by Steve Dollar

Tales from the Golden Age

Cinephiles scoping for the next new wave to surf discovered a tidal surge in the past decade, as a new generation of Romanian filmmakers?who came of age during the waning years of Nicolae Ceau?escu?s corrupt and withering regime?began to give that era its own, idiosyncratic narrative. Directors such as Cristi Puiu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu), Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest) and Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), with varying degrees of mordant humor, created vivid, absurdist anatomies of that terminal phase of what official jargon called ?the golden age.? If previous ?waves? of Eastern European cinema favored the surreal or the allegorical as a way to say what was not allowed to be said, these artists who emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc parlayed at once a perverse nostalgia for the bad old days and the naked realism to evoke their often desperate scrubbiness. And often enough, with an amber glow of affection for the screwed-up order of things.

Tales from the Golden Age celebrates that world. Although the tone is markedly lighter than his harrowing black-market abortion thriller 4 Months, Mungiu masterminds the omnibus as writer, producer and one of five directors on its six episodes, which dramatize several ?urban myths? from the years immediately preceding Ceau?escu?s death in 1989. The segments skew towards rural themes, as if Green Acres transpired under totalitarianism, with titles like ?The Legend of the Chicken Driver? nearly suggestive of a Red Sovine trucker ballad. The city/country divide and rampant livestock gags supply a useful thread of universality, and handy premises for those ?wait for it... wait for it... here it comes? punchlines. That the gags are more existential than blatantly rib-tickling is a bonus of the filmmakers? sensibilities, which skews these anecdotes towards satirical undoings of party orthodoxy and folkwise apocrypha illustrating the foibles of human nature.

Tales from the Golden Age

?Make them white,? barks a party official to the good citizens of a remote village the opening segment, The Legend of the Official Visit. He?s referring to the all-too-grey pigeons offered up as a potential avian salute to a state muckety-muck who has put the hayseed outpost on the route of his drive-by procession. Nature?s best just won?t do. As the petit autocrat (Emanuel Parvu) bosses everyone around, he spies a sad amusement park just installed for an annual carnival. The carousel must go, he declares. But when an afternoon feast for the self-congratulatory advance party veers toward a drunken debauch, circumstances take a turn. The pompous party inspector, suddenly in a giddy mood, leads everyone onto the carousel, which goes whizzing into the air. Unfortunately, the elderly operator has taken the command that ?everyone must ride? as an order, leaving no one at the controls when motion sickness erupts.

The segments aren?t credited, but Mungiu and his associates?Hanno H�fer, Razvan Marculescu, Constantin Popescu and Ioana Uricaru?collaborate so closely that the seams don?t show. The animal gags peak in The Greedy Policeman, a terrific Christmas story for people who hate Christmas stories, in which the family of the titular cop leans about the perils of the black market. Their yearning for Yuletide pork unexpectedly lands them a real, live snorting pig, occupying a cramped kitchen and confounding efforts to slaughter it. They don?t want to bludgeon it to death, fearful the squeals will alert the neighbors to their porcine contraband. So they use oven gas instead... and, well, more than Arnold Ziffel winds up barbecued.

Tales from the Golden Age

Played much more subtly, the engagingly low-key The Legend of the Air Sellers posits a meet-cute flirtation between teenage student Crina (Diana Cavallioti) and would-be government health operative Bughi (Radu Iacoban). The handsome stranger shows up at her door in a grim apartment block insisting on a tap water sample. In fact, he?s hustling guileless comrades out of their empty bottle deposits. Only in the Romanian ?80s would this ruse not be considered a bid for chump change. Suspicious, and smitten, Crina tracks Bughi down to a party at a nearby apartment where a group of teenagers is watching Bonnie and Clyde on a crummy TV. Inspired, she woos Bughi?s affection by hatching an ambitious plan to boost earnings. This time, they?ll solicit bottles filled with air. And take down whole buildings by conniving the superintendents into collecting the goods.

Nothing, of course, ever goes as planned. The subterfuge, and all-to-the-point revelation in the final twist, stamps this as a comic flipside to the tense shadowplay of 4 Months, right down to a climactic/anticlimactic chase scene and the deadpan one-liners. The national spirit of glorious dysfunction is epidemic in the Golden Age, though one suspects the film?s relatively upbeat vibe is as much a case of selective memory as a reflection on smiling through an apocalypse.

[Tales From the Golden Age is now playing at the IFC Center in NYC.]

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Posted by ahillis at August 26, 2011 12:42 PM

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