Tales From The Golden Age (Cristian Mungiu, 2009)
If I’m honest I would never have gone to see this film, and I would probably never have heard of it, were it not on the itinerary for a film club I sometimes go to. But it’s quite possibly my favourite film of 2009.
Romanian cinema seems to be hip at the moment. I’m an absolute newcomer but I’m told the boy Mungiu started it by winning the Palme d’Or with 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, and I remember The Death of Mr Lazarescu getting critical hosannahs. This one, however, shows the lighter side of Romanian cinema. Mungiu wrote five short screenplays, each based on an urban myth from Communist Romania, and each was shot by a different director. I expected grim austerity, but I laughed like a drain and came away really fancying a trip to Romania one of these days. Communism gets exposed for the utter sham that it is but the defining characteristic is an evident love for the land and its people.
The opening credits confirm the implicit irony of the title. Names appear on the broken banisters and grubby steps of a high-rise staircase, ironically juxtaposed with a stirring patriotic song. It all looks like a DVD menu and it’s not a promising start, but soon we’re onto The Legend of the Official Visit.
The striking thing about this film is how bright, colourful and appealing the countryside looks. It’s gorgeous sunshine, but it’s a gentle, golden sunshine. In a small village, it’s all hands to the deck as the presidential motorcade is going to be coming through and everything has to be just so. At the village hall people are gardening, washing the windows. An anxious young man, Gheorgita, is on the phone- “We have very nice cows”. He’s told they’ll need pigeons.
The fat man who has brought his travelling carousels for the annual fair is asked what happened to his pigeons? His brother ate them, but he has some canaries. The pigeon problem is delegated and Gheorgita mounts a rusty bike, then heads off to see the Mayor. Shades of Borat as he cycles down the main road, filled with busy villagers. Mend that hole! Clear up that cow shit! Your flag is back-to-front!
The Mayor is more agitated than anyone; he sits with hot towels over his face, dreading the moment he’s put to the test. He snaps at people, he’s in such a panic that his suggestions are desperate. Should we hang some fruit from the trees so they’re not bare? The fairground man shoos away children- he needs petrol to get his carousel running. As his pretty daughter sleeps topless in the caravan, he chases away a peeping tom soldier.
The villagers get choreographed for two party officials, coming to inspect on the eve of the visit. Their utter disdain brings home the Kafkaesque side of the regime; their inconstant whims keep people constantly on their toes and today’s right answer is tomorrow’s capital offence. Why on earth are there cows in the square? Only sheep would be acceptable. Those pigeons should be white. And the carousels have got to be dismantled immediately, we don’t care if the man has travelled here specially.
A boozy lunch for the two officials turns into a bacchanalian supper, and they soften up a little. The carousel workers are called away from their dismantling duties to play folk music for the party. That pretty girl is asked to sit on the head official’s knee and we can see her father fuming as he pumps his accordion. The music stops for a phone call, which brings news that the visit has been cancelled. The officials are very drunk by now, and tell everyone to pile onto the carousel.
The Mayor gets travel sick as they all spin round in the night air, each in his little chair. People call for the ride to stop- but all the operators are on board. We’ll have to wait until the engine runs out of petrol, and I filled it up this morning, says Dad. They’re left all night and we see a shepherd tutting as the sun rises.
People thought the film was like Goodbye Lenin, with everyone propping up a cardboard facade in order to pretend that things were fine and efficient, but this made me think of Fellini’s facsist-era films like Amarcord. Everyone’s stuck on a fairground ride; the system that contains them keeps them living like children. It’s viewed with a subtly critical, yet warm-hearted and sympathetic eye.
More party politics in The Legend of the Party Photographer. Shots of an imposing Stalinist building in the city centre show that we’re moving into the heart of the machinery. Two photographers are in a darkroom, trying to choose the photo which makes the diminutive Ceaucescu looks tallest. They give up and step outside for a fag break. We establish that they’re an uncle and nephew. They see a black Volga pull up across the road and discuss how no-one is ever safe (“They can pick you up at any time”).
The pair meet the newspaper’s editors. Giscard D’Estaing is making a state visit that afternoon and the newspaper must be distributed by early the next morning. Everything will have to move like clockwork. We see a parade of soldiers, flags, and the editor waiting impatiently for photos. Bird’s eye view of the nephew running up several flights of stairs to the darkroom. People bang on their door as the pictures develop.
The editors are dissatisfied. None of these photos will do as D’Estaing is wearing a hat and Ceaucescu isn’t; it looks like he’s doffing his hat to capitalism. The photographers’ solution is to prittstick a little hat onto Ceaucescu. We get dramatic against-the-clock music as the editors decided that the not-yet-dried first attempt will have to do. We see a paper press, distribution vans and bundles of the paper being loaded onto express trains. Then we see a worker stare at the front page. Phone calls, people running around. Stop the press!
What’s wrong? Ceaucescu has a hat on his head and one in his hand. The photographers are accosted as they’re about to clock off, and the uncle collapses when he realises. We see a military van halt one of the trains and confiscate all the papers. When the train is off again, the guard studies the one remaning copy he had been using for a breakfast tablecloth, and he guffaws out loud. They say that Ceaucescu borrowed most of his ideas from Kim Il Sung and the images of people fiddling with the pre-photoshop hat are appropriately Mickey Mouse; it’s a set-up worthy of Gogol.
