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Scarred Hearts, a film by Radu Jude

Updated: Feb 8, 2019

Scarred Hearts (Romania) dir. Radu Jude (141 mins) Trailer NW Film Center/Whitsell Auditorium at Portland Art Museum

It is a special treat to walk into the theater with no expectations, knowing nothing of the film or its director beyond viewing the trailer, not even remembering the title or the director's nationality, and to walk out feeling almost exalted. Radu Jude's Scarred Hearts did that for me.

The film is set in Romania in the 1930s in a sanatorium on what I take to be the Black Sea. It opens with the arrival via horse-drawn carriage of a young man named Emmanuel, known as Manu, maybe eighteen years old, and his father at a sanatorium where Manu is diagnosed with Pott's disease, spinal tuberculosis.

The doctor freely dispenses optimistic platitudes that offer hope for recovery, but there is no cure for the disease. Treatment consists of confining the patient to bed with the upper body in a cast. It is clear from the outset that Manu's prospects are grim.

Manu is told that patients at the sanatorium lead normal lives, they go out, they listen to music, they just have to lie down. And indeed they do. In the evening nurses wheel bedridden patients to a common room where there are lively parties with wine-drinking contests. Those who are ambulatory dance. Sexual liaisons demand creative maneuvering but are far from uncommon. Romanian music from the period, uptempo and festive, is featured throughout.

It is something of a little bohemia, as if they are gathered at a café where they talk about literature and poetry, discuss intellectual figures of the day, and argue about politics against the backdrop of anti-Semitism and the rise of fascism. Someone mentions E.M. Cioran, then beginning to make a name for himself with his first book, On the Heights of Despair, published in 1934.

To a crotchety old fellow who proudly declares himself a member of the fascist Iron Guard while insisting that he is anti-Semitic only in politics and economy, Manu, who is Jewish, explains that anti-Semites always talk about the few wealthy Jewish bankers and moneylenders while taking no account of the many Jews eking out an impoverished existence.

Scarred Hearts is a free adaptation of the literary works of the Romanian writer Max Blecher (1909–1938), who was forced to abandon his medical studies in Paris when he was diagnosed with Pott's disease at the age of eighteen. The political elements presented in the film were not in Blecher's book. Jude offers what he calls a symbolic answer to the question of their inclusion: the last scene, I filmed Blecher’s grave, in the Jewish cemetery, in a small Romanian town, Roman. Behind his grave, if you walk further one minute, you find a mass grave for hundreds of Jews, some of the many thousands killed in the "death trains" from Iași, transported on June 29, 1941. So this is why I put that in my film.

Manu is a well-read and familiar with intellectual currents of the time. He routinely quotes lines of poetry and dialogue from plays in casual conversation. There is no pretension to it; the poetry is just part of his vocabulary. He finds solace in the words of a writer whose name I forget: "Fortunate is he who keeps the hour of his death ever present and prepares for death each day." He experiences despair without giving in to despair. He lives in spite of his circumstances, yet without illusion as to his fate.

Solange is a former patient who works in an attorney's office but likes to come back to the sanatorium and hang out with the old gang. She is lovely, and Manu is smitten the instant they meet. Solange is a bit older than Manu, thirty-two I believe she tells him at one point, and a woman with some experience of the world, as they say. No matter. Manu has no scruples about putting the moves on Isa, another patient. A little bohemia.

The story of the tender, doomed romance of Manu and Solange drives the plot in tandem with the progression of his disease, the hope that comes when a new set of X-rays is promising, and the inevitable revelation of a relapse, whereupon Manu matter of factly reminds the doctor that he told him he was getting better. The doctor replies, "This isn't arithmetic, you can't be sure."

Throughout the film title cards are inserted with brief quotes from Blecher that illuminate Manu's thoughts and feelings. Here are a few examples culled from the trailer:

  • new expectations and new hopes, immense, were born in me

  • the impression that nothing is real

  • the vertiginous feeling of reality after a long wait

The device is effective. I imagine that is how it would be living in these circumstances, the sense of unreality that must go with a diagnosis that amounts to a sentence of death that is from time to time blown apart by that dizzying feeling of reality when he is with Solange, or reading, remembering a favorite poem or the ideas of some thinker that resonate like the sunlight clean and bright when he is taken outside where he smokes a cigarette and looks out on the sea.

Max Blecher is an intriguing character. He spent the last ten years of his brief life in sanatoriums in France, Switzerland, and Romania. Despite his youth and infirmity, he cut a bit of a figure on the European literary scene of the day, writing poetry, fiction, short prose pieces, and translations, contributing to André Breton's literary review Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution, and corresponding with the Romanian literary avant-garde as well as with Breton, André Gide, and German philosopher Martin Heidegger. It might be interesting to read the correspondence between Blecher and Heidegger, whose anti-Semitism and association with National Socialism are matters of record.

A collection of poems and two autobiographical novels were published during his lifetime, with a third novel published posthumously in 1971. Adventures in Immediate Reality, newly reissued in 2015, has been compared with the works of Proust and Kafka (Andrei Codrescu, Max Blecher's Adventures, Paris Review, March 9, 2015) and Scarred Hearts to Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain (interview with Jude).

Jude read Blecher's Scarred Hearts as a teenager. At about the age of twenty he tried writing a screenplay based on the novel but abandoned it. After reading the novel a second time fifteen years later, he became interested in making the film "in order to explore the key themes in the novel—sickness, death, love, sanatorium, and existentialism—and also to show certain elements of the Romanian society in the 1930s." These themes are explored with sympathy, grace, and artistic integrity. Jude does not strike a false note.

I close with the observation that once upon a time films generally ran around ninety minutes, give or take five or ten. These days no one seems to be able to make a film in under two hours. This is not an artistic advance. Few films are too short. Scarred Hearts clocks in at two hours and twenty-one minutes. For most of the film the protagonist lies on his back in bed with the upper part of his body in a cast. Yet it did not feel one minute too long. That in itself is nice commentary on Jude's accomplishment.


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