Unless I’ve missed the boat, the definitive take on the impetus behind the recent, unlikely surge in terrific Romanian cinema has yet to be published; that a country more often linked in the public consciousness (vampires aside) to vague ideas of post-Communist black market capitalism run amok should suddenly announce itself as a formidable player in the rarified world cinema scene seems worth at least a couple of think pieces. Perhaps what may well be looked back upon as a full-fledged movement hasn’t moved far enough out of its infancy. For now, moviegoers can enjoy basking in the glow of these films, at least for as long as companies are willing to assume the risk of bringing them to our shores.
The massive acclaim garnered here for Cristi Puiu‘s “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” regardless of its slight box-office impact, was really the first notable sign that Romania warranted some attention, even if both Puiu and Cristian Mungiu (director of this year’s Palme d’or winner “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days“) had films premiere at Cannes earlier in the decade. Cannes 2006 alum Corneliu Porumboiu‘s “12:08 East of Bucharest” comes to us bearing the Camera d’Or (best first feature) imprimatur, and would that half the first features to be feted at Sundance year after year felt this conceptually and aesthetically whole.
“Bucharest” begins simply enough with the introduction of its characters through a series of elegantly composed frames capturing the domestic lives of local TV host Virgil Jderescu (Teodor Corban), alcoholic professor Tiberiu Manescu (Ion Sapdaru), and “old man” Emanoil Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu) amongst their generally cramped and cluttered but never claustrophobic suburban apartments. Porumboiu’s static compositions are lovely, but initially give off a whiff of the familiar-notice the “Lazarescu”-ian gritty realism, the dashes of Kustirica’s wry humor. If the film had proceeded solely in this vein – through a series of graying, crumbling rooms in graying, crumbling apartment buildings – its 89 minutes would have hardly warranted a mention. But Porumboiu switches gears midway – the real center of “12:08 East of Bucharest” is a virtuoso set piece that consumes nearly half the film’s running length, featuring Piscoci and Manescu as guests on Jderescu’s low-rent local access show “The Issue of the Day.” The topic of discussion: Was there actually a revolution in their town sixteen years prior during the turbulent events that led to the end of the Ceausescu regime (at 12:08 p.m.), or did their backwater village only take to the streets after it was clear that Communism was fully over.
Unexpectedly, and delightfully, Poromboiu uses the occasion of a two-bit civics lesson, poorly lensed by a youthful camera operator with cinematic ambitions, to spin out a droll meditation on both his chosen medium and the way history is shaped through personal reportage. With the three seated in front of a blown-up black and white photo of their town square hastily tacked to plasterboard, Manescu’s claims for revolution, and his own participation in sparking it, are gradually eroded by a series of callers who debunk his version of the events. As the dynamic grows more uncomfortable, the show nearly collapses, and with it, by extension, the possibility of creating a definitive narrative of the day. It takes old man Piscoci (who spent much of the first portion of the film working out a Santa Claus costume for an upcoming pageant) to strike the necessary chord of poignant reconciliation: “Everyone makes their own revolutions; each in their own way,” he offers, as tension between Manescu and Jderescu reaches its boiling point. Though his words are largely ignored, they’re about as solid a design for living you’re likely to find in theaters this summer.
Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and currently works for Magnolia Pictures.