At once intimate in its setting and broad in its scope, Romanian director Radu Jude’s is a lifeaffirming story with an unlikely protagonist. Emanuel (Lucian Teodor Rus), a young Romanian Jew, enters a hospital for treatment of Pott’s disease, a form of bone tuberculosis. Despite the doctor’s many reassurances that the affliction is nothing to be overly concerned about, Emanuel’s time is spent undergoing painful spinal procedures. He is confined to a full cast that covers his lanky torso and spends most of the film prostrate in bed. Yet he’s in the prime of his life, and doesn’t let his illness stop him from making the most of it. He smokes, drinks, and carouses. He makes an awkward attempt at copulation, vexed by his cast, and falls in love.
The story is told primarily from Emanuel’s perspective as he narrates and reflects on the dichotomy of healing and death the sanatorium represents. For some, the hospital is the last place they’ll ever see. For others, it’s a pit stop, a place to get well and be on their way. After Emanuel’s condition commits him to the hospital long term, he finds the company of fellow patients and the irascible doctor who smokes during medical procedures preferable to the outside world. The film is set in Romania in the 1930s on the eve of authoritarian ruler Ion Antonescu’s rise to power amid a climate of nationalism and antisemitism. The patients are somewhat insulated from these external threats; the sanatorium is a selfcontained microcosm of earthly existence.
Jude’s screenplay, loosely based on an autobiographical novel of Romanian author Max Blecher, takes a clinical approach to its observances of events inside the hospital, showing everything from a slight distance. This detachment contrasts with the convalescent’s rich inner musings. Still, only occasionally, and usually during moments where he is enduring the suffering wrought by radical treatments, does the experience become more visceral, up close, and personal.
Jude goes to great pains to bring a literary sense to the proceedings, occasionally inserting explanatory text that mirrors the dialogue and reflects on the onscreen action. He adds compositional elements that are overtly inspired by those of the Dutch Masters. The film’s moody interior settings, warm colors, and chamber music-style score all seem to complement the sense that we’ve entered into the narrative of a pictorial genre scene.
is intellectually stimulating and full of dry wit, especially on the part of Dr. Ceafalan, who seems to straddle a line between compassion, disinterest, and subtle sadism, played with deadpan hilarity by Serban Pavlu. Perhaps wisely, the rising tide of fascist sentiment is left as a backdrop, rarely intruding on the bucolic village setting for which the sanatorium is a stand-in. it seems, would rather focus on life, with death coming into the picture as a necessary component of life, and on the bacchanalian pleasures that even convalescents might savor.
In watching it, one is reminded of Thomas Mann’s Emanuel, a latter-day Hans Castorp, is perhaps less malcontent than Mann’s protagonist, who, at the outbreak of war, eventually answers the call to return from the mountain. But Emanuel has found a place where life exists in all its thrall. He knows that outside the hospital walls, there lies a descent into the inevitability that awaits us all.
— Michael Abatemarco