Romanian cinema is so hot right now. Last year, Cristi Puiu’s excellent ‘The Death of Mr Lazarescu’ carved cinematic excitement from terminal cancer, and then at this year’s Cannes, Cristi Mungiu’s ‘4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days’ did the same for illegal abortion under communism (and won the Palme d’Or), while Cristian Nemescu’s posthumous ‘California Dreamin’ ’ topped the Un Certain Regard section by taking a wry dig at American intervention, both recent and historical, in eastern Europe.
Is it too early to talk of a new wave? These films certainly share the eye of the historian and the gaze of the auteur as they each consider a people emerging from a past defined by foreign power-games and local hardship. Their stories are different, but they display an immediacy and an energy in common. As Puiu, the director of ‘Lazarescu’, suggested in these pages in June, four films do not make a movement, but it’s hard not to assume that something exciting is happening in Romanian film at the moment.
Hot on the heels of these titles comes Corneliu Porumboiu’s debut feature ‘12:08 East of Bucharest’, in which the motley participants of a small-town television chat-show reminisce reluctantly about their role in the country’s 1989 revolution and reveal along the way that popular myth can easily overtake political reality. It’s December 22 2005, and pretentious regional television host Virgil Jderescu (Teodor Corban) has invited two unlikely locals to join him on his low-budget show: Tiberiu Manescu (Ion Sapdaru) is a sad school-teacher with a drink problem whose pupils ignore him and whose wife demands that he hands her his pay-packet, while Emanoil Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu) is a snowy-haired retiree with time on his hands and a request from locals that he dust off his Santa costume and revive the Father Christmas act that was popular a few years earlier. It’s this pair – a cocktail of the depressed and the distracted and the disturbed – that Jderescu for some unknown reason decides to quiz live on air about their recollections of exactly where they were and what they doing either side of the critical hour on December 22 1989: 12:08pm was the time that President Caeusescu was overthrown in Timisoara, so heralding the coup d’etat that began the end of communist rule.
But the burning question is: did any locals set out to protest in the local square before the clock struck 12:08pm? Or were the residents of the small city of Vaslui merely followers and not instigators of the revolution? Roughly half of the film unfolds in the claustrophobic theatre of a one-camera TV studio, allowing each gesture and expression to take on significance. Piscoci does origami; Manescu looks suicidal; callers to the show accuse each participant of exaggerating their involvement in the revolution. The only decoration in the studio is a blown-up photo of the city square in question. This is black comedy with a subtle political edge.
As a director, Porumboiu is perhaps less daring and more modest in his storytelling than his other feted compatriots, but he’s no less incisive in his commentary on Romania’s recent history, no less dry in his intermittent and unexpected humour and no less pleasing in his direct and uncluttered style of presentation. Brief moments have wider significance – such as the lawlessness of Manescu’s classroom, where the pupils set off firecrackers – and it’s only when the film’s over that you fully become aware that Porumboiu’s introduction of his three main characters in the film’s first half offers a distinct social tour of present-day small-town Romania. His aim is to compare his country’s current state with its pre-revolutionary past. The final, dour images of the city as dusk arrives finally suggest stasis, not change. The question Porumboiu seems to be asking is: did the revolution ever happen at all?