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Eighteen years ago, Romanians caught the revolutionary flu circulating in Eastern Europe, and their collective sneeze expelled dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Everyone in writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu’s droll 12:08 East of Bucharest knows where the uprising started: Timisoara. The question is, did it spread to Vaslui, the dreary city where the film is set, or did its inhabitants miss the whole thing? To discuss this issue, Virgil (Teodor Corban) has assembled a panel to appear on his low-budget local TV talk show. His two guests may not be experts, but they both claim to have been there when Vaslui rose against Ceausescu.
Unlike 2005’s Romanian art-film sensation, the two-and-a-half-hour The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Porumboiu’s movie doesn’t grab its viewers and pull them relentlessly into its depths. Less than 90 minutes long, this low-key comedy opens with a series of vignettes that sketch life in wintry Vaslui—the director’s hometown—and introduce the talk show’s guests and its host. Tiberiu (Ion Sapdaru) is a hard-drinking teacher who harangues a group of high schoolers for failing an exam on the Ottoman Empire but allows them to take a makeup test on their preferred historical topic: the French Revolution. He then wanders the city looking for someone new, or remarkably indulgent, to loan him more money. Emanoil (Mircea Andreescu), who’s been playing Santa for decades, gripes about the costume he’s been assigned and goes searching for a better one. (Both Tiberiu and Emanoil end up at a shop run by a Chinese man who sells the firecrackers that punctuate the action.) The pretentious Virgil protests when his mistress says she’s going to spend New Year’s Eve in Bucharest, demands that a Latin band visiting his TV studio play a Romanian song, and insists that his young cameraman use a tripod. (Hand-held camera is “the new thing,” the kid responds.)
When the show begins, Virgil poses the topic: “Was there, or was there not, a revolution in our town?” Tiberiu says he and three friends, all now conveniently dead or emigrated, entered the town square and denounced Ceausescu before 12:08, the minute when the dictator’s abdication was seen on national TV. In his roundabout way, Emanoil supports Tiberiu, while admitting he didn’t reach the square until after Ceausescu’s downfall. But callers dispute Tiberiu, claiming he wasn’t there, or arrived late and drunk. Another guy calls to say that “there was no revolution,” and anyway “it was better under Ceausescu.” When not quoting ancient Greek philosophers, Virgil tries to be the penetrating reporter, but it’s clear to us, if not to him, that the local residents’ various memories can never be aligned. The revolution in Vaslui, or lack thereof, has already passed into the realm of myth.
12:08 East of Bucharest is far too modest and rueful to rate any sort of Oscar, but Porumboiu did win the award for best first feature last year at Cannes. That neatly illustrates the gap between American and European cinematic sensibilities. Porumboiu’s amiable satire offers no grand humanistic message or any technically dazzling sequence. Instead, the director wrote a story that reflects the larger society in just a few characters and makes a joke of his own low-budget means: The TV-show sequence is in part a battle between Virgil and his cameraman (“Finally, a close-up!” barks the peeved host at one point).
To judge from the few that have screened here, Romanian films are made with more ingenuity than money; rather than overwhelm with spectacle, they incorporate their shoestring budgets into their premises. 12:08 East of Bucharest’s limited range of vision intimates that the revolution, like the system it overthrew, promised more than it delivered. Life in Vaslui is still petty, strained, and mostly disappointing. Yet wit and irony are effective, if faint, palliatives. And in a sequence that’s almost Hollywood, the film’s final minutes demonstrate how snow can briefly soften even the harshest of totalitarian streetscapes.