12:08 EAST OF BUCHARESTNR
It costs less for a Romanian director to make a motion picture than it does an American one to stand his crew drinks, one reason Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest deserves praise well beyond its budget. This small and gentle satire, most of which takes place in a dog-eared television station in a rundown Romanian town, exudes the wry warmth typical of Eastern European filmmakers, wry warmth being one of those oxymoronic characteristics that thrive under absurd conditions...like totalitarianism.
Which is, ostensibly, the subject of 12:08, the title referring to the moment when Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu fled Bucharest by helicopter on Dec. 22, 1989. Romania was the only Soviet-bloc country to violently overthrow its communist government, and Romanians understandably are proud of their revolution. The thing is, most people watched the event on television, taking to the streets only when it was safe to demonstrate. To paraphrase the old philosophical saw, if a government falls before citizens protest, can they claim to have participated in its demise?
In this particular town east of Bucharest (one probably similar to the director's home of Vaslui), the local broadcaster has decided to celebrate the anniversary of the revolution by debating the question. He has persuaded the town intellectual, also the town drunk, to join him on his weekly talk show, but he's stuck for a rebutter. It is, after all, three days before Christmas. In desperation, he phones up a reliable substitute, a retired bureaucrat who, while possessing no special knowledge of the event in question, at least is sober and well-liked.
Alas, the best-laid plans...Jderescu the journalist (played by Teo Corban) can't keep on message, distracted by his station manager and mistress' plans to skip town for the holiday, not to mention his cameraman's new enthusiasm for hand-held technique. Piscoci the intellectual (Mircea Andreescu) is suffering from a first-class hangover aggravated by his inability to cover his drinking debts, not to mention his household expenses. And speaking of booze, Manescu the ex-bureaucrat (Ion Sapdaru) has sipped too liberally from Piscoci's flask, provoking a flood of memories that have more to do with his undying affection for his late wife than any revolution, real or not.
Porumboiu pokes fun at this motley crew as they grapple with phone callers who alternately slander the panel and threaten libel suits of their own. But the 32-year-old filmmaker conveys genuine empathy for his characters, most of them twice his age, whose lives he has deftly sketched with a series of vignettes in the first half of the film. The political discussion in 12:08 devolves into insult and innuendo (the Romanian version of the O'Riled Factor), but the show, and in turn the film, is redeemed by Mansecu's recollections and Piscoci's relationships.
In fact, 12:08 might be better described as a comedy of manners than a political satire, although it does raise the derisive issues of truth and perception...the idea that we can never know the past, that we invent history to justify the present. Considering the frequency with which politicians, celebrities and media types of all sorts spin, obfuscate and straight-out deny reality as they bend their shoulders to the commonweal, 12:08 should be mandatory viewing for all comrades, er, citizens.
Note well: Porumboiu's 12:08 garnered le Camera d'or at Cannes in 2006, a major coup for a film whose budget wouldn't buy ten seconds of CGI in a Jerry Bruckheimer production. The year prior, another young Romanian, Cristi Puiu, surprised cineastes by winning le Prix un certain regard with a long but remarkably entertaining black comedy, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. This year, yet a third Romanian director, Cristian Mungiu, claimed the coveted Palm d'or with his low-budget, no-stars drama, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. Bucharest now can celebrate its recent entry into the European Union by claiming to be the continent's cinematic avant-garde. International art-house hits might not impress bankers in Paris, London and L.A., but you can bet the Romanian leu looks good to producers paying chits by the euro.