Friday, December 2, 2011

The Boston Globe: A nation of small wonders

By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / December 2, 2011

Romanian shorts give glimpses of filmmakers’ mastery

The title of the Romanian shorts collection “Tales From the Golden Age,’’ refers to the pungently funny urban legends the films spin from the last 15 years of Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship. But that’s a title that also sums up the improbable handful of unassuming masterpieces that have come from this small country in the last six years - Cristi Puiu’s dark hospital comedy “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu’’; Cristian Nemescu’s military satire “California Dreamin’ (Endless)’’; Cristian Mungiu’s abortion-procurement thriller “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days’’; Corneliu Porumboiu’s farce of recent history “12:08 East of Bucharest’’ and his linguistic procedural, “Police, Adjective.’’ Per capita, Romania might be Earth’s greatest film industry.

Nowadays, no truly international festival is complete without it. And, of late, Cannes and Toronto and New York have been particularly instrumental in popularizing Romanian cinema - even if our moviegoing apparatus continues to attempt to figure out what to do with it. Right now, Boston is suffering a sort of cinematic back order. At least five very good or truly great films have yet to open here, including Puiu’s trap-door astonishment, “Aurora,’’ and Andrei Ujica’s ingeniously damning stock-footage assemblage, “The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu.’’

“Tales From the Golden Age’’ is playing at the Brattle Theatre tonight and Saturday, and it has glimmers of its forebears’ brilliance, wit, and concision. The film also partially closes the gap between its approach to the dour comedy of life and the one found in so-called single-camera shows like “The Office,’’ “30 Rock,’’ and “Parks and Recreation,’’ situation comedies in which the humiliations of workplace bureaucracy mirror the daily frustrations of life under a dictatorship. The pacing is slower, the camerawork less gawking, the mood less antic. And obviously, for the Romanians, the price of deviating from arbitrarily prescribed but institutionally abided protocols is much higher. Humiliation here can sting, fatally.

Anyway, Mungiu returns for this omnibus, putting the limelight on some of his friends and less heralded countrymen. He’s the credited screenwriter and shares directing duties with four others - Ioana Uricaru, Hanno Höfer, Razvan Marculescu, and Constantin Popescu. Together, they’ve focused this collection on Romania’s Communist propaganda during the Ceausescu regime.

This is probably the most efficient way to experience what makes the Romanians such distinctive moviemakers. They are comedians and tragedians often within the same movie, but in either instance only casually so. The movies are made in an almost deadpan style that’s close to realism but loose enough to incorporate melodrama, polemic, and farce. Nothing is flashy - the muted colors and uninflected style seem like extensions of the national psyche. The characters are good, everyday people - no one’s impoverished but some of the judgment is instructively poor. “Tales From the Golden Age’’ is the jauntiest and most openly allegorical thing I’ve seen these guys attempt. It’s witty, its contents succinct and entertaining.

The stories in “Golden Age,’’ like a lot of the modern Romanian films, build to a climax by way of explanation, courtesy of a punch line. The first film - “Legend of the Official Visit’’ - is set in a village that’s eagerly anticipating the arrival of a government caravan and ends with a funny amusement-park metaphor for the downside of party loyalty: It costs common sense. The second - “The Legend of the Party Photographer’’ - which has the party newspaper doctoring a photo of Ceausescu, ends with an even better joke. The others are kinds of morality tales, all hinging on a combustible mix of desperation and bad decision-making. All that muted tragicomedy is predicated upon nincompoopery and naivete that the Romanians seem to assert is a part of the national character.

Lest I leave the impression that these films are somehow the same - the ones in this omnibus and beyond it - I should clarify. The Motown Sound was a unifying style, but it’s impossible to confuse “I Heard It Through the Grapevine’’ with “Love Child.’’ “Aurora’’ is nothing like “Mr. Lazarescu.’’ Each movie is its own achievement.

The high point of “The Golden Age’’ is the final and longest film, “The Legend of the Air Sellers.’’ The drab comedy of the earlier film has fully receded, and what’s being showcased - moral suspense, allegory drawn with a laser rather than crayon - is also what the Romanians do best. The story involves two people - a young man and young woman - running a scam. Once you understand what they’re up to and what’s at stake, you watch the film with a sense of dread.

You also notice and savor that what these guys are doing with pacing and morality, with the human-scaled thriller, isn’t all that different from what lots of people who watch American television are used to. The sense of futility in a show like “The Wire’’ is certainly grander and vaster. But I doubt that the Romanians could watch a series like that, one so full of bureaucratic and institutional injustice and so full of tiny sociopolitical ironies writ large, and not feel an artistic kinship. There’s more than a little of their Bucharest in that Baltimore.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com or followed on Twitter:@wesley_morris

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