A young man in a dapper straw boater and his doting father alight from a horse-drawn carriage at a seaside sanatorium. He’s examined by a bluff, bearded doctor who smokes while palpating the abdomen. The x-ray technician wears a suit like a medieval executioner. With no gravity whatsoever, the doctor announces that the man has spinal tuberculosis: Two of his vertebrae have been devoured by microbes, and a pool of pus has collected in an abcess. Thus begin the travails of the Jewish poet Manu in Radu Jude’s period drama Scarred Hearts, based on the semi-autobiographical writings of Max Blecher.
Jude’s follow-up to Aferim! falls in line with the classic aesthetics of the Romanian New Wave. Almost every scene takes place in a single take with a stationary camera. This allows the viewer to retain mental distance, but might seem an odd choice in Scarred Hearts, given that the protagonist is forced into bed for most of the film. Barring a tragic and bitterly funny sex scene, the action takes place almost completely in the minds and speech of the clinic’s patients. It insists on the humanity of those transformed into “human statues” by constricting plaster casts. It fetishizes nothing—not the clothing or decor of the 1930s, not “noble” suffering, not even poetry.
And widening the scope from Manu’s simple story of love and sex in the midst of physical deterioration, it’s a very dark tale. The invalids debate the rise of Hitler, the Iron Guard (Romania’s fascist party), and the intellectuals like Emil Cioran who compromise with them. When his girlfriend asks about the time he was most afraid, Manu recalls three boys shouting “Die, dirty Jews!” in the street. “Why is it so easy to call for death in Romania and people don’t even turn to look?” he asks. Blecher himself died before the Iron Guard dictatorship of Horia Sima. But Jude has turned his work into a warning and a premonition of cultural rot and nascent violence.