REVIEW: DVD Release: 12:08 East Of Bucharest

Film: 12:08 East Of Bucharest
Release date: 3rd December 2007
Certificate: 15
Running time: 86 mins
Director: Corneliu Porumboiu
Starring: Mircea Andreescu, Teodor Corban, Ion Sapdaru, Mirela Cioaba, Luminita Gheorghiu
Genre: Comedy/Drama
Studio: Artificial Eye
Format: DVD
Country: Romania

A familiar topic to Romanian cinema is the focus of writer and director Corneliu Porumboiu's first feature film, looking back at the collapse of communism and the 1989 Romanian Revolution. But this 2006 winner of the Camera d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival is a comical affair, focusing on the perspectives of a few individuals in the small city of Vaslui, and how they look back on history and its relevance.

Jderescu (Teodor Corban), the local TV station owner, has decided to commemorate the 16th anniversary of the revolution by hosting a phone-in talk show, asking the question: “A fost sau n-a fost?” (Was there or wasn't there a revolution?). Referring to events on 22nd December 1989, and the role played by the people of Vaslui, if any, in communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's downfall. His guests include the lonely old man Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu), well known around town for his perennial role of Father Christmas in the festive season, and the debt-ridden, alcoholic history teacher Manescu (Ion Sapdaru).

As events unfold, Jderescu finds himself battling to keep his fidgety guests under control and for them come to a conclusion over whether or not the revolution truly did arrive in their town. An issue apparently determined by whether protestors were in the town square before 12:08, the time at which Nicolae Ceausescu fled via helicopter from Bucharest (hence the title), or whether the people arrived in the square after the president had been toppled…

While the subject matter appears to look to events of Romania’s past, Porumboiu’s real intention is to show the viewer the Romania of today. The film is set in Vaslui, Porumboiu’s home city, and begins with a montage of shots of various parts of the town. The streets are deserted, the buildings tattered, the cars are old, and the silence is broken only by the sound of firecrackers thrown by the children, in what is apparently their main form of entertainment (since Jderescu’s TV station no longer airs cartoons).

The story gets underway by introducing us to the three main protagonists. First we meet Manescu, a drunk who can’t remember the previous night’s events, as he makes his way to the school at which he teaches history. Stopping off to pay debts and loan money from various acquaintances in a cycle of debt and drunkenness which apparently dominates his life. Alcohol is to him what firecrackers are to the children - a way to fill the boredom. When he sets his class the day’s task, he asks them what subject they know best. The French Revolution, they say. Notably, nobody mentions the Romanian Revolution.

Then we meet the grumbling, yet sweet-natured Piscoci in his spartan apartment as he loses his temper with a radio that doesn’t work properly. A retired widower, who upon preparing for the role of Father Christmas for another year, is dismayed that he can only find a tatty old costume to wear. He is a likeable man but a lonely one.

And then we have Jderescu, the curt, self-important TV station chief who spends the first half of the film struggling to secure guests for his TV show (despite his wife’s insistence that everybody wants to be on TV). On his choice of the revolution for the topic of the show, his mistress scoffs that nobody cares anymore. An assertion made by a number of characters throughout in the film.

When we finally get to the hastily organised talk show it quickly descends into farce, as Manescu's tales of revolutionary heroism are contradicted by a string of callers, while the seemingly apathetic Piscoci proves easily distracted. The show is further threatened by broken equipment and a cameraman with an unsteady hand, as a despairing Jderescu tries to keep the programme from complete collapse.

Porumboiu shoots the piece using single camera shots and long take techniques. This changes when the live TV show is filmed, and we view events from the perspective of the stumbling cameraman’s hand-held camera, which adds to the slapstick. It is also possibly a criticism of the new techniques sometimes employed in modern filmmaking, as this contrasts with the director’s own choice of filming, and is also a source of scorn from Jderescu.

It is throughout these scenes in the TV studio that the film really shines. The comic talents of the three lead actors are a joy to watch. From the subtle facial expressions of the under-fire, down-trodden Manescu, alongside the exasperated Jderescu and the brilliantly played deadpan Piscoci. The actors delight in some superbly underplayed comedy, with a script that is sharp, witty and full of wry humour. We are treated to some genuine laugh-out-loud moments as Manescu's claims to have been protesting against the Securitate in the town square prior to Ceausescu’s ousting are repeatedly refuted, and a bemused Jderescu tries to stop Piscoci’s efforts at origami as the live show stumbles on.

Porumboiu’s film paints a bleak picture of poverty and neglect in post communist Romania. Although he doesn’t mock the revolution itself, the young filmmaker does question its relevance to the people and their futures. As one caller to the phone-in show best sums it up: “It’s snowing now. Big white flakes. Enjoy it now, tomorrow it will be mud.” A reference to the initial joy of the revolution, followed by the disappointment that the end of the era didn’t bring about the bright future that the people had hoped.

12:08 East Of Bucharest is a hilarious, thought-provoking satire from exciting first-time writer/director Corneliu Porumboiu, which questions perceptions of history and leaves us greatly amused at the same time. With excellent performances from a talented cast, this is a highly recommended watch. MS

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