Romanian Film Review: Christmas trees and revolutions – 12:08 East of Bucharest

If you feel you need a break from the seasonal television programming (yes, I do mean the annual Home Alone curse) then a Romanian comedy combining Christmas preparations with historical debate that gets seriously funny might be the best choice.

Corneliu Porumboiu’s feature debut, in original A fost sau n-a fost?, wowed the international film world in 2006 and there is one word to sum up why: perfection. This small but brilliant film is one of the most impressive features of the so-called Romanian New Wave and without a doubt its most entertaining.

On the 22nd of December 1995, sixteen years after the Romanian Revolution of 1989, three representative citizens of the provincial town of Vaslui are debating live on the local TV channel whether their city took an active part in the Revolution, meaning if the town’s protesters rose against Ceauşescu or merely reacted to the events in Bucharest. As the dictator fled Bucharest at exactly 12:08, the burning question is whether the people of Vaslui took the streets before or after this time. Hence the English title.

The only problem is that these three gentlemen are anything but professional debaters and to make it worse, their memory has more holes than Swiss cheese. The presenter is a slimy, arrogant bully and his counterparts are an alcoholic teacher and a depressed pensioner who makes some extra money by dressing up like Santa Claus. Add a run-down studio and an incompetent cameraman to the hysterical host and the suicidal-looking, boozy guests and you have the funniest talk show in the history of television.

Everything fits perfectly to make this a film that gets better with each viewing. The acting is spot-on, the jokes are brilliantly timed, the dialogue is razor-sharp and there is not a single redundant element in the script. This is a very deadpan and very subtle take on history, memory and truth. It is also at times touching, gentle and very human.

English subtitled DVDs can be purchased at Cătureşti libraries and from the online store:

Watch the fine trailer below:

By Ioana Moldovan, Columnist,