Dominic Ambrose Blogblot

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Tales from the Golden Age: Cristian Mungiu hits his stride

The film Tales of the Golden Age (Amintiri din Epoca de Aur) is a black comedy about the absurdities of life in the late Ceausescu era of the 1980s.

click for an article at Libertas Film Magazine

The film is a perfectly tuned cavalcade of characters who fill the screen with their dread, charm, zeal and depression, but never despair. It is also deeply satisfying to see the filmmaker Cristian Mungiu outdoing himself while revisiting that period, the setting of his highly successful 2007 film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. That might seem like a difficult task, considering the oddly lavish praise that he received for that previous effort, which landed him the Palme D’Or at Cannes, as well as the European Film Award and making him the undeniable Flavor of the Month for quite a few months running. But that movie, “4 – 3 – 2” which focused on the wrenching troubles of a college girl as she procures an illegal abortion in the dark days of communism benefitted perhaps too much from favorable timing, a desire to reward new Eastern talent and a feeling that Romania’s time had come, and all the inscrutable politics that go into film jury awards. It was indeed darkly moving and effective, but to my mind it suffered from the usual Balkan indie syndrome: plodding direction, hermetic dialog and worst of all, Tarkovskian pretentiousness that often brings the concept of the long take to absurd extremes, to the point of stopping the action altogether.

“Tales” is quite different, and probably because Mungiu has carved out a different role for himself, as writer and executive director, that obviously fits him much better. He has brought together a group of new (but not young) directors to present a medley of short pieces. These are all stories that had circulated among the population in that period, “urban legends” that like the epics and minstrel tales of earlier times, embody the spirit of a people. Each one tells of ordinary people who squirm and operate in resistance to the capriciousness and Kafkaesque inscrutability of governmental authority. They are all eventually done in by the overwhelming force of the official machine, but things are not all that bleak: the stories have more than a bit of the comedy all’italiana to them, and there is an indomitable spirit and a joie de vivre that energizes the film. These directors, all in their thirties or early forties, have had the time and life experience to emerge from that Balkan gloom to look at their past with an understanding and sympathy that only they could provide. They have created a film about petty greed, corruption and silly revolutionary zeal that speaks about the human condition in a way that everyone can relate to. I especially liked the first tale, about a village that is trying its best to prepare for a state visit drive-by. The communist party petty officials who come to give them the list of hoops they must jump through are buffoonish but charming in their way and we readily go along for the ride as the villagers are swept into the excitement of it. Unfortunately for them and the petty officials, they all end up riding endlessly strapped into a carnival ride all night long. The story is topped off perfectly, as local shepherds watch cynically, misunderstanding their cries for help as shouts of decadent joy.

Cristian Mungiu and Iona Maria Uricaru are credited with the screenplay, and it is outstanding: crisp and funny and so revealing of the way people thought in those almost forgotten days. I lived in Romania for three years in the 1990s and although I never knew the communist apparatchiks, I recognized the people in this film and their every action and reaction immediately. Of course, one could quibble about the props, the outlandishly expensive carnival ride and the high quality of some of the clothing, for instance would have been out of place even in the small town Romania of 1992, much less that of the Ceausescu era, but any more accuracy would probably be more of a distraction than anything else.  I doubt that today’s audiences would even believe the post-industrial squalor of that period, and would take it as propaganda. The directors, besides Mungiu and Uricaru, are Hanno Höfer, Razvan Marculescu and Constantin Popescu. And although direction for the individual tales is not listed in any of the press material or on screen,  …. in the Village Voice states that festival rumor mills credited Mungiu for the last two tales (which were released as a separate feature film in Romania). This sounds reasonable. The penultimate tale, about young people scamming apartment dwellers in order to collect their empty bottles for the deposits, is set in the type of milieu that recalls 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. There are some fine moments here, with the two teens, played by Diana Cavallioti and  Radu Iacoban, collecting apartment air in the bottles (supposedly for chemical analysis) with comic ineptitude. The last tale, about a truck driver who gets himself caught up in the sale of stolen eggs, is a bit less effective. It is slower than the previous tales, and the sudden reappearance of the pregnant pauses makes one suddenly realize how mercifully free of such conceits the previous pieces had been. Here, the silences (and the long takes of the nape of the truck driver’s neck) are used to convey the loneliness and inhibitions that the driver Grigore (Vlad Ivanov) feels, and they are somewhat effective in this. Such devices can work if they are used in extreme moderation, like a light seasoning of black pepper on your stuffed cabbage. Less effective was the dreadful device of open ended ending, which the director uses here to finish his tale and finish the film. It is the trademark cop-out of Balkan arthouse films, and it is particularly unwelcome here, where just one sentence from Grigore or his female accomplice in crime could have said something really poignant, revealing, prescient or encouraging. The director of this segment (Mungiu?) has let the dramatic tension percolate and rise so effectively, leading us up to a great platform on which to say something… and instead we are left with nothing… the frame goes black…. supposedly so that we can fill it in for ourselves.

Cristian Mungiu is interviewed at Cannes about how this film differs from his “arthouse” style.  Unfortunately, he still hasn’t  quite given up that art house elitism. On  youtube:

In spite of the backsliding in the last segment, Mungiu’s ability to put all the pieces together in this seemlessly stitched together tapestry bodes well for future productions. I hope he continues on this path and continues to help create an artistic representation of that surrealistic world of the late Twentieth Century.

Click here for Tales from the Golden Age on the Sundance website, with clips.

Some related posts about Romania on my blogs:

Page for my novel, The Shriek and the Rattle of Trains, set in Romania in 1993.

Some of my Romanian photos on my art blog.

The Paper will be blue, film by Radu Muntean

My Reviews about other Balkan films:

Former-Yugoslav filmmakers explore the dark

I am from Titov Veles

Beyond the Kosovo rainbow

Bulgaria’s mosquito problem

Sarajevo’s Historical Museum

No one’s Croatian Son

A Man without a Mustache

Bosnian War as absurdist theater

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September 1, 2011 Posted by | cinema | , , | Leave a comment

The Paper will be Blue. My extravagantly obscure film review

The Paper will be Blue. Directed by Radu Muntean, Romania, 2006. Writtten by Radu Muntean, Alexandru Baciu and Razvan Radulescu. The film has been shown at festivals in Germany, Hungary and Turkey, but unfortunately, it is not yet in commercial release in U.S. and other Western markets.
This is a film about one of the most iconic and fateful events of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the liberation of Romania in December, 1989. It was the most brutal confrontation of that historical period, and the one that is perhaps least understood. This film is a good first step in making sense of the last days of the Ceausescu regime. Hopefully, it will get distribution beyond the festival circuit and reach the wider audience it deserves.

May 9, 2009 Posted by | cinema | , , , | 1 Comment