Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Making Waves Romanian Film Festival, which runs from November 29th to December 3rd. For more information visit FilmLinc.com and follow FilmLinc on Twitter at @FilmLinc.
Was There or Wasn’t There? is perhaps the most apt Anglicisation of the original title of Corneliu Porumboiu’s feature debut 12:08 East of Bucharest, a name that better suggests the sense of wearied frustration that fills the film. There’s a desperation of sorts to the question, asked time and time again in the film as a small-town TV host attempts to gleam from his guests whether the historic Romanian revolution of 1989 manifested itself in their home. Congealing the stylistic and thematic tendencies experimented with in his earlier shorts, Porumboiu here rode the crest of the Romanian New Wave—to deploy the obligatory aquatic pun—and arrived on the scene of European cinema as one of its most exciting new auteurs.
Porumboiu, at least at first, largely takes his own advice and here adopts the rigid framing for which he’s since become known. He favours frames within the frame: darkened doorways serve to doubly situate these characters within their space, much as his narrative will serve to do contextually
Earning the Camera d’Or award at Cannes for best first feature, Porumboiu builds on the prominent craftsmanship of his first works with a sense of confidence that’s nothing short of stunning to behold. Here is a film entirely aware of everything it intends to do, running like a well-oiled machine from first frame to last. To compare it to a well-structured debate is to do a disservice to its success as a cinematic work, yet it’s an apt link to make: this is the kind of movie that moves with clarity and precision—which isn’t to say that it’s at all speedy—to arrive at a destination that, though perhaps unexpected, reveals itself on arrival to be the only place we could possibly have been headed.
Therein lies the wonder of Porumboiu, a director with the ability to take the viewer by the hand and lead them firmly down his pre-planned path. “Put it on the tripod now, or I’ll crack your skull with it,” snaps the presenter when he catches his cameraman daring to use handheld shots; Porumboiu, at least at first, largely takes his own advice and here adopts the rigid framing for which he’s since become known. He favours frames within the frame: darkened doorways serve to doubly situate these characters within their space, much as his narrative will serve to do contextually: he uses aesthetic almost as outline, tracing the trajectory of his story in the simple way he shoots his players.
Like his shorts, in which alternating attitudes to the revolution of ’89 create a generational rift, 12:08 East of Bucharest finds Porumboiu eyeing the new Romania with equal parts amusement and outrage.
And what wonderful players they are: back from the shorts are Ion Sapdaru and Constantin Dita, the latter taking a small but eventually essential role, the former delightfully dour as one of the two key guests out of whom the TV host hopes to squeeze an infotaining hour. He fails phenomenally: the broadcast is an unmitigated disaster, bad news for his burgeoning career but excellent indeed for us as witnesses to Porumboiu’s comedy, which cheekily and often caustically deconstructs popular attitudes to the revolution with this sketch that’s stretched to audacious length. That it works at all is indicative of exquisite writing; that it does for so long, as well as indicating the quality of these actors, accentuates just how fine a director he is.
Like his shorts, in which alternating attitudes to the revolution of ’89 create a generational rift, 12:08 East of Bucharest finds Porumboiu eyeing the new Romania with equal parts amusement and outrage. “My point is that there’s no present without a past, and no future without a present,” stutters the presenter in a moment meant to make him look foolish, yet there’s truth to the words, and Porumboiu’s essential concern is in understanding this place and these people as products, often pathetic ones, in an ever-evolving historical timeline. “Nobody gives a shit about it anyway,” shrugs a character at one point, his opinion evidently shared by a class of kids who’d sooner take a test on the French revolution. Yet a throwaway reference to Plato’s cave is telling, and Porumboiu evidently seeks—in the most unassuming way—to cast himself in the role of the philosopher. His unaffected epilogue is an appropriate embrace of the democracy Ceausescu left in his wake: there’s plenty to learn here, for those who give a shit.
[notification type=”star”]89/100 ~ GREAT. 12:08 East of Bucharest cheekily and often caustically deconstructs popular attitudes to the revolution with this sketch that’s stretched to audacious length.[/notification]