Emanuel (Lucian Teodar Rus) was just 20 years old when diagnosed with Pott’s disease - tuberculosis of the bone. His well-to-do merchant parents send him to a sanatorium, specializing in such treatment, where he is put into an immobilizing body cast. He and the rest of the like-afflicted denizens must cope with their condition and do so with humor, sex and booze in “Scarred Hearts.”
IMDB has “Scarred Hearts” listed as “biography, drama.” I suppose it is biographical, being about the life of Max Blecher and his story of debilitating confinement. And this life is, indeed, a drama because of the abovementioned confinement. But, I think, this description misses out on a key element of the film – the screwball gallows humor that permeates the film is good reason to call it a comedy satire, too.
Writer-director Radu Jude adapts Blecher’s work and creates a “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” for physically, rather then mentally, impaired people. While the focus of the attention is on Emanuel, the hospital, with all of its off-beat patients and caretakers, is also a key player in this tragicom. There is a ribald quality to the story as patients and staff, at various times, partake in partying, sex, drinking and just general abandonment of morals.
I am one of the few, I suspect, to appreciate the dark, funny humor in “Scarred Hearts” and its absurdist tableaux of hospital life in 1930s Romania. There are many political issues that are a part of Emanuel’s story, too - the rise of Hitler in Germany; the rampant anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe where “Die Jew!” is as common as a trolley bell; the warehousing of the disabled and the oft-primitive negligence of the pre-WWII Romanian health care system. Even the Hitler stuff (he had yet to dominate and destroy Europe) carries the noir humor evoked throughout the film.
Radu Jude and his cast and crew create a funky, funny, quasi-serious story rampant with quirky characters, amusing situation, near-barbaric medical practices and a fatalist, comedic look at life. I give it a B.
In 1937 Romania, a Jewish merchant (Alexandru Dabija) brings his beloved son Emanuel (Lucian Teodor Rus) to a seaside sanitarium for treatment. He is diagnosed with Pott's disease, a tuberculosis of the spine, and wrapped into a body cast. But life goes on as he lays supine with intense intellectual debates in the dining room and romance among the afflicted in "Scarred Hearts."
After his unconventional period Western examining the fate of the Roma in the 1800's, writer/director Radu Jude ("Aferim!") adapts Max Blecher's autobiographical book about the life of a Jewish invalid during the rise of the right in Romania. His film is so drenched in period detail it is like memories come sharply to life, the steel bed frames on wheels, smoking nurses and archaic medical procedures all a piece of an insular world presented in academic ratio with the curved corners of an old photo album. The film is studded with title cards featuring excepts from Blecher's book beginning with one about the transience of life and unimportance of human existence, yet, as he exhibited in "Aferim!," Jude has an extraordinary ability to address dark themes with a great deal of humor.
Take Dr. Ceafalan (Serban Pavlu), for example, who has a jovial, hearty approach even when delivering the most dire of possible outcomes. After looking at Manu's x-ray, he announces the necessity of an extraction with no warning to his patient about what he is about to endure, a huge needle, akin to something one imagines might be used to pierce an elephant's hide, plunged into the man's body. 'Pus!' exclaims Ceafalan, triumphantly exhibiting the nasty contents of the syringe's barrel. The scene is as surreal as many in "A Cure for Wellness."
Manu is wheeled about by his aide Nelu (Marius Damian), who brings him to the dining room for an evenings entertainment. He is warned that 'some people here can't stand Jews' before a fellow patient animatedly impersonates Adolph Hitler. Booze flows freely and when a game of spin the bottle favors him, Manu picks the beauty Solange (Ivana Mladenovic), more mobile than most with her leg brace, for his kiss. She'll begin to visit him alone at night, even after her release, and on one occasion, Manu will escape to visit her, ferried through town in a cart.
In his film debut, Rus brings Manu to startling life despite his the physical inhibitions of his role. The young man suffers pain, but is quick with a laugh, regularly commenting on situations with advertising jingles. There are moments of melancholy, such as when Manu, alone in his darkened room, hears the sounds of a New Year's celebration from down the hall. Fellow patients pass away, yet Manu pursues life, courting Isa (Ilinca Harnut), also in a cast and less sexually free than Solange (when he succeeds in making love, Nelu must be called to disengage them). When Isa is told she is being moved to another hospital, the news is sugar coated, but Manu recognizes her death sentence, an allegory for the fate of his entire people. It is not too long before he receives similar news.
"Scarred Hearts" is a most unusual cinematic experience, one in which our view is often as constricted as its protagonist's, cinematographer Marius Panduru frequently shooting dialogue scenes in long shot, yet we nonetheless get into his head space. Jude has taken a singular experience during disturbing times and turned it into an equally singular film, one which begins advising that humans are meaningless then demonstrates just what elevates them - love and art.
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