CATEGORIES Comedy, Drama, Foreign Language, Theatrical Reviews, Festival Reports, Politics, Toronto International Film Festival, Cinematical Indie, Toronto Film Festival, Movie News, Reviews, CinematicalDespite the slot reserved for it in my personal (and beloved) "depressing Eastern European films" file, 12:08 East to Bucharest was in fact the funniest movie I saw in Toronto. The first feature from Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu, it contains moments so hilarious they not only hurt when you experience them for the first time, but also keep the theater alive with laughter for the few minutes that follow, as everyone around you replays the scenes in their heads and finds themselves captivated again by the memories. At times, the laughter was so loud and so long that I was glad the film was in Romanian and had subtitles, because the dialogue was entirely inaudible.
Set in a small town outside of Bucharest on December 22, 2005 -- the 16th anniversary of the fall of Ceausescu -- the movie documents the efforts of Jderescu (Teodor Corban), a textile engineer/TV station owner, to assemble a panel for a live TV show on the revolution, and then to keep that show in order, once it goes on-air. When he's let down by the "prestigious" panel he'd originally lined up, Jderescu, out of desperation, digs up two last-minute guests: Manescu (Ion Sapdaru), a weary college professor who claims to have spear-headed the town's "revolution" in 1989, and Old Man Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu) who gets the call, it appears, mostly because he's old, and Jderescu happens to see a picture of him the morning of the show.
Dryly funny throughout its first half, the film truly comes to life in its final 45 minutes, after the TV show begins. The movie moves inside the television cameras, and the helpless amateurism of the photography combines with the banality of the show to create some truly hilarious moments. The focus slips in and out, the frame either eliminates panelists entirely or cuts them in half, and close-ups come apparently without rhyme or reason. In front of the camera, meanwhile, the host recaps the rewards of his morning mythological research, spewing incomprehensible nonsense comparing the Romanian revolution to Plato's The Cave, among other things, while his guests drink, fall into despair, or built paper boats to pass the time. The boat-building, in particular, is beyond wonderful, and the constant, nervous motion of the camera is the sort of thing that makes you laugh out loud over and over again.
12:08 East of Bucharest is not entirely a comedy, however, and it sometimes seems that its uproarious moments weaken the film's final impact by deceasing audience willingness to fully embrace its melancholy tone. In fact, throughout the often farcical television show, there's a great seriousness to Manescu, and a sobriety in his tone as he discusses the fall of Ceausescu. In the face of endless opposition from viewers (who call in and abuse him), he steadfastly maintains that he and three colleagues were in the town square 16 years before, voicing opposition -- and thus creating their own, tiny revolution --- to Ceausescu even before 12:08PM, when the Leader fled in a helicopter and the rest of the town emerged to celebrate his fall. Piscoci, meanwhile, paper boat-building and exasperated mutterings aside, tells a deeply poignant story of how he experience than long-ago day. Because of the humor of the rest of the television sequence, however, the audience isn't tuned to the depth of the feelings before them, nor to the quiet profundity of Piscoci's resigned, tired suggestion that people make any revolution they can. In his mind, timing and location are unimportant -- what matters is what happens inside, even in tiny towns, miles east of Bucharest.