At 12:08pm on December 22, 1989, the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, fled the capital city of Bucharest in the face of overwhelming protests against his authoritarian regime. That moment is heralded as the collapse of communism in the Eastern Bloc country, and the beginning of an uncertain transition towards democracy. Corneliu Porumboiu’s Caméra d’Or winner for best debut feature, 12.08 East of Bucharest, is a sparsely elegant, humorous film that reflects on those events sixteen years on.
As the snow falls lightly across the desolate streets in a small town in eastern Romania, three men prepare to commemorate the anniversary of that fateful day. Jderescu (Teo Corban) is something of a local celebrity; a presenter and owner of the small, local television station, he is struggling to find guests willing to come on his talk show to discuss their recollections of the revolution. Manescu (Ion Sapdaru), one of the guests, wakes up hung over, his memory of the night before erased, to a call from Jderescu reminding him about the show. He is a drunk, a history professor who carries around a bottle of booze in his briefcase and is in debt to what seems like the entire town. The other, last-minute guest, Old Man Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu), is a lonely widower, known for playing Santa Claus at Christmas.
Jderescu’s talk show turns into an awkward, painfully comedic disaster. The topic up for discussion is whether or not there was a revolution in this obscure, modest town, or whether people merely took to the streets after 12:08 to celebrate Ceausescu’s flight. (The film’s Romanian title translates as ‘Was There or Wasn’t There?’) Manescu insists that he was present in the town square before 12:08 on that day in 1989 – and that he and a small band of colleagues (now all dead) played a small but essential part in the protests that toppled the communist regime. The irate townspeople who call in to the show contradict his version of events: a drunk now, he was a drunk then, and could never have taken part in such a momentous event. Insulted, Manescu clings to his story, desperate to believe that, once in his life, he performed a heroic act. Piscoci seems unconcerned with the debate, contenting himself with making origami sailboats. Full of regret over the loss of his wife, he has little interest in portraying himself as a hero. Ultimately, the acrimonious debate is inconclusive.
Shot in muted tones of brown and khaki, the film evokes not nostalgia, but the impression that little has changed in the years following the victory of the pro-democratic movement. The town itself is drab and barren; ugly concrete apartment blocks line the treeless streets, the architecture unmistakably communist. Long, uninterrupted takes filmed at a distance from the action with a single camera convey the impression that this film is of another era, composed much like a state-controlled television programme might have been. This realist cinematography roots the characters in the past for most of the film. It is only during the real-time filming of the talk show that the station’s young cameraman, standing in for Porumboiu, becomes involved in both the debate and the film itself. Framing the men in close-up, exposing their awkwardness, penetrating their truthfulness and remorse, he finally injects a touch of modernity into the reminiscences of the past.
12:08 East of Bucharest is undeniably an esoteric film that will appeal to a small, but avid film-going audience. A perfect example of Eastern European art-house cinema, it offers an intelligent reflection on the nature of memory and the collapse of communism in a small Romanian town.