Written & Directed by: Corneliu Porumboiu
I think you're allowed to officially call it a "wave" now, because there're three. Romania is in the midst of establishing a viable cinematic movement, a decade and a half after the revolution that overthrew Nicolae Ceausescu, its Communist "president" for thirty-some years. Sandwiched, chronologically, between two compatriotic films, the 2005 and 2007 winners of the Prix un Certain Regard at Cannes—the acclaimed The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, respectively—12:08 East of Bucharest joined the ranks of recent Romanian Cannes prize winners by taking 2006's Camera d'Or. But even though Romania may be pumping out first-rate cinema, according to 12:08... it doesn't seem like a very nice place to be, let alone live. And it's still trying to figure out how to deal with that revolution.
Set in Vaslui, a small city (north)east of Bucharest and the thirty-two year-old director's hometown, 12:08... presents contemporary Romania as quite a drab and dreary place, with every shade of gray imaginable fairly represented in its palette. Nothing works—the televisions, the tripods, the clarinets—and the citizens, from what we see, are entrenched in drink and destitution. Some revolution! Set three days before Christmas, on the sixteenth anniversary of Ceausescu's flight from the capital, 12:08... is centered around a call-in television talk-show that aspires to establish whether or not there was any scrap of revolution in Vaslui that may have contributed to forcing Ceausescu's abdication of power; specifically, whether or not anyone was actually out on the streets protesting prior to 12:08 pm, when the government officially collapsed. The film's Romanian title, A Fost sau n-a Fost? roughly translates to Was There or Wasn't There?, but ultimately the film ends up asking a very different question—does it matter?
But first Porumboiu subjects us to half-a-film's worth of lightly lugubrious and occasionally comical scenes of quotidian Romania, introducing us to the three central characters: Manescu (Ion Sapdaru), an alcoholic high school history teacher; Old Man Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu), an erstwhile Santa Claus; and Mr. Jderescu (Teodor Corban), the pretentious owner of a television station, prone to quoting Heraclitus and alluding to Plato, and the host of the show. Manescu squabbles with his wife over money, berates failed students he has to look after ("what am I supposed to do if you can't even cheat properly?", a disparagement Porumboiu surely wants to extend to his fellow countrymen), and loses his wages to his neighbors-slash-creditors-come-calling. Piscoci gets asked to be Santa again this year, and is given a stained and weathered costume he compares to a "dirty dishtowel"; again, as evidenced by the quality of the various wares, some revolution. Meanwhile, Mr. Jderescu scrambles to find his guests for the day's show, making call after call—"they'll call back," his wife assures him, "everybody wants to be on television" (some things transcend national and cultural borders)—until, finally, he enlists Manescu and Piscoci.
All of these early scenes are filmed by a stationary camera that, almost always, chooses one angle per scene and sticks with it, reflecting the paralytic character of Romanian life while also serving as a polished contrast to the amateur television production to come. But it's also clearly an important aesthetic choice for Porumboiu, who berates current cinema's jittery handheld trend in a humorous scene: Jderescu arrives at the television station, where his cameraman is filming a small musical ensemble by hand; when asked why he's filming that way, the cameraman replies that it's the new style. Jderescu smacks him on the head and orders him to put the damn thing on a tripod, allowing the audience to do vicariously what they've surely wanted to do to many a modern cameraman before.
12:08... is neatly split in half and, tonally, plays like two separate films, though they are far from incongruous. The second half, the television show, is characterized by crisp comicality; what was previously a bleak survey of Romanian life becomes a raucously underplayed comedy, and the stars show off their range as they slide easily from one genre into the other. The TV station's farcical low-production values—awkward compositions, bad focus and inappropriate zooms—provoke a lot of laughs, along with the contentious callers who phone-in, disputing Manescu's assertion that he and three other teachers—all conveniently dead or emigrated—took to the town square around 11:30 that morning with chants of "Down with Ceausescu" and the like, thus courageously creating the small but nevertheless existent Vaslui Revolution.
"I don't get it," Jderescu's mistress says, "what's with all this stuff about the revolution? No one could care less anymore." That's the running theme beneath 12:08..., as when Manescu's bartender asks snarkily, "what revolution?" or when Manescu himself incredulously asks Jderescu of the program, "You think anyone will watch? No one gives a damn anymore." The only ones who can muster any enthusiasm are the gangs of children scurrying around town, as it gives them an excuse to set off firecrackers. (Although that naughtiness seems more for a lack of anything else to do, as one child beseechingly asks Jderescu when he'll be showing cartoons again.) One caller even goes so far as to lament that things were better under Ceausescu. I'm not sure that Porumboiu would go that far, but he's obviously expressing disappointment with the squandered promise of a new Romania, as the country is still mired in impoverishment. There's a cleverly metaphorical conversation between Jderescu and Piscoci in which the former berates the latter for giving him, as a child, a teddy bear for Christmas when what he really wanted was a toy gun. Jderescu reminisces that he cursed Santa (who was Piscoci in disguise) because he never got the present he really wanted, reflecting the attitude, presumably, of many Romanians towards the Saint Nicks known as capitalism and democracy.
So was Manescu drunk on December 22, 1989? Was he out protesting before 12:08, or is he just boasting disingenuously now? Do the callers' charges hold-up under closer scrutiny? "We're just trying to piece together certain fundamental circumstances," Jderescu implores, but Piscoci—who has spent most of the show making origami and, um, resting his eyes—sets him straight: "why split hairs over such stupidity?" The point is that it doesn't really matter, which is ultimately reinforced by the final caller, a woman who lost her son in the revolution, with a brief and touching moment of dialogue. "It's snowing now," she tells the studio shut-ins, "big white flakes. Enjoy it now, tomorrow it'll be mud."
Ostensibly, 12:08... is almost a Rashomonesque evaluation of the undependability of memory and the mendacious stories that we tell ourselves, but in the end Porumboiu implies it doesn't matter who started the revolution as much as it matters what's happening right now and what's going to happen tomorrow. In Romania, it seems like not much. The film ends with a nod to L'Eclisse, but out of different motivations, as Porumboiu revisits, in a silent survey, the exteriors from the film, darkening and depopulated, asking us not to worry about how the past affects the present, but rather how the condition of the present affects the future.
12:08 East of Bucharest is that rare movie that only gets better from reel to reel, right up until the very last feet of film; it's funny and moving and all emotional points in between, moving through them in a logical progression, no less. I imagine it speaks more to a Romanian than I could fully appreciate (although a Romanian writing unintelligibly on IMDb seems unappreciative; to quote verbatim: "If u seek for knowledge you are waisting time with this mystification, if you seek for entertainment... this is NO ENTERTAINMENT, time lost and lies" [ellipsis not mine]), but on a universal level it's still a marvelously enjoyable and deceptively simple film that proves this Romanian New Wave, as we could call it, is definitely worth watching.