Sometimes the best way to enjoy a film is by sharing it with someone who is seeing it for the first time.
This is what it feels like to watch “Chuck Norris vs. Communism,” a documentary that serves as a powerful reminder of the simple pleasures we often take for granted.
“Chuck Norris” is the story of the Romanian video black market of the late 1980s, and a high-voiced woman who became an underground hero to her countrymen.
We joke sometimes that Rocky Balboa won the Cold War when he defeated Ivan Drago in 1985’s “Rocky IV.” Draped in the American flag and slurring out a classic Stallone mumble, Rocky assures the Iron Curtain crowd that “everybody can change.” And a few years later, they did.
As it turns out, Rocky may have had more of an influence than we give him credit for.
In the 1980s, Romania was deep behind the Iron Curtain and trapped in the iron fist of President Nicolae Ceausescu. Television was almost nonexistent, and citizens were in constant fear that their friends and neighbors might be secret police.
Irina Nistor was a begrudging employee for the Censorship Committee at the time, using her fluency in English to help the government trim portions of outside videos that might violate the state’s communist ideals. But one day, she was secretly led into the basement of a man named Theodor Zamfir and directed to record a translation of the 1965 film “Dr. Zhivago.”
A revolutionary was born.
Over the next three years, Nistor’s voice was dubbed on over 3,000 films, as many as 10 in a single session, and became Romania’s second-most famous voice next to that of Ceausescu himself. “Chuck Norris” is the story of how this underground video market, fueled by Zamfir’s smuggled videos and spread by a network of underworldlike lieutenants, laid the groundwork for Romania to welcome Western culture after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
For around 80 minutes, director Ilinca Calugareanu alternates testimonials from Nistor and Zamfir with various Romanian citizens who recall their memories of packing into tiny living rooms and crouching around tiny TV screens. Calugareanu intercuts these interviews with re-enactments of the illegal video parties and the cloak-and-dagger interactions of the perpetrators.
There are many panning images of fascinated viewers bathed in the glow of capitalist media, but no image is as heartwarming as the sight of inspired Romanian teenagers dressed up in tattered sweatsuits and running around town pretending they’re Rocky Balboa.
This is a perfect film for people who love movies. Seeing snippets of familiar films and the familiar pop and static of badly dubbed video is an effective nostalgia trigger for anyone who remembers the days before digital media. This is a movie that will make you smile, and smile often.
Because Nistor worked alone, she would dub the voices of both the male and the female characters. Calugareanu presents us with multiple examples of her work, and Nistor’s high-pitched feminine voice speaking Romanian on a two-second delay is very charming, if not the ideal way to view the work of Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme.
One of the most fascinating (and sobering) moments of the documentary comes when Nistor recalls how liberating it was to be able to use forbidden words like “priest” or “Easter.” But even if she resented her daytime work for the Censorship Committee, Nistor took liberties of her own when Al Pacino or Arnold Schwarzenegger used profanity. Often, she’d substitute expressions like “Holy Moly” or softer insults over the top of rough films like “Scarface” or “The Exorcist.”
(Unfortunately, as amusing as this brief segment is, it also uses enough R-rated profanity to bump up the rating of what otherwise would have been a PG/PG-13 documentary.)
It’s amusing to see how cornball action sequences from the likes of Chuck Norris could be so appreciated, but often what stuck out to the Romanian audiences were the stocked shelves of grocery store scenes, or a sports car out on the road.
“Chuck Norris” has a lot going for it, but its most powerful effect is to remind us of the simple freedoms we enjoy. Throwaway action films provided a window to the Western world for people who, in some cases, were literally walled off from it.
Near the end of the documentary, file footage taken in a city square during the fall of the Iron Curtain shows thousands and thousands of people celebrating their newfound freedom in 1989, and it’s an incredible sight. Sometimes movies are just movies, but in this case, they were something much more.
“Chuck Norris vs. Communism” is not rated but would receive an R rating due to the profanity used in the aforementioned segment. It is presented in English and Romanian, with English subtitles.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.