The Paper will be Blue

Fall of Icarus

Today I skived off work (not that I had much) to see The Paper will be Blue at the State Theatre as part of the Sydney Film Festival. Rather than offer my own synopsis, I shall quote from the film website:

Lieutenant Neagu’s armoured unit is ordered to patrol the suburbs. The unit’s radio functions intermittently and communications between the different armoured units and fragments of radio and TV broadcasts give vague reports of “terrorist” attacks on the national television station held by anti-Ceausescu forces. The members of the unit are thrown into confusion.

Costi, a conscript who has managed to do his military service in Bucharest thanks to some wrangling by his well-connected father, believes that it is the duty of every Romanian, after so many years of dictatorship, to fight the supporters of Ceausescu, irrespective of the orders of his superiors. His arrogance and stubborness brings him into conflict with Lieutenant Neagu and he takes advantage of an altercation between his comrade and a group of demonstrators to flee.

Despite the Lieutenant’s threats and pleas, Costi heads for the television station to fight for the revolution.

The young soldier only makes it as far as a house near the TV station, where in the confusion he is arrested as a terrorist by the mixed group of soldiers and civilians who are defending the building. Meanwhile, the rest of Costi’s unit is taking risks to try to find the deserter. At the TV headquarters, Neagu is disarmed and humiliated by an overexcited Colonel, then finally heads to Costi’s home, where the mother and girlfriend of the young soldier are anxiously awaiting his return.

It’s a night of madness in which soldiers receive orders via television from poets and actors, radios transmit garbled signals, arms are distributed to civilians and gipsies are arrested as Arab terrorists

In case the reference to Ceausescu and Romania isn’t clear, here is a little further background:

The original inspiration for the film is a tragic incident which took place in the Romanian revolution in 1989, in which two armoured squads of Interior Ministry troops that went to protect a military unit were accidentally butchered. This episode received considerable media attention.

In the days following the departure of the Ceausescus, when the Romanian people had no clear enemy, over 1,000 people died in such accidents and personal vendettas.

Like Ghosts, the film starts at the moment that catastrophe befalls its central characters, and then fills in the back story. You would think that this grim dramatic irony would totally overshadow both films, but it doesn’t. I think this is because, in each case, not only is there humour, but there is human detail which I can only sum up in the sense of that much-hackneyed word, humanism.

The Paper will be Blue shares an apparently improvisatory and quasi-documentary style with Ghosts, though it is less didactic and I suspect that the improvisation is more apparent than actual. The theme (a very reductive word) is the way in which, even when a big Historical Event is occurring, the continuities of everyday life (and of course, especially, the hope of staying alive) persist. A lot of this involves the dynamics of the group of militia men at the centre of the story as they move around Bucharest in their armoured vehicle. Much of the action takes place in its claustrophobic cabin.

We have all seen those shots on the news of gunmen firing from windows. When Costi, the central character, leaves the unit and gets involved in the street fighting, the film gives the most graphic (and scary) sense of what this must be like that I have seen. You don’t realise when you watch those newsreel shots framed by voice-over just how loud and terrifying gunfire can be.

The subject of trying to live an ordinary life in times of war is one which is famously dealt with in Brecht’s Mother Courage, and this film made me think of the production I saw of that play last year by the Sydney Theatre Company Actors’ Company. The film brought to life the fearful sense of disorder and chaos of such times. While I was watching the film, I wasn’t even sure on which side Costi was fighting, and although a Romanian watching the film would definitely know, I think that was still very much the point. Who was the “government”? Who were the “terrorists”? What choice you had and what side you were on could very much depend on who you were with.

I was reminded how, after the English Civil War/Revolution, Thomas Hobbes was so keen to emphasise the importance of social order at all costs. Without it, life can be frightening, nasty, brutish and short. This may sound tritely modish, but there must be at least food for thought here about what has been unleashed on the people of Iraq.

The film also made me think of W H Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts, though I think Auden tackles the question from the other end, or at least a different angle. Hence the picture above.  This painting and this one (sorry about the terrible ads on that) are also referred to in the poem.

If you are in Sydney, you can see the film on Friday at the Dendy Opera Quays. Its impact will be less in a smaller cinema but still greater than on the television, which is otherwise likely to be the only other opportunity to see it.

After the film was over I went home for a short nap before going to see Gerhard Oppitz playing Beethoven sonatas at Angel Place, but I was too stirred-up to sleep. I’ll have to post about the recital later.

2 Responses to “The Paper will be Blue

  1. Fourteen-month review « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] There is always a trickle of searches for “Icarus” and similar terms, mostly related to Auden’s poem which touches on that subject, to which I refer in my post on the movie, The Paper will be Blue. […]

  2. Strange Meeting « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] about before or in between the decisive moments – rather like the shepherd with his sheep in Breughel’s painting of the fall of Icarus. There was a virtuoso performance by Mark Winter as the particularly psychotic Atreus – in […]

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