Recalling Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in its atmospheric, if tempered historical epic on the bloody reign of sixteenth century Moldavian despot, Alexandru Lapusneanu, Malvina Ursianu’s Return of the Banished is a trenchant allegory on the moral corruption and madness of absolute power. Unfolding though a series of flashbacks and flash forwards, the film opens to the image of Lapusneanu’s eldest son and heir, Bogdan, and his mother, Doamna Ruxandra (Silvia Popovici) traveling across a mountain pass in a private horse-drawn carriage, separated from the family’s entourage and Bogdan’s younger siblings, asking her how to properly address his father (George Motoi) now that he has returned from exile and, once again, ascended to the throne as the rightful ruler of Moldavia. In hindsight, the chronological ambiguity created by the film’s atemporal structure also reinforces the idea of recursive history. Once a pragmatic, magnanimous ruler eager to redefine social structure based on meritocracy rather than noble birth – a more egalitarian (and inferentially socialist) perspective that is reflected in his controversial decision to redistribute the property of a boyard who was executed for treason to his loyalists rather than allow the surviving relatives to inherit the generations-owned land – Lapusneanu soon becomes increasingly distrustful of the guarded boyards who, in turn, see the gesture as evidence of his flaunted authority and a prelude to a class war. Eager to centralize – and legitimize – his authority over Moldavia, Lapusneanu embarks on a series of strategic, pre-emptive campaigns against neighboring kingdoms and rebellious boyars to ensure his legacy, and in the process, falls deeper into the isolation and paranoia of his quest for historical immortality. In a sense, Lapusneanu’s evolution from benevolent ruler to tyrant also becomes an allegory for Nicolae Ceauşescu’s own political transformation, morphing from popular national leader willing to stand up against the power of the Soviet Union, to secretive, Stalinist head of state inspired by the claustrophobic governments of North Korea and Maoist China. Framed against Lapusneanu’s assassination of his own installed boyers, the film becomes a sobering commentary on the social revolution coming full circle in the delusive pursuit of marking history.
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