PRINT Summer 2007


12:08 East of Bucharest

HAILING FROM the land of Urmuz and Ionesco, Corneliu Porumboiu, the director of 12:08 East of Bucharest, boasts that “we Romanians have, in a way, invented absurdity . . . or least we’ve made an art of it.” The tone of Porumboiu’s wry little satire, which won the Camera d’Or for best first film at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, shares enough with compatriot Cristi Puiu’s quasi-absurdist masterpiece of 2005, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu—world-weary humanism, dark humor, stylized verism, the unassuming capaciousness of a down-home comédie humaine—that the two directors have been enlisted as the twin standard-bearers for what critics have christened the Romanian New Wave. Though Puiu dismisses the purported movement as nothing more than a clutch of “desperate directors,” Bucharest and Lazarescu together prove that Romania’s may be the only instance of an Eastern European cinema that benefited from the fall of Communism.

Porumboiu has provocatively declared realist cinema “a pious wish . . . impossible to make,” and, like Puiu, he counteracts the naturalism of his narrative with a style verging on the formalist. Inspired, he says, by Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law (1986), and similarly favoring locked shots and extended takes, Porumboiu spends the first half of his film crosscutting between three characters: Manescu (Ion Sapdaru), a hangdog history teacher destined to join Mr. Lazarescu in alcoholic ravage; Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu), an irritable old man who rails against drunks, firecrackers, and life; and Jderescu (Teodor Corban), a small-time television-talk-show host who conscripts the other two to appear on his program marking the sixteenth anniversary of the anti-Ceaușescu revolution. A motif of money runs through all three segments—as in Mikio Naruse’s films, sums, salaries, loans, prices, debts, and bribes are repeatedly invoked—and they also share a tone of peevish domesticity, which seems a hallmark of the new Romanian cinema.

At once temporally precise and geographically vague, the film’s English title—the Romanian original, A fost sau n-a fost?, means “Happened or not?”—refers to the time on December 22, 1989, when Ceaușescu fell. “12:08” therefore marks the moment Jderescu uses in his televised discussion to determine whether or not a revolution took place in this village “east of Bucharest”—that is, did anyone here take to the streets against Ceaușescu before he fled?—and also emphasizes the importance of temporality in the film: the sixteen years that have passed since the revolution; the half hour or so of the television show in which a world is revealed and unraveled; the passage of one day, morning to evening, whose diurnal span Porumboiu accentuates by framing his story with a montage of Christmas lights and streetlamps guttering out at the beginning of the film and flaring once more into life at the end. (Again like Puiu in Lazarescu, he observes a version of the Aristotelian unities, shooting the film’s last half, the television program, in apparent real time and in a single, delimited setting.)

The television inquiry quickly turns into an inquisition, as caller after caller refutes Manescu’s claim that he and three other teachers, two of them now dead, rallied against Ceaușescu before 12:08 on the fateful day and were attacked by the Securitate. One woman claims that the teachers instead spent their time in a corner bar, inebriated bystanders to history. Another caller, whom Manescu named on air as one of the secret police who beat them, threatens a libel suit; he was only an accountant for the Securitate, he insists, a perfectly “respectable” vocation. Called a drunk, a liar, a slanderer, Manescu explodes against his interrogators and then retreats into humiliated resignation, noisily shredding paper into an open mic, as the question of whose account is true ebbs into the unanswerable. That one wants to believe Manescu, though alcohol has clearly eaten away at his memory—he can’t even recall the events of the previous evening, so how can he recollect an event that occurred sixteen years ago?—suggests how generous Porumboiu’s comedy of fallibility is. Even as the director skewers pomposity, self-delusion, and casual corruption—Manescu chides his students for their inability to cheat—he maintains an objective tenderness toward many of his characters, including the tetchy, vain Piscoci, who touchingly recounts the fight he had with his since-deceased wife on the morning of the revolution.

Porumboiu has a Tati-like eye for discomfort and incongruity—Piscoci fluttering in his outsize Santa robe or distractedly making paper boats on camera—and to intensify his dark wit he employs formal gambits, such as the transition from the rigorous fixed shooting of the film’s first half to the clumsy television work of the second, brilliantly demarcated by a long, traveling follow shot. Porumboiu gently mocks himself in the young TV cameraman, a would-be stylist who wants to use handheld camera but, refused by Jderescu, compensates with a series of erratic zooms, shaky focus pulls, and inept reframings. The director is capable of subtle symmetries—Manescu walking from frame left with his abject Christmas tree as a boy traverses from frame right with a broken clarinet—and his palette (ashen streets, monochrome apartments, the red-accented shop of the Chinese man whom Manescu insults as “yellow inside”) is almost as telling as Puiu’s. So, too, is his mastery of tone: The deadpan way in which Porumboiu depicts the hapless as they attempt to restitute history never succumbs to derisive irony. When, near the end, a woman calls to say that her son was killed the day after the revolution and to wish everyone a Merry Christmas, the film’s melancholic undertow suddenly wells into something like sorrow.

12:08 East of Bucharest opens June 6 at Film Forum in New York.

James Quandt is senior programmer at Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto.