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Perspectives on history

A TV discussion stuck in Corneliu Porumboiu's mind. It became '12:08 East of Bucharest.'

August 12, 2007|Robert Abele | Special to The Times

The level of political debate found on television may hardly seem the stuff of artistic inspiration, but writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu could never shake an on-air contretemps he watched in his tiny hometown of Vaslui, in the eastern part of Romania, in 1999.

"The debate was if there was or was not a revolution there," he recalls, referring to the momentous 1989 ousting of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Ten years later, three men on television argued over the exact nature of the tipping point: Did people hit the streets only after hearing the news from Bucharest? Or were they starting their own separate revolution?

But all too often callers who knew the debate participants lent a decidedly down-to-earth tint to the I-was-there bombast. Says Porumboiu, "A girl called in and said, 'You drank all night in the bar' [to one of the participants] and at first I was laughing when they got nervous, but then I had to stop the television."

Now the 32-year-old Porumboiu has turned that incident into a wry, sharply observed and visually poetic comedy about memory and self-preservation called "12:08 East of Bucharest," which won the Camera d'Or, the best first feature film award, at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. "I was really interested in making a movie about each person's point of view about history. It's about transition."

The film, which opened in L.A. on Friday, is divided in two: a deadpan look at the small lives of a puffed-up TV host (Ion Sapdaru), a booze-loving history teacher (Teo Corban) and a lonely but personable old man (Mircea Andreescu), and the 45-minute debate itself, in which petty jealousies, arguments and rose-colored remembrances converge with tartly affectionate humor. "My characters are normal but have failings," says Porumboiu. "All of us at one point have to be a hero, you know?"

Porumboiu's Cannes win is one in a three-years-running stretch of awards for Romanians at the storied festival. (In 2005 it was Cristi Puiu's grim healthcare comedy "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" and this year Cristian Mungiu's abortion story "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.") Called a Romanian new wave, it has focused the world's attention on the minimalist, humanistic power of the cinema coming out of one of the European Union's newest members. "What characterizes these movies is an incredibly delicate balance of nuance, humor and serious content," says Rachel Rosen, programming director for the Los Angeles Film Festival, which put Romania in the spotlight for its 2007 lineup. "It's about finding a way that isn't bitter to look at very hard social realities."

Porumboiu grew up, like a lot of satellite state children, on a steady diet of propaganda cinema. The son of a businessman and a schoolteacher, he assumed his best hope career-wise would be the local furniture factory but ran to the theater when he heard they would be showing their last American film. "After that," he says, "you had North Korean movies where people tried to make corn and be good communists, and the bad guy was the weather."

The revolution inspired him to continue learning about movies, discovering Chaplin, Fellini, Cassavetes and Italian Neo-Realism, and winding up at the National University of Drama and Film in Bucharest. A few short films later, Porumboiu had a "12:08" script ready to shoot and raised the money himself with the help of family. Now "Bucharest" is getting released in at least 25 countries, but in his own land he's had to battle a perception -- helped in part by what the government's National Center for Cinematography is willing to fund -- that homegrown films aren't any good, even with the accolades heaped on his and his countrymen's work.

"For years they made bad movies, so a few years ago I bought a ticket for a Romanian movie and the girl said to me, 'It's a Romanian movie, do you really want to buy it?' " says Porumboiu. "It's a big problem. And all the old theaters are closing."

Nevertheless, the global recognition of the refreshing intelligence, style and clear-eyed adultness of Romanian film is heartening to the director. "Cristi and me and other young directors, we make our films with passion, and they have a point of view, so it's a good period, you know? You have something to say and you need to say it through cinema. It's not Nouvelle Vague, but I think it's a sort of neo-realism."

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