12:08 East of Bucharest (A fost sau n-a fost?) first published by Film4
Summary: In Corneliu Porumboiu’s feature debut, the history of the Romanian revolution is re-examined as farce.
Review: 12:08 PM, 22 Dec, 1989. After a week of public unrest and bloody street battles, Romania’s communist president Nicolae Ceausescu was forced to flee the capital Bucharest in a helicopter with his wife Elena. The ignominious moment of Ceausescu’s flight, broadcast live on television throughout the nation, was the turning point in a revolution that would see Ceausescu arrested, tried and summarily executed within days, ending a corrupt and brutal dictatorship that had spanned more than two decades.
Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest is a bittersweet retrospective on this historic day and its significance (or otherwise) for those who were at the margins, rather than in the centre, of the uprising. Set in an unnamed eastern town on the sixteenth anniversary of the revolution, the film (whose original Romanian title A fost sau n-a fost? translates as ‘Was there or wasn’t there?’) offers a wry investigation of just how ‘popular’ the revolution was outside of Bucharest, and what real difference it has made to the misery of life in the provinces.
Once a textiles engineer and now an ambitious small-town television presenter, Virgil Jderescu (Teo Corban) is trying to round up a panel for a live discussion of the events of sixteen years ago, but the only talking heads willing to attend are dipsomaniac history teacher Tiberiu Manescu (Ion Sapdaru) and jovial retiree Emenoil Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu) – the latter best known for his annual portrayal of Santa Claus for the children. Manescu claims on-air that he and three colleagues held a daring public protest in the town’s square before Ceausescu’s televised flight from Bucharest, but several irascible callers to the show suggest that Manescu may no more be a local hero of the revolution than Piscoci is the real Father Christmas. In the studio mayhem that follows, assumptions are challenged, truths are fragmented, and the grand sweep of history is reduced to a random assemblage of human foibles and personal failure.
The last two thirds of 12:08 East of Bucharest are devoted to a real-time presentation of Jderescu’s chatshow ‘Issue of The Day’ as is – complete with heated spats during the ad breaks and hilariously inept handheld trickery from the studio’s Dogme-obsessed cameraman (“it’s the new thing”). It is as funny – and believably chaotic – a portrayal of small-town pretensions as you are likely to see, all played to understated perfection by the three leads and the unseen cast who perform the voices of the callers. Yet if this lengthy section necessarily appears incompetent, Porumboiu’s talents as a filmmaker are shown off to better effect by the introduction and coda with which the disastrous TV show is framed. Here, by contrast, the film’s ensemble of drunken no-hopers and deluded dreamers is captured in wide, largely immobile shots that encompass a whole town struggling under the weight of its own bleakness, in scenes that more than match the dark humour of anything by Jim Jarmusch or Aki Kaurismäki.
None of this quite rescues 12:08 East Of Bucharest from seeming, much like its central sequence, to be something best suited to the small screen – but some well-managed absurdities and a sourly melancholic flavour make Porumboiu’s feature debut as deliriously mesmerising to watch – if also as easy to forget – as the actual events of 22 Dec 1989.
Verdict: Small-town values are rocked by the tide of history in Corneliu Porumboiu’s grimly funny and determinedly slight retrospective on the 1989 Romanian revolution.
© Anton Bitel