Friday, May 22, 2009

Romanian comedy looks back on communist "Golden Age"

By James Mackenzie

CANNES, France (Reuters) - "Tales from the Golden Age," the latest product of Romania's film New Wave, paints a comic picture of the daily fight to get by and outwit authority in a communist government bent on making life difficult.

The series of vignettes by five different directors brings Cristian Mungiu back to the Cannes film festival, where he triumphed in 2007 by winning the Palme d'Or with the grim abortion drama "Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days."

This time, the take on life in the "Golden Age" of the late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu is more light-hearted, reflecting the black humour that helped Romanians survive the shortages, petty harassment and stifling authoritarianism.

"The best jokes I've ever heard were from the communist period," Hanno Hoeffer, one of the other directors who collaborated on the project told Reuters in an interview. "Now they've all disappeared because there's nothing to joke about."

The film, being shown in the "Un certain regard" section of the festival, begins as a village nervously prepares to greet an official convoy with a display of poetry and local produce.

Other episodes show a conman scamming householders out of their refundable empty bottles, a newspaper faking pictures of Ceausescu to make him seem bigger than his official visitors or a family trying to kill a pig quietly in their apartment.

Everyone tries to beat the system, pick up whatever they can and stay out of trouble.

"What I wanted was to choose stories that were as much as possible about people and about these strange decisions that the party would take and the effects they had on people," said Mungiu, who produced the film and directed one of the episodes.

"You never knew if you were right or wrong in the last years of communism. This is why people avoided taking responsibility."


Mungiu is the best known of the new generation of Romanian filmmakers, thanks to his Palme d'Or success.

But other directors, like Corneliu Porumboiu, whose "Politist Adjectiv" (Police, Adjective) was widely praised in Cannes, have also emerged and the group behind "Tales of the Golden Age" underlines the depth of talent in Romanian cinema.

The film's episodic structure, based on often-told urban myths that may or may not be true, underlines the importance of a shared sense of humour in facing the trials of life.

"As a format, it reminded me personally of this idea of folklore with people who can sit around and tell stories and you can never tell who the actual author is," said Ioana Uricaru, another of the directors.

It is not made clear which director was responsible for which episode and the film is even being issued in two separate versions, with one story different in each, partly for reasons of length but partly as a kind of inside joke.

"It reminded us of the system, a long time ago," Hoeffer said. "No one knew what we were getting, so we were trying to keep it like that."

The light and often affectionate tone of the film has some echoes of the "Ostalgie" seen in former communist East Germany.

But Mungiu, 41, said any nostalgia was not for Ceausescu's government which was toppled in a revolution in 1989.

"The nostalgia is only for our youth," he said. "It's not possible to reach 40 and not think back. And for me the film is not only about the stories you can watch in the film. It's about all the memories that the film triggers for you as a 40 year-old of when you were 15 or 20."

(Editing by Jon Hemming)

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