Thursday, June 17, 2010

New Wave of Romanian Cinema Revisits a Not So 'Golden Age'

The Daily Californian Online

By Derek Sagehorn
Contributing Writer
Thursday, June 17, 2010

Bloc party. In the PFA's Romanian film series, 'Tales from a Golden Age' palimpsests previously oppressed media forms in 15 short vignettes driven by both plot and politics.

Forget France, Italy and Hollywood. Who needs the pretension, vanity and indulgence of these three capitals of cinema in a dirty and complex age? The new kings of world cinema reside in Romania - not in Roman villas - handling yesterday and today's problems with care not frivolity. "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" and "Police, Adjective" are two recently released films celebrated for their unflinching treatment of disturbing social issues. The release and success of these movies and others in the last several years has heralded what a Romanian New Wave. Acknowledging the impact of Romania, the Pacific Film Archive is currently holding a program entitled "Tales from the Golden Age: Recent Romanian Cinema." The center piece of the showings is the titular "Tales from the Golden Age."

The film is composed of five short stories set during the last year's of Nicolae Ceausescu's communist regime. While these facts locate the film in a specific and depressive period in Romania's history, the oppressiveness of Ceausescu's personality and government is not the direct concern. Instead, evidence of the corrupt communist force is incidental: crooked police, anal-retentive bureaucrats and passionately stupid activists. The victims of this period aren't just the proponents of Western democracy, the specter of Eastern Bloc oppression manifests itself in the most sedentary lives.

Yet for all of the sadness and pain found in "Golden Age," the tales are chock full of comedy. The film relies on laughter as a sort of catharsis, presenting the ridiculous as an antidote for the impoverished. Comedy in the film is less like one-liners and more like the slow realization of a descent into madness. The segment "The Legend of the Official Visit," focuses on the tension between the leaders of a small town preparing for President Ceausescu's motorcade. When the advanced team piles on absurd demands for white pigeons and authentic folk music, party niceties are sacrificed for a libation of wine and prankishness. Each segment relies on this sort of Vonnegut-ian humor, an exasperated celebration of the nonsensical in the face of insanity.

To be sure, these are tall tales presented as urban legends carried over from the communist period. The presentation and titles play off this move, often giving a humorous, open-ended assurance of the characters' fates. Understanding these stories as myths puts "Golden Age" into a far more sympathetic context. Otherwise what interest would a family devastated by an exploding pig mean to anyone besides farmers? But as myths, dealing specifically with the political and quotidian trauma of life behind the iron curtain, these stories gain much more power: power to expose the private pains of citizens, the tales of oppression that don't show up in history books.

"Golden Age" is attributed to no less than five directors, but Cristian Mungiu is no doubt at the helm of the project. As the director of the aforementioned "4 Months," his hands are everywhere in the film, including the writing credits for all five segments. He even brings in Thesp Vlad Ivanov, veteran of "4 Months" in the final segment, "The Legend of the Chicken Driver."

Overall the film does an incredible job at displaying personal stories of the so-called Golden Age in Romanian history. There are quiet, powerful performances across the board and a sort of earnestness in the directing not often seen this side of the Ural mountains- further proof that the Golden Age, at least in Romanian cinema, is now.
Tags: PFA, Tales from the Golden Age, Romanian New Wave, Film

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