A Zionist female Robin Hood? A sorrowful victim of Stalinism? A selfish criminal? The abiding mystery for Boston-area filmmaker Irene Lusztig has been the true story of her long-deceased maternal grandmother, Monica Sevianu, who was imprisoned in Bucharest, Rumania, for a notorious 1959 bank heist. After interviewing grandma Monica's surviving relatives her own mother, also Monica's sister and brother-in-law Lusztig taught herself Rumanian and spent months in Bucharest determined to find the truth. Lusztig's investigation is captured in her vivid, thrilling feature documentary, Reconstruction, which has its world premiere (with the filmmaker present) at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.
The Monica of photos in her prime: a dark-eyed beauty. Men swooned, and she chased after, swept up in their causes. When Rumania fell under a pro-Hitler regime, Monica joined the clandestine Communist Party, thinking that here was a place that being Jewish was OK. She was also a left-wing Zionist. However, her sister, interviewed today, remains skeptical of Monica's convictions: Monica embraced anything that smacked of being anti-bourgeois.
During the War, Bucharest suffered pogroms, but it was the only major European city where the Jewish populace was not deported en masse to Nazi concentration camps. (I know first-hand: my grandmother, two aunts, two uncles, all survived without arrest in Bucharest, and came to America in the 1950s.) Monica also survived and, after the War, emigrated to Israel with a husband and lived on a kibbutz. The aging ex-spouse, still in Israel, refused to be interviewed for the movie, except to mutter, Lusztig says, that "Marrying my grandmother was the biggest mistake of his life." As for Monica: irritated with tent life and other kibbutznik hardships, she rashly decided to return in 1948 to Bucharest, and a post-War Rumania under Communism.
Reconstruction is a film of ambition and scope so Lusztig weaves Monica's personal story with terrific footage of Rumania in the throes of Stalinism: Uncle Joe's smiling visage lording over a left-wing fascist regime in which equality is an Orwellian joke, purges are the norm, and anti-Semitism is implied by the Marxist rhetoric about decadent enemies of the state. Monica lay low for years, a slacker living at home off her parents. Then she met Gugu, and went goo-goo, over this slick-haired, womanizing ne'er-do-well.
Gugu! Monica's sister and husband shake their head, still aghast today about this awful guy who became Monica's husband. Monica and Gugu moved in together, and soon rugs were missing from Monica's parents' apartment. And then: July 28,1959, a bank robbery of a million lei. Five men were arrested and charged, including Gugu. One woman was arrested: Monica.
The longer that Lusztig investigated in Rumania, the more she conceded that the secret police grabbed the right people. But maybe Monica and company had stolen the money to donate it (a prevailing rumor) to Zionist organizations and send Jews to Israel? Maybe. But what of their sudden explosion of cash, and the expensive presents to themselves? Yet whatever Monica and Gugu did, they didn't deserve their fate: to be coerced to star as themselves in a state-produced fake documentary recreation of their arrest and day in kangaroo court. After months of searching in Rumania, Lusztig found a print of this startling, creepy, "show trial" film, and she copied and reproduced scenes for her own movie. Reconstruction (that's what it's also called) celebrates the the sly detective work of Rumanian cops as they get these fascist culprits to confess they had stolen bank money meant for honest Rumanian workers! There is Gugu as himself, shivering like a rat dunked in ocean water. There is Monica, disheveled, unglamorous, and in shock.
The five men all Jews! were found guilty and shot. Monica was sent lifetime to prison, though she was pardoned in a 1964 amnesty. Following Monica's track, Lusztig visits the dank jail and even locates Monica's freed, one-time cell mate the only person in the film with nice words for her grandmother! Forgotten in my narrative, forgotten mostly by Monica: Monica's daughter, who is Lusztig's bitter mother. Neglected in her childhood by self-absorbed parents, she romanticized the Monica in jail, dreaming of a beautiful sophisticated lady, who would come home. Instead, she was greeted one day with a sight from the brothers Grimm: "a hunchback with greenish, lifeless skin." Yes, that was mama, who then fled alone to Israel, and died at age 53 of a heart attack, housekeeper to a rich man in Tel Aviv. Oy, what a strange life!