Dir/scr: CorneliuPorumboiu. Rom. 2006. 89mins
Little more than a vignette, but nevertheless asuccinctly astute one at that, Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08, East Of Bucharest is a spare, low-budget production whichhits the nail right on the head in its depiction of Romania just before thefall of the Ceausescu dictatorship. At the same time, this auspicious debutprovides a clever insight into how hard facts eventually become historical mythnot only in this corner of Eastern Europe but throughout the world.
Low-key direction andperformances that hit the right note should carry it to a promising festivalrun, boosted by its Camera D'or and Europa CinemasLabel victories at Cannes: since then it has also won the best film andaudience awards at the fifth TransilvaniaInternational Film Festival. As such it should gather the sort of momentum fromwhich to build a respectable career in specialised markets, with sales securedto Istituto Luce (Italy), Filmmuseum(Netherlands), Bac Films (France), Folkets Bio (Sweden), Arthaus(Norway), Ost Paradies(Denmark), Stadtkino (Austria) and Providence Films(Brazil).
It's December 22 and Romaniais celebrating the anniversary of the revolution which kicked out the communistregime in 1989. A pitifully destitute provincial TV channel, looking for arelevant talk show topic through which to commemorate the event, brings up anawkward issue: did the people of a remote little town dare demonstrate againstthe tyrant - or were they too worried about their own safety to open theirmouths until news of Ceausescu's flight was announced at 12:08, Bucharest time,on national TV'
Trying to establish whathappened 16 years ago should be no problem: after all, most witnesses are stillalive. In theory they should be more than willing to testify in front of thecameras now that they have nothing to fear.
In practice, however, thingsare different. All those who had pledged to take part in the show have criedoff and its producer, Jderescu (Teo Corban), who also runs and owns the TVchannel, is worried sick. Left with no choice, he has to replace the originalparticipants with Manescu (Ion Sapdaru), an alcoholic high school teacher, andPiscoci (Mircea Andreescu), a retired old man whose only occasional work comesfrom dressing up as Santa for the kids.
Seated on a narrow bench witha sparse set behind them, the three try to make sense of the topic. For hispart Manescu claims he was out in the city square demonstrating before Ceausescufled - but phone calls from viewers tell a different story.
Meanwhile old Piscoci,gabbling away in a corner, reminisces about the fight he had with his late wifeon that fateful day: so far as he recalls, there was not a single soul on thestreets before midday.
From the opening shots of agrey, dirty morning sun rising on a derelict, rundown little town to the finalscenes of nightfall on the same desolate landscape, Porumboiu's picturesarcastically builds up proof of how little has really changed in Romania duringthe intervening 16 years. The quality of life isn't any better, intellectualsare still drinking their troubles away and pretending to a civic valiance they never possessed and the feared security servicesare as powerful as ever. Meanwhile successful businessmen threaten anyone whodares smear their reputation, outsides are as disliked now as they ever were andtelevision, which should act as a disseminator of truth, is a lame and clumsytool held in the hands of non-professionals.
It all sounds prettydepressing, but Porumboiu's brand of dark wit puts it all into a macabre comicperspective, with the kind of frantic humour that desperate people resort toonce they have given up hope of anything better. 12:08, East Of Bucharest
Shot in Vaslui,Porumboiu's hometown (and not a very pretty one at that) with Corban, Saptaruand Andreescu all excellent and well suited to their roles, it makes for thekind of modest debut that hints at plenty of promise for the future.
The Coproduction Office