The 16th anniversary of an event doesn't usually merit much attention, even when it's marking something as monumental as the fall of a communist dictatorship. But writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu uses the off year, as well as the off-the-beaten path locale of his hometown Vaslui, in northeast Romania, to create a mordantly funny exploration of post-revolution malaise.
With a confidence that belies the fact 12:08 East of Bucharest is his first film, Porumboiu tackles the macrocosm of Romania — a country on the cusp of admittance to the European Union that's eager to put Eastern Bloc memories firmly in the past — by focusing on the microcosm of Vaslui, where the question of revolution comes down to a nitpicky argument about time.
The film takes place from dawn to dusk on December 22, 2005, as three men gather to discuss where they were at 12:08 p.m. in 1989 when Nicolae Ceausescu and wife Elena fled their palace in Bucharest, abdicating their absolute power. (They were publicly executed on Christmas Day.)
The film's English title tries to express how far Vaslui residents were from the capital when this happened, but the Romanian title — "A fost sau n-a fost?" which literally means "Was it or wasn't it?" — better captures Porumboiu's dual meaning. The question of whether 1989 really was a revolution or simply a violent shift in power, a coup d'état dressed as a popular uprising, still rages today. But in Vaslui, the question is more minute.
Television station owner Virgil Jderescu (Teodor Corban) fancies himself the erudite host of a public affairs program, and he's joined on the air by Tiberiu Manescu (Ion Sapdaru), a frequently drunk schoolteacher, and retiree Emanoil Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu), the town's erstwhile Santa.
Almost half the film is spent in the increasingly uncomfortable confines of the television studio, where Manescu declares that he and three others (conveniently deceased or emigrated) publicly denounced Ceausescu before he left power. The hang-dog Manescu is then verbally eviscerated by callers who adamantly dispute his tale (including a soft-spoken but menacing former Securitate member).
There's sharp humor in the first half, where exalted self-images are contrasted with the grind of everyday reality, but the film deflates along with the men's fragile egos as Porumboiu cuts to the quick. But this black comedy isn't bleak enough to ignore one caller's sage advice: Enjoy the snow today, because tomorrow it will be mud.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, and at 4 and 7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 2. Call 313-833-3237.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.