In his latest Facebook post, the two-time Academy Award-winning actor Tom Hanks urges his legion of fans to see the documentary film “Chuck Norris vs. Communism.”
Directed by Ilinca Calugareanu, the film is set in 1980s Romania, under the rule of the notorious Nicolae Ceausescu. It is a testament, Hanks suggested, of “The power of film! To change the world.”
Well, film played a role in the transformation of Romania from the communist state it was during Ceausescu’s 22-year reign of repression to the free, democratic society it is today.
But it was the power of God that toppled Ceausescu’s regime. And film was but an instrument the Almighty chose to bring about historic change in Bucharest (as opposed to, say, the fire and brimstone he used to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, or the ten plagues he visited upon Pharaoh’s Egypt).
Indeed, “Chuck Norris vs. Communism” tells the story of how the advent of the VCR enabled the Romanian people to secretly watch Western films, which was strictly forbidden by the Ceausescu government.
VCRs were smuggled into Romania, where a unit fetched roughly the same price as an automobile. Enterprising Romanian entrepreneurs “held home-based viewing parties,” according to the Journal of Religion & Film, and “created an underground economy of illegal film watching.”
Hollywood action films were a favorite of Romania’s underground moviegoers. And Chuck Norris was the biggest draw – thus the title of the documentary Hanks declared a must-see.
But the real star of the documentary is not Norris but Irina Margareta Nistor, who in 1980 graduated college in her native Romania with a degree in foreign languages, and who thereupon went to work as a translator for Romanian state television.
In 1985, Irina was approached by a colleague who asked if she would be interested in dubbing foreign films, which was verboten in Ceausescu’s Romania. But 28-year-old Irina was willing to take the risk.
So she was introduced to Teodor Zamfir, an enterprising entrepreneur who smuggled into Romania VHS tapes of Hollywood films. And between 1985 and 1989, the year Ceausescu’s communist regime was finally turned out of power, Irina dubbed more than 1,000 movies.
She would work from 8:30 in the morning to 3:30 in the afternoon Romanian state television, censoring content for government-approved broadcast. Then she would stealthily walk two blocks to Zamfir’s apartment, where she would dub films until midnight in an improvised studio he set up in his basement.
It was dangerous work. And Irina had no idea what might happen to her if her forbidden activities were discovered by the Securitate, Ceausescu’s secret police.
But God was with the young Romanian woman with the husky, high-pitched voice (as documentarian described it) that became one of the most recognizable in the communist country.
Indeed, Irina managed for a number of years to remain out of the cross hairs of the secret police – whom, she suspected, knew who she was and what she was doing in Zamfir’s basement, but tolerated her subversive activities, because like many Romanians, they enjoyed re-dubbed Hollywood films.
That all changed when Irina dared to do a voiceover for “Jesus of Nazareth,” the BBC miniseries helmed by the Italian director Francisco Zeffirelli – which was rebroadcast on NBC in 1981, winning an Emmy Award for “Outstanding Special Drama,” and re-rebroadcast four more times through 1990.
In “Chuck Norris vs. Communism,” a Romanian filmgoer remembers attending a secret screening of “Jesus of Nazareth,” during which fellow filmgoers were openly weeping during the crucifixion scene.
Such cinematic depictions of the Gospel were new to the Romanian people, as religious services were outlawed by Ceausescu’s government and even references to “God” were banned.
Several Romanian clerics were interviewed for the documentary and they attested that the bootleg VHS films from Hollywood not only had salutary effect on the social lives of the repressed Romanian people but, also, importantly, their spiritual lives.
It was not long after Irina Margareta Nistor made her Romanian re-dub of “Jesus of Nazareth,” which attracted to her the unwanted attention of the Romanian secret police, that the Romanian revolution began. That very well saved the young woman from arrest, imprisonment and maybe even death.
As to Ceausescu, the judgment of God fell upon him.
The Romanian tyrant was weighed in the balances and found wanting. And God put an end to his reign.