Licu, a Romanian story is a sufficiently encompassing title: personal and national anecdotes line up like neat little toy soldiers in Ana Dumitrescu’s 2018 documentary. Licu, a 92-year-old man, muses on his life in the past near-century in Romania and the memories that have come to be his primary companions.
Licu’s a fine and subtle narrator: as he speaks, subtle sparks glisten in his eyes, cheeky facial expressions flicker, a bemused smile flashes. His voice, which directs what’s in reality a simple piece, is emphatic, enthusiastic – youthful! It’s a modulated voice that holds a particularly appropriate power in its quality of seeming to transmit itself from another ether: the linguistic correctness and clarity of his speech is somewhat archaic, as if candied. ‘May you outlive me!’, says the old sprite to someone on her birthday, and laughs. As much as Licu seems to be able-bodied, however, the abstruse and inevitable signs of deterioration are indicated without any necessary artistic intervention by his occasional verbal pauses, the repetitions of an elderly man that come to add a poeticism to narrative quality, the curious, spontaneous creaking that dips from a place difficult to identify.
Of course, the oral component’s bolstered by cinematography that displays a keen observational sense. In the microcosm of Licu’s house, only clocks move, patiently, as if retired, and the reflection of the brass pendulum rocks back and forth in the pond of Licu’s lively eyeball. The cracks in the wall resemble topographical lines – which in Licu’s country and lifetime have altered considerably. The contemporary world’s cleverly portrayed: Licu’s dentures float expectantly in a glass of water next to a TV on which a vulgar reality show is playing, we see his ribbed socks and the open hole of his mouth as he naps. It all gives the impression of a suspended moment of waiting, and the textural portrait shots create an atmosphere of intimacy, with Licu’s white hair and wool-clad shoulders glowing below a desk lamp. Among this stillness, he smokes thoughtfully, and the cigarette smoke levitates and dissipates.
The film’s marketed as ‘a reflection on our own condition and ephemerality’ and while this is carefully respected, with Licu giving the impression of being quite abandoned without perceiving himself as such, I was more moved by the human power for adaptation, unexpected and necessary flexibility, and a more or less ordinary man’s stoic acceptance of things beyond his control. For this reason, I recommend Licu, a Romanian story even to cinephiles who aren’t necessarily seeking the Eastern European niche. In fact, for this reason I was bothered only by the inadmissibly approximate and cumbersome nature of the subtitles: some political nuances that were quite important were left out, rather unfortunately, as these give the story depth. This is a shame for a film that deserves recognition beyond its country.
Licu’s a pensive film. Licu as an individual borders the line between a man who lived a normal life and one tending towards exceptionality: he’s graceful in his lack of indifference (that often characterizes old age) and bitterness, despite his gradual weakening. I thank Ana Dumitrescu and her team for the macroshots of embroidered cushions, for the little ways about the house, and for taking the time to draw back a misty veil. Licu’s, yes, a Romanian story, and more: a rainy afternoon film with glimpses of truth-telling.