The Romanian Spielberg is how director Sergiu Nicolaescu is often described. That’s a bit misleading but catches a flavour of the prolific writer/director/actor who from the 1960s until his death in 2013 made films designed to be seen by as many people as possible.
1974’s Un Comisar Acuzã is a prime example of what he was all about. A classic crime thriller with a distinctly political angle, it both plays to the Communist Ceaușescu regime’s notion of itself as the font of justice and, glimpsed side-on, critiques it, all the while delivering action, thrills, a fast-moving narrative and a hero who’s easy to like.
Useful background to have before going in: in the early stages of the Second World War Romania was a neutral country, but eventually ended up siding with the Axis powers, thanks in no small part to the machinations of a homegrown pro-Nazi political organisation called either the Iron League or, more sinisterly, the Legion of Archangel Michael – with god on our side etc.
As the curtain goes up – and essentially relaying the facts of an actual wartime atrocity – the League are bursting into a prison where anti-government and communist prisoners are being held. Armed to the teeth, the League – dressed throughout in distinctive thick leather in case we hadn’t worked out they were the bad guys – proceed to kill everyone they can find and then leave.
The authorities’ hand is forced. To maintain the fiction that they’re running a just and a well ordered society, they appoint a police commissioner to investigate, deliberately choosing someone who is out of his depth, a cop more used to dealing with pickpockets and prostitution the political assassination on a grand scale.
But they have chosen the wrong guy. Inspector Tudor Moldovan is a dogged avenging cop sympathetic to the communists but even more attached to the notion of justice. Using his network of street-undesirables to bolster his investigation he goes to work on finding out what really went on in the Viraga Prison (the real-life one was called Jilava) on the fateful night in question.
As well as directing, Nicolaescu plays Moldovan, demonstrating a familiarity with American cinema with a performance that’s four fifths Humphrey Bogart, one fifth Clint Eastwood. Molodovan is the sort of coolly impassive guy men respect and women want to jump. At one point there’s even a suggestion that director Nicolaescu is going to rework that scene in The Big Sleep where Bogie and a bookish shop assistant get it on, and then thinks the better of it. But it’s there in the look of the eye of the nurse Moldovan has just charmed with a couple of words and a gesture.
Nicolaescu also tunes in to the American 1970s conspiracy thriller. As Moldovan digs and digs, using fists and charm, the path to the guilty leads upwards, ever upwards, through a number of impressive set pieces – shootouts in a cemetery, an empty theatre, a disused factory. These are faintly familiar, though Nicolaescu’s impressive command of the technicals and the richly saturated looks of DP Alexandru David mean they’re not just pale copies. Meanwhile, Richard Oschanitzsky’s score is a cocktail of the spiky 1950s hard-boiled with Lalo Schifrin-inspired funk-lite. Everything bounces along exactly as it’s meant to.
In English this film is known as A Police Inspector Calls or A Police Superintendent Accuses, both of which seem a bit clumsy, but the film is anything but. It’s incredibly light on its feet. That Romanian Spielberg tag doesn’t do Nicolaescu any favours either but it doesn’t show him up either.
Nicolaescu had played a similar character with a similar name – Tudor Miclovan – but this was the first outing for the principled cop Moldovan. There would be more. They are surely worth seeking out.
Un Comisar Acuzã – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2023