Zeitgeist Films // 2009 // 150 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // February 14th, 2012
"Urban legends from the Ceaucescu era, also called 'The Golden Age' in communist propaganda."
Urban legends sprout up everywhere, but a state where the media is controlled, such as Romania during Nicolai Ceaucescu's era, apparently makes the most fertile breeding ground. In Tales from the Golden Age (or Amintiri din epoca de aur, if you speak Romanian), director Cristian Mungou (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) puts some of those (probably untrue) stories on film, preserving both the harsh reality of communism and the stories people told each other to get through it.
Preparations for a state visit, photo retouching at a state newspaper, efforts to fight illiteracy, attempts to slaughter a pig in an apartment, a scheme to collect bottles, and the quest for eggs before Easter all go very, very wrong.
Tales from the Golden Age has a deliberate pacing that may put off some viewers. In the first tale, for example, a village is making preparations for a state visit that lean toward the ridiculous. You might smile occasionally during the preparations, which take up about 15 minutes of screen time. However, it's not until the obvious first twist -- the visit is actually going to happen somewhere else -- that things start to spin out of control, in this case, literally, on a carousel. At this point, the bleak humor is likely to have you laughing, albeit involuntarily, while you also start to have an admiration for the spirit of the Romanians who told the tale.
That's the pattern Tales from the Golden Age roughly follows for more than two hours. The two funniest stories -- the pig slaughtering fiasco and the pair who pose as air testers to steal bottles to collect the deposits -- play out more conventionally, but otherwise, the movie doesn't shoot for belly laughs. The last story, about a chicken truck driver who decides to share the eggs laid en route, will leave you feeling more sad than amused.
Each of the stories starts with some grain of truth about an area of Romanian life. For the most part, the performances are realistic and subdued, so that the dialogue, even when someone's explaining how champagne bottles fit into an air testing system, seems like something normal and everyday. The stories spend a lot of time showing viewers life in Romania just a few years back, a background foreigners and young Romanians need to get the big punchlines when they come. Scenes of singing patriotic songs in class, people crowding around the one video player on the block, workers lined up for a bonus paid in much-desired eggs, or a town crier in a rural village constantly show just how bad things were. On film, these reminders are more potent than anything you'll read in a history book.
The stories are set against the cramped, drab city apartments and primitive village conditions that you'd expect in a story of communist-era Romania (or anywhere in the Soviet Bloc). The picture isn't fancy, but it gets the job done.
For some viewers, the natural feel of Tales from the Golden Age may be a liability. At times, it's just slow. Patient viewers with an interest in how people lived through an extreme situation will be fascinated with the small details unearthed by the setups as well as the eventual punchlines.
There are no extras. It would have been interesting to have some background on life in communist Romania.
Tales from the Golden Age isn't the movie you'd want if you were choosing for the one video player on the block. While there are laughs, director Cristian Mungiu always leans toward dramatizing history over punchlines. However, if you're intrigued at this point, you'll want to see it.
Review content copyright © 2012 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Romanian)
Running Time: 150 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated