“12:08 East of Bucharest,” currently playing at Film Forum in New York, is part of a new wave of Romanian movies that are slowly reaching American audiences. National cinemas often become great just as dictatorships loosen up or fall, when there’s the right combination of freedom of expression and miserable conditions. Think of Czech cinema during Alexander Dubček’s Prague Spring, Polish cinema during the early years of Solidarity, Yugoslav cinema during the country’s disintegration after Tito, or Iranian cinema during the now dead reform era. Totalitarian rule makes artistic creation impossible, but, apparently, social peace threatens it with triviality. Romania hasn’t been a dictatorship since 1989, but it still suffers from appalling economic misery, a blighted industrial landscape, and vast government corruption. Naturally, it’s enjoying a golden age of movies.
The Romania of “12:08 East of Bucharest” is bleak—the streets are gray and wet, the lamps flicker on and off, and almost all the color has been washed out of the film stock, rendering the apartments even more dingy and cramped, the human faces more exhausted—and yet, when I saw it, the audience laughter was as loud and sustained as at “Borat.” The premise is that a small-time TV anchor in an unnamed town east of Bucharest devotes a call-in show to the subversive question “Was there a revolution in our town?” The anchor relentlessly interrogates an alcoholic townsman who claims to have fought the security police in the main square just a few minutes before the violent overthrow of the Ceauşescu regime in December, 1989. Romanians have had few other recent triumphs, and yet the film’s director, Corneliu Porumboiu, doesn’t hesitate to make a mockery of this last shred of national glory. It’s a type of black humor that’s particularly Eastern European: “12:08 East of Bucharest” shows how much laughter and art can be built on the notion that everything about one’s country is basically shit.