Hopeful news about Romanian cinema came from the Cannes festival last month--despite the oddness of that conjunction, "hopeful" and "Romanian"--thanks to the presence in the main competition of Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. A tale from the final period of the Ceausescu regime concerning two college students, a cheap hotel room and an illegal abortion, Mungiu's film was awarded the Palme d'Or, making it the latest in a recent series of Romanian pictures to have won recognition at the festival, starting in 2005 with Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.
Of course, as the filmmakers themselves will tell you, any talk of a Romanian New Wave would be wildly premature. Mr. Lazarescu played to literally dozens of people in the United States; while at home, the greatest good it did for Puiu was to free him to denounce the government funding agency. Hope is a relative thing. But just to show that it exists, here comes a 2006 Cannes award winner, Corneliu Porumboiu's self-produced 12:08 East of Bucharest, which is now rolling out for a US theatrical release, starting at Film Forum in New York.
The 12:08 of the title refers to the moment on December 22, 1989, when Ceausescu stepped into a helicopter and fled his capital--an event that all of Romania watched live on television. In Porumboiu's bleakly hilarious film, set on the sixteenth anniversary of this abdication, the great event will once again be televised--but locally, as an item for discussion on a very small-time afternoon talk show. Instead of the rush of historic action, the show will offer viewers only the stasis of a photomural, placed behind the panelists as decor: a frozen, depopulated image of a city square somewhere east of Bucharest. Instead of broadcasting a turning point in the life of a nation, the show will worry at a parochial, absurdly undecided question: Was there a revolution in our town or not?
Apparently, Romania lacks the proverb "If you have to ask, don't mess with it." To help you understand why this wisdom might be wanting, and to let you appreciate the resulting mess in its fullness, Porumboiu devotes the first half of 12:08 East of Bucharest to a tour of the town and an introduction to its citizens.
This part of the movie is shot in the internationally approved film-festival style of the blank stare: fixed camera, middle distance, no cutaways within the scene. It's not a mandatory style for Romania--in fact, Porumboiu will break with it later--but its effect in this first section seems true to form for the country. In my experience, Romanian films are often divided almost explicitly into a setup (which may demand patience) and a payoff (which may reward it). So it is with 12:08 East of Bucharest, in which the first half, for all its implied drollery, will do little more than make you chuckle, in a sighing, Bill Murray kind of way.
Though they're as wised-up about people's motives and as avid for grunginess as the films of any other post-Soviet country, Romanian pictures don't traffic in the hectic fun that can accompany some other nations' cinematic forays into alcohol poisoning, or the sensitive juvenile viewpoints that can add a sweet pang to their atmosphere of despair. In the impeccably matter-of-fact setup of 12:08 East of Bucharest, you first see Old Man Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu) from behind, silhouetted at his window at dawn as he sits alone, watching the streetlights blink off. Manescu (Ion Sapdaru), a history teacher in the local school, is first glimpsed prostrate on the sofa of his crumbling living room, where his legs evidently gave out the night before. (His wife, unsurprised and unpitying, walks into the frame with a telephone for him, dumps it and walks out again.) As for Jderescu (Teo Corban), the local talk-show host and television-station owner, you meet him just before breakfast, when he's already in his characteristic state of helpless, voluble exasperation. Standing in front of a small, neat, not particularly well-stocked bookshelf, he demands that his wife come in and find a handy dictionary for him so he can crib a classical reference from it and sound smart on the day's broadcast.
The rest of part one is an accumulation of details from the same chronic, citywide hangover. You learn how much money Manescu owes and to how many people; you find out that Piscoci has often played Santa Claus for the town's children and is outraged at the shabbiness of the only costume now available; you see that Jderescu's young girlfriend (and news anchor) is a lot less accommodating than his wife. But because these people are kept at a distance, with their faces often in shadow or their backs turned to you, the town itself seems to become the movie's main character--a shabby, distracted character at that. Its collective mind would prefer to be elsewhere: in China, perhaps (source of the celebratory firecrackers that kids keep flinging at people's doors), or in the Caribbean (home of the salsa music that a student band performs, with more enthusiasm than skill).
Was there a revolution in this place or not? The talk show begins--it will take up the entirety of part two, playing in real time--and Jderescu poses the question to the only guests he's managed to recruit, Manescu and Piscoci. They sit on either side of him, shoulder to shoulder, behind a desk placed square to the camera, ready to submit to the blank stare; but now that they're in the arrangement most appropriate to such visual sobriety, the picture abruptly gets drunk. You see close-ups for the first time, zooms, pans, jittery reframings and completely unmotivated explorations of the background photomural, all this being the work of the much-abused young fellow who serves as Jderescu's one-man camera crew. He has artistic ambitions.
What follows, within this suddenly liberated gaze, is as much choreography as conversation. Glum, dark-bearded, baggy-eyed Manescu hunches forward until he's speaking to the desktop; white-haired Piscoci leans back at his ease, a blithe smile on his nutcracker features; while Jderescu, sitting upright in the middle, tries to keep order by snatching papers from his guests, slapping their hands, hissing reprimands out of the corner of his mouth and confiscating Manescu's bottle, all the while keeping a pair of eyeglasses balanced halfway down his nose so he'll look like an intellectual. If revolution, at a minimum, is the breakdown of decorum within a civic space, then a very minor revolution is in fact taking place right in front of the town-square photomural.
But with all respect to Jderescu, the question remains: Was the town's uprising in 1989 more consequential, or in any way riskier, than this little televisual revolution?
Piscoci says no. With comfortable good cheer, he recalls that he didn't venture into the town square until after he'd seen Ceausescu's fall on TV--and all he was expecting was Laurel and Hardy! Nobody else came into the town square either, until Ceausescu was safely gone; but that's all right, Piscoci says generously, because everybody makes the best revolution he can.
No, mutters Manescu. He insists that he came into the square and protested that morning, before 12:08. Nobody saw him--but he was there.
"Were you there?" Jderescu asks, over and over, as denials mount from the talk show's phone-in audience. Each time, Manescu pauses a little longer, swallowing a little more bile, before he answers, "Yes." The history teacher demands his bit role in history, even though it changed nothing for him. The talk-show host, who seems to have remade himself very nicely since 1989, refuses to believe that anything happened. And Santa Claus loves everybody.
You will laugh till the streetlights blink on again in the damp Romanian twilight.
* * *
Unseen at press time, but recommended anyway: Lynn Hershman Leeson's Strange Culture, which opens the eighteenth annual Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. Just on the basis of the program description, I can say this film perfectly summarizes the aspirations of the festival, because it's partly about art and partly about politics, partly documentary and partly dramatic, partly archival and even partly animated--and it's all basically true. A case study in official paranoia, Strange Culture tells the story of artist, college professor and activist Steve Kurtz, who phoned the paramedics one day in 2004 when his wife collapsed and wound up in the hands of FBI agents, who arrested him and his art materials on suspicion of bioterrorism.
On view in New York June 14-28 at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater, then touring nationally, the festival this year offers another twenty features beyond Strange Culture, plus three shorts and a program of works in progress. Of the films I have seen, I can particularly recommend Sebastián Moreno Mardones's The City of Photographers, a truly revelatory documentary about the self-appointed Chilean photojournalists who recorded, and encouraged, protests against Pinochet in the 1980s. But that's only the beginning. For a complete schedule, visit www.hrw.org/iff  or www.filmlinc.com .