage.
The next scene shows the same armored car and its small complement of ordinary militiamen patrolling a Bucharest neighborhood. As evening falls, they spend their time smoking and checking the IDs of motorists who come through their checkpoint. One of the men makes a date with a woman he has stopped for the next evening. Word of the attack on the TV station reaches the unit. The commander of the unit, Lt. Neagu (Adi Carauleanu) is trying to get through to his section leader, Lt. Voinescu (Alexandru Georgescu), on his close-circuit radio, to find out what, if anything, his unit should do.
One of Neagu’s charges, Costi (Paul Ipate), the son of a connected surgeon who has been placed in the militia to keep him farther out of harm’s way, becomes fired with patriotic fervor. He wants to join the protesters who are trying to defend the TV station, he insists on it. Neagu, a fatherly leader, tries to stop him, but eventually lets him have his way. Forcing Costi to turn in his weapons, Neagu turns him loose, half expecting that Costi will change his mind. When he doesn’t, Neagu pulls his gun out to try to stop him. But Neagu’s a sweet marshmallow of a man, and lets Costi go. Nonetheless, worried about Costi’s safety and about getting in trouble for letting one of his men run off, Neagu and the rest of his unit search for him, driving to the TV station and then to Costi’s house.
The rest of the film toggles back and forth between Costi’s experiences as an instant revolutionary and Neagu’s mission to bring back one of his lambs gone astray. Both parts of the story are laden with miscommunications and cases of mistaken identity that convey both the chaos and confusion that comprise the beginnings of revolution and the level to which Ceauşescu has fallen out of touch with the Romanian people.
Communications devices work faultily or not at all throughout the film. Neagu can’t hear Voinescu, eventually having to drive to the Triumphal Arch where he thinks Voinescu is stationed to get his orders. He’s given a new password, “The paper will be blue,” that later will fail to be acknowledged by an Army unit (“It won’t work,” says Neagu, “they have their own.”). Telephone dial tones must be waited for patiently, but at least they eventually sound.
Costi, stripping off his uniform jacket for a street coat, also inadvertently discards his identification. When he and another freedom fighter named Georgescu (Gabriel Spahiu) go to a house captured by the revolting Army, they are recruited to take out a sniper firing on the house from the street. Then they are accused of being terrorists for the other side because Costi, spying the Army uniform of a man they injured, says the men they are firing on are on the side of the revolutionaries. Because Costi can’t produce his ID, he and Georgescu are taken to the basement and tied up. Georgescu is accused of being an Arab, though he is actually a Gypsy. Both men are repeatedly asked how they came to speak Romanian so well; the pair sit silently, exasperated.
In another scene, Neagu and Bogdan (Tudor Istodor), one of the unit’s men and a personal friend of Costi’s, go to Costi’s home to see if he has turned up there. They are greeted by Costi’s mother (Mirela Oprisor) and his girlfriend Angela (Ana Ularu) and invited in for something to eat. Dorina apologizes for having little to offer them. “If only Ceauşescu had fed them, this wouldn’t be happening,” she says of the rioting, implying the stupidity that caused the conditions for revolution.
The film, shot in 16mm, has a grainy, realistic feel. The film enfolds the audience in the dead of night during which most of the film takes place, adding a slightly surrealistic element to the absurdity of the actions. But the daylight that eventually ends the film does not increase comprehension in this riot-torn city. If anything, it makes human actions seem more senseless than ever.
Throughout the film, characters talk about the coming New Year. Neagu promises his men they will have leave on the New Year. He saves a bottle of wine they have taken with them from Costi’s home. “We’ll open it on New Year’s Day,” he says. Romania has seen a new year and a new day. However, not everyone who was there at the dawn had that chance.