The debut feature of Romanian filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu is an often-times quiet, always casually paced examination of life in a small town just east of Bucharest. With a sense of humor that is as dry as it is sharp, 12:08 East of Bucharest is a finely crafted character study that has been compared to the films of Jim Jarmusch, as well as the work of Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki. And while Porumboiu has no doubt studied and been inspired by those filmmakers--which clearly shows in this poignant political satire--his real inspirations come from his native Romania.
Set in contemporary Romania just before the Christmas 2005, the film takes place on December 22, a date that marks the anniversary of the fall of communism. Sixteen years earlier, at 12:08 in the afternoon, with much of Romania watching on television, dictator Nicolae Ceausescu fled for his life in a helicopter after rioting broke out throughout the country. Now, all these years later, small town television anchorman Virgil Jderescu (Teodor Corban) wants to examine if the revolution that led to the fall of communism every actually came to town. Virjil decides to host a special program devoted specifically to the revolution, by interviewing two men who were part of the action. Tiberiu Manescu (Ion Sapdaru) is a teacher with a serious drinking problem, a nagging wife, and more debt that he can handle. Manescu claims that he and three of his friends led their own riot, storming the local city hall when everyone else was too scared to take to the streets. The problem is that no one recalls seeing Manescu and his friends before 12:08, which means they would not technically be part of the revolution. Virjil's other guest is Emanoil Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu), a surly-yet-sweet old man known by everyone in town for his annual dressing up as Santa Claus. As the three discuss the events of December 22, 1989, various people call in to the show to offer their insight as to what happened that fateful day, revealing that no one actually remembers the same thing.
Structured as two films in one, the first part of 12:08 East of Bucharest serves as an introduction to the three main characters. Observational and subtle in its wit, the first portion is a series of well-crafted portraits of the three leads. Porumboiu takes great care in showing exactly who these men are, sixteen years after life in their country was altered greatly. This is merely the set-up for the film's second half, the actual television show, which is presented almost as if it was a play. The comedy is more obvious during the second sequence, but the film is also more engaging, in no small part because now there is the feeling that we actually know these people. We know that Manescu has a drinking problem that affects his memory, but that doesn't stop us from wanting to believe he actually was part of the revolution, or feeling his discomfort as everyone questions his honesty.
12:08 East of Bucharest is a great film, with a witty script that is both culturally specific and universally human at the same time. This is the sort of film that clearly speaks to Romanians on a personal level. But that level is balanced out with a humanity that crosses cultures and borders. You don't even need to be familiar with Romanian history, as long as you understand people.
Porumboiu's script provides his cast with an opportunity to turn in wonderful performances. The chemistry between the three lead actors carry the film during the second part, and keeps in grounded in humanity when it could just as easily have devolved into a broad farce. The film's only real problem is that it will certainly move too slow for some people. This is not a film for those with short attention spans, who love to see quick cuts and fast-paced movies. But if you are a fan of filmmakers like Jarmusch and Kaurismäki, you are certain to enjoy 12:08 East of Bucharest.
12:08 East of Bucharest is presented in anamorphic widescreen. The picture quality is clean and clear, but the transfer is dark, especially during the first half of the film. It is difficult to tell if this is the way the movie was shot, or the result of transfer process itself.
12:08 East of Bucharest is presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital and DTS, with a Romanian language track and optional English and Spanish subtitles. The audio mix is good, with clean, consistent levels.
Writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu provides an audio commentary. Porumboiu speaks English, which is good because reading subtitled audio commentaries can be a drag--but his accent is thick and at times he is difficult to understand. The director talks about the real-life news program that inspired him to make his film, as well as the process itself. A decent commentary overall, but a bit dry and, as I mentioned, a bit hard to understand at times.
Fans of intelligent comedies that don't mind a film that moves at a very casual pace will enjoy 12:08 East of Bucharest. There's no need to buy the film, but it is definitely worth renting.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]