Radu Jude keeps his actors and his audience at arm’s length with “Scarred Hearts,” a strangely distancing drama set in the 1930s that’s loosely based on the writings of Romanian author Max Blecher. Unlike Jude’s award winning “Aferim,” which pulled viewers into its scabrous 19th-century world, here the director (collaborating again with DP Marius Panduru) primarily uses master shots, allowing the action to passively pass before the camera. Given that the protagonist and his friends are mostly lying on hospital beds in partial body casts, the static lensing (and 1:1.85 aspect ratio) does have a formal function, yet its effect is misjudged. Jude’s name assures a few festival bookings, though “Scarred Hearts” won’t duplicate the traction of his previous film.
Both “Aferim” and “Scarred Hearts” presume a certain amount of historical knowledge, but where the former’s narrative drive was strong enough to minimize concerns over possible information gaps, the latter’s unannotated immersion coupled with its episodic structure suggests the film won’t have the same pull. Yes, the evocation of torture-like medical techniques of the era has a certain unnerving fascination, and Emanuel (Lucian Rus), the Max Blecher stand-in, is a deeply sympathetic fellow, but the frequent quotations from Blecher’s works, edited in like intertitles on a black screen, keep interrupting potential involvement.
Emanuel suffers from Pott’s disease, a form of tuberculosis of the spine, so in 1934 his father (Alexandru Dabija) takes him to a seaside hospital/sanitarium run by officious chain-smoking Dr. Ceafalan (Şerban Pavlu). There his torso is put in a cast, an abscess is painfully drained, and he spends the ensuing years with fellow patients, nurses and visitors in a necessarily compromised attempt to realize some sort of social life. Self-assured former patient Solange (Serbian director Ivana Mladenović) makes him feel semi-normal, while Isa (Ilinca Harnut) in a nearby hospital room adds a welcome note of irony as well as being a model of resigned perseverance.
The film is not meant to be a biography of Blecher but rather is loosely inspired by the writer’s works: “Scarred Hearts” is the title of Blecher’s autobiographical novel about patients in a hospital in Berck-sur-Mer, France, though the film is equally indebted to his posthumously published “The Enlightened Lair.” Given the author’s straitened physical circumstances, he wrote an extraordinary amount and is considered one of Romania’s key intellects from between the wars, but it’s not clear if Jude means for his Emanuel to also be an author, since he’s never seen with pen in hand. Passages from Blecher’s books are flashed on screen, often dealing with the unimportance of human existence, featuring lines like “futility filled the world like oozing liquid,” yet they convey a one-note sense of the writer’s world view (how many viewers will register that he’s reading Kierkegaard?).
Events of the time are referenced, especially the rise of the fascist, anti-Semitic Iron Guard, with casual mention of such key supporters as philosophers Emil Cioran and Nae Ionescu, yet few outside Romania will recognize the names, further minimizing the chances for “Scarred Hearts” to play abroad apart from scattered fests and contextualized Romanian showcases. In addition, scenes of patients and nurses fraternizing, getting drunk, brawling, and playing spin-the-bottle are so drawn out that they benumb audience concentration, making philosophical discussions sound like meaningless blather.
Emanuel’s likeability (more apparent in the film than in Blecher’s novel) unquestionably helps bridge the extended running time, and Solange is a fascinating character, liberated yet still drawn to the scene of her hospitalization. The film also has a sense of humor — Emanuel and Isa attempting sex with semi-body casts deservedly gets several guffaws — but the project never quite comes together. Much of the fault lies in the visual conception, with its largely static camera, which moves basically only when Emanuel is wheeled about on his hospital bed or gurney. Otherwise, master shots held at a fixed distance constantly thwart attempts to get into the story, making for empty formal appreciation with little compensating emotion.