12:08 East of Bucharest

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 October, 2007, 12:00am

12:08 East of Bucharest

Starring: Teodor Corban, Ion Sapdaru, Mircea Andreescu

Director: Corneliu Poromboiu

The film: On paper, 12:08 East of Bucharest looks like challenging viewing. Corneliu Poromboiu's first feature-length film revolves around three Romanian men squabbling about the role each played in the revolution that toppled Nicolae Ceausescu on December 22, 1989.

Beyond the scene-setting section in the first half-hour or so, the film mostly takes place inside a ramshackle local television studio, with the protagonists seated behind a desk in front of the camera, against a set that keeps falling down.

All this just goes to show what an imaginative story-telling and filmmaking force the 32-year-old Poromboiu is, for 12:08 East of Bucharest is at once a scathing social satire and a piece of evocative human drama, capturing neatly the social shifts in Romania and how the changes since Ceausescu was booed off his pedestal and led to a firing squad three days later have scarred those old enough to witness them at first-hand.

The title refers to that moment in history. The film takes place in a small provincial town east of Bucharest, at the time the revolution was supposed to have begun. That is the basis of the row: whether the now middle-aged schoolteacher Manescu (Ion Sapdaru) was among the few youths who dared to shout anti-Ceausecscu slogans at the town square before things began to unravel in the capital.

The dispute takes place only because the station's owner, the Anthony Wilson-like, self-styled media guru Jderescu (Teodor Corban), is trying to boost wavering ratings by making a programme about whether the revolution actually took place in the town.

The other participant is Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu), Jderescu's former mentor and a pensioner

now better known as the town's Santa Claus.

The interaction between the men makes for riveting viewing thanks to Poromboiu's screenplay and mise-en-scene. What makes 12:08 different from equally remarkable artistic output from Romania in recent years (such as Catalin Mitulescu's The Way I Spent the End of the World and Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, both set in the communist era) is Poromboiu's insight into Romania as it is now.

Whether the revolution took place in the town seems secondary as viewers are invited to look at the three protagonists' lives: the hopes of 1989 have mutated into frustration, as all three struggle to make their lives better in a free-market, free-for-all society, with Piscoci and Manescu continuing a meandering existence while Jderescu's venture as a small-time capitalist reduces him to a cynical wreck (who, unmarried, still lives with and is cared for by his mother).

The extras: Disappointingly, there's only a director's commentary, albeit a sporadically insightful one, with Poromboiu explaining the challenges of making the film and its relevance in attempts to examine today's Romania, one of the newest members of the European Union.

The verdict: An original film that is essential both as social commentary and - sadly for Romanians - the blackest of comedies.