From left, Teo Corban as Jderescu, Mircea Andreescu as Piscoci and Ion Sapdaru as Manescu in 12:08 East of Bucharest.
From Romania, with a wry smile
By Leonard Quart
Over the years weve had little opportunity to screen Romanian films. The most memorable ones I have seen were Lucian Pintilies striking social satire, The Oak (1994), and Cristi Puius The Death of Mr. Lazarescu(2005) a brilliant, dark comic long nights journey through the bureaucratic labyrinth of Bucharests hospitals. Lazarescu was a film that deservedly garnered a great deal of critical applause, and won an award at Cannes in 2005. (Romanian films seemingly are on a roll this year at Cannes the Palme dOr went to Critsian Mungius 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days).
Lazarescus critical success has opened the door for other Romanian films to be shown in New York, like 12:08 East of Bucharest, now at Film Forum. Cornelieu Porumboius film is a wry, low-keyed work about peoples need to see themselves as historical actors, and, more importantly, about the difficulty in defining historical truth. In the films case, the historical event is the December 1989 revolution that overthrew the 22-year reign of Nicolae Ceausescu a tyrannical dictator in the Stalinist mode. Ceausescus regime repressed free speech and all internal dissent, drove Romania from a state of relative economic well being to near starvation, and constructed a grotesque personality cult. After the revolution, a special military tribunal, abruptly and brutally executed Ceausescu and his wife for mass murder and other crimes.
The focus of 12:08 East of Bucharest, shot by Porumboiu in real time with a stationary camera, is a local talk show that takes place just a few days before Christmas 2005. On the program, two guests, the always-in debt, alcoholic, morose history teacher, Manescu (Ion Sapdaru), and a lonely retiree who moonlights as Santa, Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu), are asked if the revolution ever did occur in their shabby, melancholy small city. The shows irritable moderator, Jderescu (Teo Corban), is the owner of the small station with an overly solemn sense that he is taking on important subjects, and no sense of the absurdity of what follows.
On the program Manescu claims that he and a few of his fellow teachers stormed city hall in a brave protest against Ceausescu before he was deposed in 1989. He asserts that his action preceded the rest of the citys population coming out only when it was safe to revel in the tyrants overthrow. But skeptical viewers call up raising questions about Manescu being there at all, some claiming he and friends spent the whole night in a bar getting drunk.
Piscoci, who makes paper boats while the other two talk, finally chimes in with his story about the night. He admits that he showed no courage, and states that people are cowards. He himself was ready to back Ceausescu when he offered money to gain public support, just before his removal from power. But once Ceausescu was ousted, Piscoci also joined the crowd in the street celebrating the end of his reign.
This realistic, understated and comically poignant film does not try to provide a single truth about the nature of the revolution everybody holds different visions about what happened. It includes the perspective of a Secret Police accountant who continues to support Ceausescu, and now owns factories.
And Manescu, whose life after the revolution continued on its destructive course, is left unchanged and mired in alcohol despite the realization of the dreams he once had. What Manescu has is his memory of a calm and beautiful revolution, reinforced by the director with an arresting montage of the lights going on in the small city as snow is falling. Thats all Manescu has left to sustain himself. And the director never judges his flawed, very human characters; he just allows life, in all its manifold comic pathos, to flow.