"12:08 East Of Bucharest" screened as part of The Film Society Lincoln Center's Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema series. It runs from November 29th through December 10th.
A history teacher, a widower and TV host walk into a television studio...it sounds like the setup to a punchline and in many ways, it is. That's more or less the basic premise of Corneliu Porumboiu's breakout 2006 film, "12:08 East Of Bucharest." The Camera d'Or and Label Europa Cinemas winner at Cannes put the filmmaker on the international map where he has continued to gain notice, thanks to 2009's "Police, Adjective" and this year's "When Evening Falls On Bucharest Or Metabolism". But even seven years later, '12:08' still sustains as an exciting and carefully calibrated work, a film that led the charge of recent Romanian cinema.
Running just a shade under ninety minutes, little goes to waste in Porumboiu's taut, lean but very patient film. The first half of the picture introduces us to the three men whose lives will on converge later on. First, there's Tiberiu Manescu (Ion Sapdaru), an alcoholic history teacher who, when he isn't being hen-pecked by his wife, is trying to manage the various debts he owes to people around town. Then there's Emanoil Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu), an elderly widower who has reluctantly agreed to play the neighborhood Santa Claus. Lastly, there's Virgil Jderescu (Teodor Corban), owner of a TV station with his own talk show, who is cheating on his wife, all while trying desperately to put together his next episode, which he wants to focus on the 16th anniversary of the Romanian Revolution that ousted Nicolae Ceausescu.
Certainly, '12:08' doesn't shy away from the grim reality of its setting. Like many of his contemporaries, Porumboiu favors an often stationary camera and long takes, here the greying and faded dirty blue of the apartments, streets and buildings the drama takes place in are unadorned. The rather miserable rut all three lead characters have found their lives shuffled into, and the nearly surreal and absurd world in which they exist are given ample time as well, with '12:08' unhurriedly creating a rich texture in which to set up what becomes an assuming, bravura finale that is both hilariously deadpan and quietly poetic all at once.
As the threads of the story are slowly drawn together, the final stretch of '12:08' takes place entirely during the broadcast of Jderescu's rather amateur talk show, where both Manescu and Piscoci have been rounded up as guests. The topic? Was there or wasn't there a revolution on December 22, 1989. The point of contention for Jderescu is whether the Romanian Revolution can truly be called that, if the population only rushed out into the streets after Ceausescu was deposed. It seems like a measure of semantics, and an almost moot point to be dwelling on—and it kind of is—but Porumboiu uses that launching pad and these characters to dive into the complexity, beauty and complications of social and political change.
Even as Jderescu's supposedly serious discussion takes place on camera, Porumboiu quickly makes it clear that it's an argument without substance. With a malfunctioning tripod, operated by a cameraman utilizing crude zooms and cuts, almost every moment of the film's final section —presented as a "live" TV broadcast—finds Jderescu's insistence at trying to get to the "truth" behind his question regarding the revolution belittled. But the sharp writing by Porumboiu, and the wonderfully underplayed performances of all three eventually find a more potent conclusion emerging that's left to linger about the in-the-moment purity of new ideas and shifts in power that wind up being soiled by the day-to-day reality of living and making ends meet.
Filled with imagery both moving and mordant (a sequence of a Romanian big band ripping through a Latino song is fantastic), "12:08 East Of Bucharest" doesn't pretend to have a position on the fallout of the Romanian Revolution. Instead it contends that different questions need to be asked and considered about post-Communist life, about the blame about the current state of the country, and where the future lies for Romania's youth. [A]