After these two Kusturica-like political fables, the film zooms to a close-up with an intimate examination of the private lives of people from that era. Our centrepiece, The Legend of the Chicken Driver, is the least comedic and the one that’s shot in a most consciously artsy manner; much silent footage of people sitting still in empty rooms. It also felt like the longest of the five.
The driver is a portly chap in a stale marriage. We get a sense of what his life is through repetitions; the route he drives, his wife sleeping with her back to him as he sits wide awake. It’s drudgery and we’re not spared any of the quietly sad tedium, as his wife washes her hair in a basin of hot water from the stove.
His only treat is to stop at an inn on his drives, which is in a beautiful, thickly-forested area surrounded by snow-capped Carpathian mountaintops. Here he can chat to fellow drivers and the affable but put-upon patroness. The bartering that goes on here makes their lives seem medieval, pre-currency. He brings his family’s allowance of eggs, and bags of chicken gizzards, to the patroness in exchange for sugar or butter.
We realise how fond he’s getting of the patroness when he grabs his pillows and starts sleeping on the sofa at home. He bakes cakes and presents them to the patroness with wine. On the occasion when his tyres are stolen and he’s obliged to stay the night at the inn, he seems quite thrilled but nothing happens, however much he lingers around the kitchen like a puppy dog, watching the patroness prepare the next morning’s loaves (“You can take that wine to your room”, she tells him diplomatically but pointedly).
The driver’s downfall comes when he breaks protocol, unsealing his load to feed and water the chickens. He makes up the patroness a basket from the many eggs his birds have laid, and she wants more. Easter is approaching and she could sell so many eggs, it would be a shame to waste them. We, and the patroness, learn of the driver’s arrest through some young drivers chatting in the inn. The last we see of the driver, he’s summoned out of his cell for visiting time; he looks small behind the glass panel. When his expression turns to disappointment and misery, we realise in advance that the visitor will be his wife.
A return to levity comes with the most out-and-out comic piece, The Legend of the Greedy Policeman. Like the third film, it reinforces the idea that people bartered with food as an alternative to currency. In a classroom, the kids are wild until a teacher enters and they belt out the anthem. We see various boys attempting to win the favour of the class beauty Gheorgiana by sneaking her pieces of fruit and cuts of meat.
One boy asks the lad in front of him for help with his homework; his payment will be a cut of the pig that his uncle is bringing from the country that evening. We see a local man wander into an empty butcher’s shop to be told that there might be a bit of pork tomorrow, and we realise why the pig is such a big deal. Trouble starts, however, when the hapless uncle arrives at the family’s tower block with a live pig in the back of his car.
The pig squeals and screeches as it is carried indoors. How can they kill a live pig without the neighbours hearing? They eventually decide to seal off the kitchen and gas the pig to death. It all goes very well until the father gets out his blowtorch, to burn off the pig’s hair…
The Legend of The Air Sellers ends the film on a thoughtful note; it concerns Crina, a teenage girl who longs to go on a costly school trip. Her parents have been saving to buy a car and the money isn’t there. She’s a confident, assertive girl, sufficiently sure of herself to turn away whoever knocks at her door and laughingly knock back boys her own age. Her friend summons her out to a party at the flat of some local students, who have obtained a precious and fetishised item; a VHS video player.
At the party teens are slow dancing and snogging under a mirrorball. In the back room a few cinephiles watch Bonnie & Clyde. We don’t learn its significance until Crina spots Bughi, the man who had knocked on her door earlier. She’s looking to earn money and wants in on his scam, whatever it is. Bughi likes her and they arrange to meet the next day.
The scam is that Bughi knocks on people’s doors, claiming to be from the government and investigating complaints about the uncleanliness of tap water (quite feasible as the town is home to a vast chemical plant). He asks to take a sample in any glass bottle, then exchanges the bottles for cash at a depot. Soon Crina is his girl and being desperate for ready cash, as well as bolder and more forward, she expands the scope of the project somewhat.
Poultry transport and a student scam may not be glamorous stuff, but this story and Chicken Driver do follow the template of film noir in that it’s a woman -who has a magnetoic pull over the man, who can’t stop and wants more- that kickstarts the downfall of the male protagonist. Crina is a proper femme fatale. We can see Bughi grow amorous but she is fixated only upon her prize of the school trip. In policier convention, the pair get found out and are chased to the rooftops by the cops.
“We can jump, it’s not that far.”
“Your think there’s anywhere to run?”
The stories are comical and often farcical- however the humour is often gallows, and used as a defence from/defiance of the dire straits in which people lived. There are certain things taken for granted within the stories; for instance, the way that nobody ever answers their front door without peeping through the spy hole beforehand. You have to laugh when every day is liable to be your last day of freedom; the triumph of this film is that the people don’t let the bastards grind them down.
One aside- a friend tells me that there are only 19 cinemas in the whole of Romania, all of which are devoted to Hollywood action films, and that films like this are made solely for export. Which seems a tremendous pity.