HOW A GROUP OF TALENTED ROMANIAN FILMMAKERS
RECALL A (THANKFULLY) FORGOTTEN WORLD
REVIEW by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm
As a correspondent for U.S. newspapers, I arrived in Romania when the Communist-era system of lies and secrecy had completely collapsed. The chaos was unimaginable. My plane landed so soon after the 1989 revolution that no customs agents were left at the airport. Instead, I was greeted by little groups of Romanians selling shoeboxes stuffed to overflowing with what had been their life savings in Romanian currency. They were eager to exchange these little bales of Romanian Monopoly money for a single U.S. $100 bill.
The first government offices I visited were empty. Grocery store shelves were bare. Restaurants were able to offer only two dinner options: either a hard-boiled egg or a bowl of mysterious watery stew. In my Bucharest hotel, the ceilings of guest rooms still had the Communist-era slots through which police cameras could peer at visitors 24-hours a day, but the hotel’s monitoring room was unlocked and abandoned. No one was watching.
Of course, in this era well before the Worldwide Web, that also meant that truth was entirely fluid. Writing for American newspapers, I had to interview dozens of Romanians to determine basic facts for my assignment: the catalytic role that religious groups had played in the mostly peaceful revolution that toppled the dictator Nicolai Ceausescu. I found many who dared to talk honestly for the first time in their lives. I found a family finally pulling up the wooden floorboards in their grandmother’s bedroom to reveal priceless icons that the family had hidden for decades from the police. They were bringing these icons back to their local church.
So, I lapped up every minute of the 141-minute Tales From the Golden Age by Christian Mungiu and his Romanian filmmaking friends. (Mungiu wrote the scripts, then invited other young filmmakers to shoot individual sequences.) Now in its complete form, released by the KimStim Collection with English subtitles, the film is a series of comedic episodes about life in the crazy frenzy of the Ceausescu era when deception was life’s blood in Romania.
AN OFFICIAL VISIT TURNS A VILLAGE UPSIDE DOWN
The Legend of the Official Visit, the opening vignette in the film, is the most amusing and fully realized of all these tales. Set in a remote rural village, the story turns on news that the dictator plans to make a personal visit by cruising through the town in his limousine. This sequence recalls the early films of Federico Fellini, expecially because the town also is populated at the moment by a roving family that runs a colorful carousel. Suddenly, bureaucrats descend on the village, planning every last detail of the motorcade’s procession through the town’s one dirt road—right down to the number of cows, vegetable stands and white pigeons that should be positioned along this road.
At one point, an official actually suggests gathering up fresh fruit from the residents’ homes and tying it back onto tree branches to make the town look more bountiful. In the end, great quantities of booze and a malfunction at the brightly colored carousel turn this little tale into a deft torpedo of Communist-era buffoonery. I won’t spoil the final scene with details.
ENDLESSLY RECASTING THE DICTATOR AS A HERO
As a journalist, I also loved The Legend of the Party Photographer, set inside the offices of the official government-run newspaper. It’s a typical day in the newsroom as the editors meet to discuss front-page coverage of a foreign dignitary coming to meet with Ceausescu. Of course, this means that the photographers are expected to painstakingly alter their photos to give visual advantages to the fearless leader. One after another, these journalists fall over each other in their zeal to make Ceausescu look more heroic on the next day’s front page. A marvelous and mostly silent comic sequence shows what happens up and down the many layers of bureaucracy as the altered photos and stacks of newspapers spread across the entire nation—before someone discovers a fatal flaw in the final image. Perhaps non-journalists won’t appreciate that humor quite as much—but I laughed out loud.
A few of the online reviews that have popped up since the recent release of Tales of the Golden Age on DVD compare this film to Borat and argue that this movie isn’t nearly as funny as Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2006 savage mockumentary of life in former Communist countries. To those comparisons, I have to say: I’m aware that Borat was widely celebrated, for a while, and even scored a nomination for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. On balance, however, Borat painted Eastern Europeans as racist, sexist, homophobic and viciously insensitive to their own communities.
The rich humor in Tales from the Golden Age rests on the truth that, despite all the lies and secrecy of the Communist era—people did care about each other and tried to maintain lively families and neighborhoods. That’s why these stories are so funny. Yes, many greedy and officious figures are skewered here, but the characters we care about in Tales from the Golden Age are good-hearted folks who we hope can win out in the end. The humor lies in the irrepressible nature of human hope.
Ultimately, that’s the terrific gift to the world of this film by Cristian Mungiu and his colleagues Ioana Maria Uricaru, Hanna Hofer, Razvan Marculescu and Constantin Popescu. Bravo to the whole team for creating such a wondrously amusing slice of a now (thankfully) nearly forgotten world.
REMEMBER: You can order a copy of Tales From the Golden Age on DVD from Amazon.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.