It’s rare to see a film premiere today that is consciously shot in an academy ratio using 35mm film. When introducing Radu Jude’s latest work, Scarred Hearts (Inimi Cicatrizate), Locarno Film Festival Director Carlo Chatrian commented on the choice that defines the aesthetic of Jude’s film as an important one, because “it reminds us that film has a shape.” Another Chatrian comment—that the film was “still frame, but there is a lot of life in it”—only began to make sense hours after, with some distance from the intricate, tense, and overwhelming world that Jude conjures up. The focus of the film, Romanian author Max Blecher, isn’t the brightest subject matter. Gifted and reflexive, absurd as well as deeply tragic, Blecher spent the last 10 of his 29 years of life confined in sanatoriums in Romania. This period sits at the centre of Jude’s work, which sees its narrative stitched together from Blecher’s images and stories. The result is a stunning, albeit testing, tribute to the author’s life, the period of Romanian history he lived through, as well as the form of cinema itself that Jude uses to depict it all.
Blecher’s writings, which act as frequent title cards between scenes, are obsessed with depicting “the void”, and Scarred Hearts depicts the same obsession in Blecher himself. In an effort to present a holistic portrait of this process there’s no shortage of slower, dialogue-heavy scenes. These scenes are broad in subject and scope—from discussions about romance and illness, to conversations illustrating the spectre of creeping fascism. Jude’s addition of a political sphere in the film contextualises Blecher as a figure sandwiched between two different points of tension; his own illness as well as Romania’s, in the growing support for the Iron Guard and the Legionnaires movement. Blecher’s Jewishness is often a key point of discussion, with Jude including several lengthy scenes with Blecher and fascist-sympathising patients arguing about the conspiracy theories of the time. It’s a smart addition to the film, characterising Blecher as resilient and intellectual, whilst adding a historical paradigm, something not actually found in Blecher’s writings.1
Jude is a filmmaker increasingly interested in history, though his cinematic process bypasses realistic portraits. Image has been integral to Jude’s recent run of films, with the black-and-white colour scheme in Aferim! marking a clear move away from the style evinced in his earlier short film work. The astounding aesthetic coherency throughout Scarred Hearts is indebted to an intricate coordination of every aspect of the image on screen. Beyond the aforementioned aspect ratio, Jude approaches colour grading in the film with a clear sense of vision; in the moments outside, scenes are washed out in a brightness that feels almost astonishing in contrast to the atmosphere conjured inside: light mockingly peering into the dim sanatorium rooms through one of the few windows. At night, the shots are graded to a hard yellow, Jude hammering home the absence of LED’s in 1930s.
While Scarred Hearts is clearly Jude’s most visually compelling work, it is simultaneously an imposing and difficult film for the same reason. There’s a certain foreshadowing when the author arrives at the sanatorium, with the decription that “this place is like a drug, it gets into your blood” invoked as much for Blecher’s character as for the audience. He enters the hospital with high spirits, joking and reflecting on what lies ahead and we feel that optimism. Likewise, we feel the sense of pain, anger, and frustration that consumes him throughout his stay as Jude escalates a sense of cinematic cabin fever. Some scenes will pass in a few seconds or with a single take, while others are substantially longer, five to ten minute-long dialogue scenes centering around moments of self-castigation and anger. Jude shot the film in abandoned sanatorium used in that period and we spend close to two hours within its walls. The growing sense of isolation felt by Blecher is framed as a sort of inverted fairytale: chaotic, frustrated, but feverish and continually unreal. In perfectly capturing this environment, the viewing experience is resultantly taxing for the audience; we’re led by Blecher and Jude towards “a new inner light, full of sadness.”
Jude’s growing filmography appears to be working towards an image of the director as a filmmaker concerned explicitly with establishing a public and personal dialogue with the history of the form he works within. There’s a sense of timelessness in everything he’s creating, too, in spite of their period settings. The tendencies and neurotic tidbits in his characters and the fantasy of his plots run alongside an inextricable social realism, resulting in dense cinematic universes. Scarred Hearts is a work that shines a light on a relatively overlooked artist in Romania’s history, whilst at same time affirming of one of their most important artists working today.