[2 September 2011]
It is not a little ironic that the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu (1965-89) has been drawn on so heavily for inspiration in the Romanian New Wave of cinema. Since Cristian Mungiu’s bleak, claustrophobic 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days swooped in to take the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 2007, Ceaușescu’s brutally destructive regime has become something of an idée fixe for the nation’s filmmakers. Even the films set in more recent times are rife with themes of corruption and the police state, from Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu to Florin Şerban’s If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle.
This fascination with the near past finds a perfect expression in Tales from the Golden Age (Amintiri din epoca de aur). A series of six short films scripted by Mungiu and each helmed by a different Romanian director, it offers wry and sharply observed anecdotes. These retell various urban legends from the last decade of Ceaușescu’s reign, a so-called “golden age,” in which the country spiralled into severe poverty and isolation. More than 20 years on, the filmmakers recreate the tragedy, but more often, reveal a mordant black comedy.
The segments sketch bizarre pictures of the backwardness of every level of Romanian life. In one village, news is passed along by someone going around and banging on a drum. In the cities, the presses are stopped by the mandate to superimpose a hat on the country’s leader, employees steal food, and adolescents sit transfixed by an American movie that was released well over a decade before. At the same time, the society depicted in these shorts has also long since become dysfunctional and quite absurd, even comedic from a distance.
Despite this, the stories also construct a kind of sour beauty, which might seem redeeming, at least for the artists who’ve found or imposed it. The natural landscape features predominantly, contrasting with the squalor of village life and also reminding us of how people might survive such poverty. In shots of trees and sky, we might also glimpse something like a Romanian “spirit,” and images of camaraderie or, alternatively, resistance to the pervasive hopelessness can be vivid.
One of the shorts, “The Legend of the Air Sellers,” celebrates the ingenuity of Romania’s teens, who effectively exploited the nation’s growing cynicism by inventing a ruse to sell bottles for cash. Eventually, a title tells us at the end, some saved up enough for cars. Another segment has a motley bunch of party members and unhappy village chiefs spinning helplessly on a flickering carnival ride in the middle of nowhere, a clever allusion to the directionless of political life. Each of the segments offers similar commentary, as the film also sets the scene for the unrest that exploded at the end of the 1980s, not just in Romania, but also across Eastern Europe. In this way, Tales from the Golden Age functions as a more comprehensive companion piece to 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, or perhaps a prequel to 12:08 East of Bucharest.
That said, the story that stands out most for its immediacy and incisiveness is “The Legend of the Greedy Policeman.” It is centred on family and the home in a way the others are not, specifically, the Romanian tradition of eating pork for Christmas. In the 1980s, pigs were increasingly unavailable: in the thin-walled Communist apartments of an unnamed small town, the family who manages to acquire one must find a way to kill it without arousing the neighbourhood’s suspicion. The bizarre macabre and comic possibilities that arise from this scenario create a knife-edge sense of building tension, with a wickedly brilliant twist.
This short exemplifies the most compelling characteristic of Tales from the Golden Age, that it lets it stories speak for themselves. Still, as retrospect imbues them with a laconic sense of humour, they might be criticised for depicting without scrutinising. They are at most retellings of various urban legends. Rather than setting obvious heroes against cruel and corrupt villains, they offer good-hearted, occasionally misguided souls trying to scrape by in impossible situations. There is no explanation for their predicaments; they simply are.
But their presentation like this is more powerful and insightful than an attempted sweeping critique of the country’s all-too-apparent ills. Tales from the Golden Age is devoted to everyday conviction rather than forceful denouement, and so evokes the experiences of this period. The directors of the Romanian New Wave continue to struggle with what it means to have suffered so long under the yoke of a dictatorial lunatic. If Tales from the Golden Age is incomplete, it is because survivors are still searching for answers, as well as the most effective questions to ask.