The most unlikely subjects often make for the most deliciously comic films. That's the case with "12:08 East of Bucharest," which carefully builds a sly and unexpected human comedy out of a dispute over whether a revolution would still be a revolution if nobody showed up.
"Bucharest" is one of the wave of new films from Romania that have captured the imagination of the cinema world. Written and directed by Corneliu Porumboiu, the film was the winner of the prestigious Caméra d'Or, for best first film, at Cannes in 2006.
What this droll effort shares with its Romanian brethren, even the much grimmer abortion drama "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" that won the Palme d'Or in 2007, is a bleak outlook on life, even if in this case it's leavened with a decidedly wacky sense of humor. As filmmaker Porumboiu says, "We Romanians have, in a way, invented absurdity. Or at least we've made an art of it."
The film's title connects to both a specific time and a vague location. Though the town the action takes place in is never named, the iconic time of 12:08 p.m. is the exact moment when, on Dec. 22, 1989, with the entire nation watching on TV, Romania's dictator Nicolae Ceausescu fled his palace via helicopter, signaling that his decades-old regime had collapsed.
"Bucharest" takes place exactly 16 years later, on the anniversary of the revolution, and even though it seems clear that, as someone puts it, "no one cares anymore," Jderescu (Teo Corban), who both owns the local TV station and hosts a public affairs program somberly called "Issue of the Day," is determined to dedicate his daily show to it. "What else should I do?" he asks when his judgment is questioned. "A program on inflation?"
The first half of "Bucharest" slowly and methodically introduces us to Jderescu, his wife and even his mistress, as well as to the two people who, more out of desperation than qualifications, are to be his guests on the show.
Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu), a venerable codger known to one and all as Old Man Piscoci, is best remembered as the town's Santa, a position he's held for so long his costume is moth-eaten and tattered.
Manescu (Ion Sapdaru) is younger than Piscoci but in worse shape. The high school teacher devotes so most of his time and energy to drinking that all the people he owes money to have to form a line on payday to get reimbursed.
Once the character introductions are out of the way, "Bucharest" devotes its entire second half, filmed in real time, to the TV show on the revolution and the big question of whether anyone came into the town square to protest the regime ahead of 12:08 and thus qualifies as a genuine revolutionary hero.
Manescu insists that he was there, in the vanguard, but as a variety of townspeople take advantage of the show's call-in format, it becomes clear that almost no one agrees that this could have happened.
As the callers, the guests and the host, all of whom are disaffected to one degree or another, argue about this as they might over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, the level of absurdist character comedy builds with so much delicacy that without your quite knowing how it happened you find yourself being completely entertained.
As with all the current Romanian films, including 2005's "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," a sense of social commentary is always present in "Bucharest," but it is subtle and to the point and never allowed to get in the way of the precisely calibrated comedy.
Although the directors involved scoff at the notion of a Romanian New Wave ("Lazarescu's" Cristi Puiu says there are "just desperate directors"), it's clear that an exceptional body of work is coming out of this country at this particular time and place. It's not necessary to categorize these films to enjoy them, it's just necessary to go.
"12:08 East of Bucharest." Not rated. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes. In limited release.