A question of identity
by Anne Feuillère
- With already three full-length feature films, the Rumanian director boasts a body of work irrigated by the fertile streams of memory, identity and exile
Radu Mihaileanu was born in Bucharest, in 1958, into a Yiddish-speaking Jewish family. His father, Mordechaï Buchman, was a Communist and a journalist. When he returned from the Nazi labour camps, he changed his name to Ion Mihaileanu, which could not sound more Rumanian. Using this new name, he wrote the story of two young lovers fighting the Fascist regime in the Rumania of 1940, the script of Sunday at Six, the first feature film of another Rumanian exile in France, Lucian Pintilie. In 1980, Radu Mihaileana, too, fled the country, then under the control of the dictator Ceaucescu. The young man, who worked in a theatre company as actor, playwright and director, was preparing his entry into IDHEC (the Institute of Cinematography in Paris) from Bucharest. Via Israel, he reached France and enrolled at the institute (these days known as FEMIS). He embarked on a career as assistant director to Marco Ferreri (I love you ,1986 and How Good the Whites Are, 1988) with whom he co-wrote the script of a film produced for television (Le BanquetLes saisons du plaisir, 1988), Fernando Trueba (The Mad Monkey, 1990), Nicole Garcia (Every Other Weekend, 1990) and Edouard Niermans (The Return of Casanova, 1992). Finishing off with the writing and production of Betrayal in 1993. In 1998, Train of Life, his second full-length feature-film, won him international renown (oscar nominations for best script and best actor, the Fipresci prize at Venice, the People’s Choice Award at Sundance and the David di Donatello for best foreign film).
When he received the prestigious "Grand Prix des Amériques” at the Montreal Festival for his first film, Mihaileanu dedicated it to his parents – "whose story this could have been” – the tale of a dissident writer who, to get out of prison, makes a pact with the devil and has to conspire with the dictatorial regime in order both to continue living and to practising his art. Built around secrets and deception, Betrayal examines the suffering of an individual caught up in the torment of a collective story.
With Train de vie, Radu Mihaileanu was once again tempted by the wish to document history, and its descriptions of the Jewish villages in central Europe. Train of Life, recounts the saga of a community who, to avoid deportation, deport themselves. This incredible plan, thought up by Schlomo, the village idiot, involves the whole community in the secret and in the dressing-up, a role-play where the victims parody their executioners. The last shot of the film shows the farce to be a pure invention of Schlomo, who, addressing the camera, in a concentration camp, finds himself rewriting History in his head. As Radu Mihaileanu has often said: his film, which pays homage to both the dead and the survivors, is an act of resistance aimed at all remaining Nazis, those who continue to live and breathe in the one or the other country of South America. A work of redress of a collective conscience, the film, by resurrecting the life of a whole community, its culture and its humour, can also claim to be a work of memory. By the very fact of his existence, he resorts to hopeless daydreaming to prove that Jewish humour, exuberance and culture have well and truly survived, that systematic extermination failed, and that physical and psychic death did not occur.
Just like Betrayal, Radu Mihaileanu’s third film turns a collective destiny into an individual journey. Exiled from himself and from his country, a young Ethiopian boy grows up benefiting from a misunderstanding that saves his life : he is thought to be Jewish. Between uprooting and betrayal, secrets and deception, Schlomo’s search for an identity is an epic story of origins that rings out along with the collective story into which he has to slip, that of the State of Israel. Through the eyes of the child and his journey into adulthood, Radu Mihaileanu describes throughout the film the cultural multiplicity, the uncertainties surrounding identity and the political convulsions undergone by Israel. Inspired by his meeting with an Ethiopian, Love and Become draws once more from the sources of History a wish to bear witness to the quasi-documentary reality that serves to crush the individual. By this geographical, cultural or intimate exile, forced into secrets, lies or deception, deprived of their memory or their history, Radu Mihaileanu’s characters are at odds with the fits and starts of a story which bypasses them and in which they can only take up their rightful place by an epic struggle which will lead them to affirming their place, their destiny and their identity in the collective destiny. In other words … to choosing themselves.
Radu Mihaileanu's filmography
2005, Live and Become
2002, Les Pygmées de Carlo, TV production
1998, Train of Life
1997, Bonjour Antoine, TV
1989, Mensonge d’un clochard, short film
1984, Naissance de Blimp, short film
1983, Happy End, short film
1981, Un Vieux, short film
1980, Les Quatre saisons, short film
(Translated from French)