'Bucharest' airs a bleakly funny take on revolution
A dingy, mordantly comic "Rashomon" for the post-Soviet era, "12:08 East of Bucharest" is another sign that Romanian cinema is on the move. Writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu's tale of small-town truth and reconciliation -- or nervous avoidance of same -- is told with the slowpoke realism of last year's "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," but like that film it finds political echoes in the smallest of everyday occurrences. That its characters don't is reason for hollow laughter.
The film starts off so aimlessly that one critic at the screening I attended impatiently stormed off 30 minutes in. His loss; the payoff here is messy but sublime. In the tiny burg of Vaslui, a local TV station owner and on-air personality, Jderescu (Teo Corban), scrambles to find guests for his evening talk show. It's Dec. 22, 2005 -- the 16th anniversary of the protests that toppled dictator Nicolae Ceausescu -- and the topic is "Was there or was there not a revolution in our town?"
Either no one's an expert on the subject or no one wants to be. The best Jderescu can come up with is the alcoholic, debt-ridden high school teacher Manescu (Ion Sapdaru, bleakly hilarious) and a cranky old windbag named Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu), who's more concerned with finding a Santa Claus costume that fits his portly frame. It's the Christmas season, but no one's feeling particularly jolly.
The Romania on display in the first half of "12:08" is a broken-down machine -- the opening shots are of rusty streetlights flickering off in the dawn -- but the general response is ennui rather than despair. The three men start their day in separate states of moral exhaustion. Manescu borrows from Peter to pay Paul and regrets his drunken tirade the night before. Jderescu pleads with his mistress (Cristina Ciofu) not to ditch him on New Year's Eve. Piscoci battles the school kids who light firecrackers outside his door.
Revolution? What revolution? Manescu's students know their facts about the French Revolution but come up blank otherwise. Jderescu insists "there's no present without the past," but the mistress scoffs that nobody cares. The title refers to the precise moment on Dec. 22, 1989, when the battle turned in favor of the protesters, and in theory it's a time stamp that holds a similar relevance for modern Romania as July 4, 1776, does for Americans: the watershed between tyranny and freedom.
For Jderescu, the question becomes: Where were you at 12:08? Out in the streets or hiding at home? Were you part of the revolution or merely caught up in the tidal wave? The unspoken follow-up is that if you didn't take part, do you deserve the resulting freedoms? Are you even ready for them?
It's a prickly point that extends far beyond the borders of Romania, even if Porumboiu aims most of his darts at his countrymen. The TV show, when it finally staggers on the air, is a deadpan farce of good intentions, the host's bland expression slowly crumbling under the Eastern European equivalent of Murphy's Law. The kid running the camera wants to get arty. The guests keep swearing. The phone-in callers are ready to sue.
One of the guests insists he was protesting in the town square before 12:08, a true son of the uprising. As his memory is picked apart bit by bit, though, the truth becomes increasingly, amusingly unknowable. Do heroes really exist, or are there only events? Perhaps all of Romania watched the revolution on TV; perhaps it never happened. Perhaps that's why everyone in Vaslui looks so perplexed.
This is the comedy of the prostrate, yet "12:08" isn't without hope. Porumboiu knows that every dank laugh opens the window a little wider and lets in the air of self-awareness. For all its pessimism, the movie prompts a viewer to search his or her own memories for actions rather than reactions, and to mull over the differences between the two. It's a dark little ride, but at the end the lights hesitantly flicker back on.