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Recipient of the Camera d’Or last year at Cannes, where prize-winning Romanian films have become the norm, Corneliu Porumboiu’s first feature, 12:08 East of Bucharest,
is a casually bleak and neatly structured ensemble comedy—at once deadpan and bemused.
The ungainly title refers both to the moment that Romania’s Communist regime crumbled, with dictator Nicolae Ceausü shown on live TV fleeing his presidential palace, and the location of the small city where the movie is set 16 years later— introduced with the dismal image of a modernistic Christmas tree in the concrete wilderness of an empty Stalinist town square. A self-important local TV host has decided to mark the anniversary of the glorious events of 1989 by posing the question as to whether there had been a revolution in the town. He’s able to scrape up two guests—an alcoholic history teacher who, introduced drinking himself into a stupor on his living-room couch, is the sole survivor of the four men who supposedly took to the town square to protest on the night of December 22 before 12:08, and an irascible pensioner turned amateur Santa Claus, who may or may not have observed their demonstration.
East of Bucharest‘s first half observes these characters in situ. (“So you all failed the Ottoman Empire exam,” the teacher chastises his students. “You can’t even cheat properly.” Meanwhile, Santa complains that his shapeless new costume is “shit.”) History and disguise return to haunt the movie’s second act. Adroitly minimalist and very funny, part two is concerned with the TV show and largely confined to its impressively cheap-looking set. Host and guests are masters of rambling on without saying anything. The teacher can no longer remember what he and his buddies did in the square other than shout “Down with Ceausescu!” Goaded by the bellicose viewer phone calls that begin with a woman who reports that the demonstrators were actually “drinking like pigs,” the TV host attempts to turn grand inquisitor. Rashomon scenarios proliferate. The conversation devolves into a question of whether anyone was actually there at all. “Why split hairs over such stupidity?” the hapless teacher asks.
Why indeed? No one asks what the revolution accomplished. According to Porumboiu, his movie was inspired by an actual debate televised some years before in his hometown. Did the people make the revolution? Was it TV? Focusing on personal eccentricities and foibles, East of Bucharest has a sly modesty reminiscent of the long-ago Czech new wave, exhibiting a sense of film form that evokes the best of the rueful Czech comedies. Porumboiu creates rules and sticks with them—moving his static camera only when the shaky TV camera wobbles. The movie’s circular structure suggests that if history is a joke, the forces that disrupt its progress are nothing short of miraculous.