The opening credits sequence of Scarred Hearts features black-and-white photographs of hospital patients in a beachside sanitarium. Among those pictured in convalescence is Max Blecher, a Romanian writer who died at age 28 of Pott's disease, a form of musculoskeletal tuberculosis. Radu Jude's adaptation of Blecher's second and final novel, published in 1936, examines how the link between reality and fiction became blurred in Romanian politics during the 1930s: the last decade that saw free elections in the country until 1990. Jude positions the deteriorating body of Manu (Lucian Teodor Rus), Blecher's fictionalized version of himself, as the Romanian body politic allegorically descending into nearly a half century of rule by dictatorship.
Jude charts Manu's condition using an almost clinical precision in the film's first half, employing static long takes of material that could be straight out of a horror film. As Manu writhes and screams while receiving an operation that suggests an act of torture, Jude's camera remains constant, positioned so that the gore of the surgery stays just out of frame. Once Manu's body becomes the focal point of Scarred Hearts, a handwritten quote from Percy Shelley's Epipsychidion (“I pant, I sink, I tremble, I expire”) from the credits sequence takes on greater significance, giving deeper resonance to the corporeal tragedy of Manu's illness. Though his body wanes, his mind remains sharp and engaged with fellow patients about political and philosophical matters.
Despite the film's bleak premise, writer-director Radu Jude finds dark humor within the certainty of death.
Despite the film's bleak premise, Jude finds dark humor within the certainty of death. After Manu arrives with his father (Alexandru Dabija) at the seaside sanitarium at Berck-sur-Mer in northern France, he's given an X-ray by a technician whose all-black garb and hood unmistakably resemble that of an executioner. In a subsequent scene, after successfully draining one of Manu's abscesses, Dr. Ceafalan (Serban Pavlu) triumphantly wags the puss-filled syringe in his patient's anguished face. Just as Manu works against the dire circumstances of his illness—and thus Romanian political ruin—by going on to cultivate his intellect later in the film, Radu expresses his individual artistic handprint in this scene, positing humor as transcendence from pain.
Comparable to the conception of Jude's previous Aferim!, Scarred Hearts considers a moment in Romanian history from the vantage point of the present. In that sense, Jude looks to Blecher's novel less as the basis for a faithful literary adaptation than as a metacinematic foundation to contemplate why art cannot cure the body, much less prevent a catastrophe. As Manu lies in bed among other patients, they shout to one another about the rise of Adolf Hitler, banter over the work of Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, and volley anti-Semitic remarks back and forth. The camera, always at a distance and in a stationary position, mirrors more than the immobility of its subjects, as it also reflects Jude's inability to intervene in the past beyond its manipulation and molding through current artistic means.
Scarred Hearts scrutinizes a legacy of fascism in a manner that recalls The Spirit of the Beehive, Victor Erice's anti-Francoist film set in 1930s Spain. In fact, both films directly parallel models of skeletons with framed photographs of political leaders, suggesting the mind and body as something that's produced by a system of governance. Inside the hospital, Manu debates literature, including the work of avant-garde poet Ion Minulescu. Freed from the constraints of political pressure, the hospital creates itself as a democratic space where argument, not dictates, have purchase.
Later in the film, a bedridden Manu listens via radio to the results of the 1937 general election, an event that placed Romania on the path toward dictatorship. Though Manu, just like Blecher, never saw this Romania fully given over to despotism, the author's work endures as a testament for how art provides subsequent generations, like that of Jude, a vitalized perspective that corrupt politicians would rather see, like Manu's body, rot away.