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.