Hail all ye kingmakers: Romania is officially the new hotbed of international art cinema.
On the heels of Cristi Puiu’s lacerating The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, comes Corneliu Poromboiu’s lighter, but no less accomplished 12:08 East of Bucharest. Where Lazarescu could be argued as having politicized the body to offer a critique of contemporary human relations, Bucharest literally deals with the body politic as refracted through a motley group of characters and their questionable involvements in the 1989 revolution which ousted Ceausescu (at 12:08 PM). Hugely pompous Virgil Jderescu hosts a local access television program, and has scheduled for the day of the film a look back 16 years (a comically arbitrary number) to question whether or not protesters in their sleepy town (East of Bucharest) participated in the revolution, or merely followed in its wake. His equally arbitrary guests are Manescu, town professor and drunk, who recasts himself as the hero of the day, and old man Piscoci who seem notable only in that he’s asked by those in his apartment building to play Santa Claus.
The final forty minutes of this brief work are devoted to Jderescu and his two guests fending off questions from callers in a hilariously run down studio. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a filmmaker do so much with so little, but Poromboiu milks three setups (played as the studio cameras) for comic gold, even as the broadcast touches on politics, revolution, the Romanian character, and the brutal evisceration of one man’s reputation. It’s a hugely dense and precisely choreographed sequence—the amount of information parsed through what is usually a rather hokey device is astonishing.
But this is not to say that the film lives and dies here. From its opening moments Bucharest announces itself as a major work, proceeding without hurry or any apparent desire for our full comprehension through a series of apartment interiors as our three heroes prepare for their day. The deft mixture of comedy and pathos is immediately present, as is the director’s eye for small details, all of which are tied up nicely as the narrative wears on. This is a thoroughly considered work, and features one of the more graceful bookends you’re likely to find on film. This one’s a total keeper.