by Mike Dub
Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest opens on an early morning in a provincial Romanian town on December 22, 2005 – 16 years to the day after Nicolae Ceausescu abdicated his tyrannical rule. The sun begins to rise, the lights from the town Christmas tree stop flickering, and the streetlights turn off. It is, to borrow a phrase, morning in Romania. The easy pacing of the opening shots – and really the first third of the film – belie the artful, delicate progression to what will become, by its end, a frenetic farce that has as much in common with the spirit of Billy Wilder as it does with its Romanian New Wave compatriots.
There is a timelessness to these characters, a trio of inert losers with an inflated sense of self importance, that is a spiritual comrade to the great screwball comedies of the ‘30s or ‘40s. Manescu (Ion Sapdaru) is an alcoholic deadbeat who apathetically babysits his high school age history class. Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu) is an elderly, borderline senile old man who seems to have nothing better to do with his time than watch the streetlights turn off and on. Jderescu (Teodor Corban) is a pompous, small-time television journalist, a man who misses the point of nearly every question he asks, and every response he receives.
The three men meet on Jderescu’s call-in TV show to discuss the events of their small town during Ceausescu’s ousting, namely, “Was there or wasn’t there a revolution?” For Jderescu, whether or not a revolution existed amounts to a technicality: if townsfolk were not protesting on that fateful day before 12:08 (the time Ceausescu left the country), then their town never experienced a revolution. Disturbingly, no one seems to be able to tell if there was a revolution just by comparing life under communism versus their current state of affairs.
Porumboiu shoots his satire with stark, deadpan seriousness, reinvigorating his timelessly buffoonish characters with a dour sense of immediacy. Like other Romanian New Wavers, Porumboiu relies on long takes, little camera movement, and location shooting to establish the reality of his world. Amid these visual sensibilities, the characters spark to life as they maneuver first through their mundane everyday lives, and later through the murky collective memory of recent history.
The centerpiece of the film, a 45-minute long “real-time” depiction of Jderescu’s TV program, unfolds under the objective eye of the video feed that records their spectacle, as though we are watching on closed circuit from somewhere in the building with them. The lack of Porumboiu’s visual authority during their conversation underscores a significant problem of reconstructing their history: no one has an authoritative voice. Manescu and Piscoci each have their own version of the events, but so does everyone who calls in to speak on the air. As the conversation grows more intense, it becomes more muddled. For some, history enfolds into mythmaking; others seem hell-bent on minimizing the importance of the revolution itself, if there even was one.
The unnamed village in 12:08 East of Bucharest is a backwoods town, to be sure, but one that seems as lost without Ceausescu as they were complacent with him. At the end of a long day, as the street lights turn back on, and the town Christmas tree sparkles again in the dusk, Porumboiu suggests the stagnation that resides in a population that is disconnected from the larger culture of its country, removed from its present circumstances as well as its past. When history is no longer in the firm control of a propagandizing government, the people themselves must take on the responsibility of preserving their past – a frightening prospect indeed.