Appellate Judge James A. Stewart found new insights about shoddy camera work on local TV in this Romanian comedy.
"Is it a revolution if people took to the streets after the fact?"
Don't you just love it when a five-year plan falls apart?
In 1965, Romania—a proud member of the Soviet bloc since 1947—became a family owned and operated Communist dictatorship under Nicolae Ceausescu. At 12:08 p.m. on Dec. 22, 1989, the people of Romania learned that the mom-and-pop oppressors had gone out of business; they were soon liquidated by a firing squad.
On the 10th anniversary of the revolution, young director Corneliu Porumboiu saw a TV show on his local station that looked back on the events of Dec. 22, 1989. The show lingered in his memory for years before he could put it on film as 12:08 East of Bucharest (known in Romania as A fost sau n-a fost?). His modest movie, shot for around $220,000 U.S., won the Camera d'Or at Cannes in 2006.
Facts of the Case
Virgil Jderescu (Teodor Corban), the owner of a small TV station somewhere east of Bucharest, is putting together a special program for the 16th anniversary of the Romanian revolution. His question: "Was there a revolution or not in our town?"
His guests are Tiberiu Manescu (Ion Sapdaru), a teacher who drinks away his income, and Emanoil Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu), a retiree who plays Father Frost.
Manescu tells the audience how he and a few of his colleagues went out into the town square to protest the Ceacescu regime and faced the Securitate forces. The show's callers, however, all assert that none of this happened—and they include a Securitate member who's now an influential local businessman.
"So if people took to the streets after 12:08 p.m., then there wasn't a revolution in our town," Jderescu says.
Did Manescu and his colleagues take to the streets before or after 12:08 p.m.? Does it really matter 16 years later?
The movie 12:08 East of Bucharest plays out like an extended Saturday Night Live sketch. While it starts out showing slices of the lives of the three main characters as they go about their day before the broadcast, the movie mostly takes place in the TV studio during the broadcast.
The humor mostly comes from the reactions of the men as the callers all swear that the revolution didn't happen here. Manescu looks gloomier and gloomier, but maintains a tiny bit of pride in the face of attack. Jderescu is wobbly and defensive, especially when faced with a local power player. Piscoci, who spent his time before the broadcast playing with Jderescu's notes, recalls the minutiae of his day.
It's Mircea Andreescu as Piscoci who brings poignancy and thoughtfulness to 12:08 East of Bucharest. He's maintained a life that has little to do with the regime in power and doesn't see the need to quibble over what time people started to protest in the local square.
The camera work, as you'd imagine, is simple and occasionally fumbles on purpose to re-create the local Romanian TV experience. Sometimes it's amusing; at others, it just makes 12:08 East of Bucharest seem badly filmed and static. In early scenes, the movie shows Romania as a locale still dominated by Communist-era apartment blocks and a general gloomy grayness. I was left with the impression that, if you actually spoke Romanian, a few lines on the soundtrack might be lost.
The movie never answers whether Manescu was there on Dec. 22, 1989; his doubters object to his drinking or have their own motives. The question becomes a moot point, even though director Corneliu Porumboiu provides an answer in the commentary.
The commentary is in English, fortunately. Porumboiu leaves long gaps without talking, but when he does, he discusses his views on the revolution and his inspirations (he went from watching a diet of Bruce Lee films as a youth to studying the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Federico Fellini, and Jim Jarmusch; he's also fond of Eugene Ionesco). Porumboiu says he kept much of the TV show's dialogue close to what he recalled from the one he'd watched several years before—and stayed away from flashbacks that would clear up the disputes.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you check out the blurbs on the DVD cover, you may be expecting something other than a small movie aimed at making people think about how they perceive events.
If you want a laugh riot, 12:08 East of Bucharest isn't your movie. If you want to reflect on history, and people's perceptions and memories, it's worth a look.
Not guilty. But wait, there's a caller on line one who says that director Corneliu Porumboiu was in the corner bar drinking and no one made this movie…
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
• Commentary by Director Corneliu Porumboiu
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