Film Verdict Review
- July 5, 2023
VERDICT: ”Alexandru Solomon leads an offbeat, high-stakes pilgrimage that connects dark history past and present, interrogating the idolisation of Romanian mystic Arsenie Boca through re-enactment and activist exploits.”
July 2nd, 2023
Arsenie Boca was a Romanian priest and mystic who claimed to have paranormal healing powers. He was imprisoned under Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and died in 1989, just weeks before the ruler’s overthrow and execution. Today, his picture hangs in taxis and stores all over the country, while his cult popularity resurges among Orthodox believers and conspiracy theorists, amid calls for his canonisation.
The dramatic screen potential of the life of Boca, a handsome monk with an intense gaze who comes off like a more pinup-friendly version of Rasputin, is obvious. But in the hands of filmmaker Alexandru Solomon, a rigorous chronicler of history, hubris and state-sanctioned power abuses (his past documentaries include Tarzan’s Testicles (2017), on a failed Soviet experiment in Abkhazia), this was never going to be simply an entertaining, reductive biography of a colourful character. What Solomon presents us with instead in Arsenie. An Amazing Afterlife, which had its world premiere in Transilvania and screens in the Proxima competition in Karlovy Vary, is an indirect portrait of a contemporary Romania hijacked by charlatans and brutes. It bristles with frustration and futility, as the director, taking on the responsibilities of narrator, concerned citizen, and tour guide through decades of national atrocities, fails (by his own admission) to get to the bottom of Boca’s deep allure, or to resolve his own alienation over the exclusionary violence he detects at the heart of the phenomenon.
It is a lot to bite off, in a film dense with historical allusions and complex associations, one that uses the political performance art of pilgrims in dress-up re-enacting events to coax breakthroughs in understanding. This offbeat, cerebral approach will limit its mainstream accessibility (think Radu Jude’s 2018 I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians with a more vulnerably personal radius of activist enquiry), but it makes for a singularly original, absurdist and challenging take on the political salience of irrationality that will speak strongly to festival audiences alarmed by the division and disinformation of our unscientific times.
Solomon and his production team are very much in the frame, as the director tries to find a way to connect and therefore decipher the mindset of Boca’s most ardent worshippers. He settles on a casting process and pilgrimage, enlisting believers who also want to be stars, taking them on a hired bus (replete with a karaoke system for patriotic songs) to various sites in Romania associated with the famous mystic. There they engage in discussion circles, read from secret service files on Boca, and act out defining moments and supposed miracles of the icon’s life. Numerous clips are woven in of Boca from television (in one, visitors cry hysterically at a painting of him that appears to weep), showing how the media has been used to propagate his fame, in a cult of personality that has been spread with ease through the technology of today — an information climate far different from the pre-digital days when Boca would give out his photograph to influence peasants. Only snatches of backstory come to us about the cast of participants, but their devotion ranges from the measured to what many would consider unhinged (one calls out narcissism in Boca’s efforts to impress women; another claims to see sparkling entities all around and have regular alien visitations.)
The reasons for this faith and fanaticism — which by their very nature are traits defying logical analysis — are not neatly pinned down. But what comes through in interviews with Boca fans (and to Solomon’s credit, these feel driven by a genuine desire to build bridges, rather than to catalogue gotcha moments to shame his subjects) is a desperate need for certainty and reassurance, in a societal landscape of repeated trauma under authoritarianism and surveillance, economic privations under capitalism, and the added strain of the pandemic. The harm in reaching for such consolation, should audiences wonder, is clarified with care by Solomon, as the link between priests such as Boca, the Orthodox Church and the fascist Legionary Movement founded by Corneliu Codreanu, which was deeply invested in Christian mysticism, is retraced and discussed. The latter movement persecuted the Jewish population (“I cannot be objective,” declares the director, some of whose family members were expelled from schools under inter-war antisemitic laws revoking civil rights.)
There is a sprinkling of magical, effects-driven touches (Boca’s face projected in a pond, and atmospheric twinkles) that, paired with ghostly music, is a tongue-in-cheek play on the possibility of the reproduced image to manipulate and seduce, but these humorous quirks feel halfhearted beside a pervasive sentiment that is heavier and darker. A local woman peers out from her gate at the passing procession of costumed pilgrims with a scrutinising, suspicious look that seems to collapse time. It stresses the eerie capacity re-enactment has to tap something of the past fears and atrocities upon which our present is built. But perhaps the biggest key to understanding the roots of this project is the footage of Solomon’s own 2017 one-person protest over the visit of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow to Bucharest. With portraits of Putin and the patriarchs hanging around his neck, the director tosses coins on the ground and slashes his own hand with a blade, which he explains is an offering of blood and money, dedicated to all victims of communist and fascist repression in Russia and Romania. It is a radical act borne of great distress, it seems, but with only a few witnesses up to now. In today’s war of visual symbolism and disinformation, the arsenal of influencers is one of memes and miracles — and documentarians who work with facts toil away in their shadow.