Corneliu Porumboiu: 12:08 East of Bucharest (A fost sau n-a fost?, 2006)
&
Alexandru Solomon: The Great Communist Bank Robbery (Marele jaf communist, 2005)

reviewed by Andrei Cretulescu© 2006

Moving Pictures

A dear friend told me the other day that as far as film criticism is concerned (a subject she has been proficient in for quite sometime now), a good professional has to be really distant when it comes to expressing a verdict. He (or she) must analyze the film without interference, without listening to personal desires or preferences. He (or she) must analyze the whole from strictly a cinematic point of view, without paying too much attention to the directors' previous works, be they valuable or not. And he (or she) must take a reasonable distance from the subject, no matter how close he (or she) feels to it. The verdict for a film must ignore all personal feelings.

Very well. But for me, cinema is a strictly personal business... This may mean that I am a film critic only by chance or as a logical outcome of an already famous passion. Whatever the case may be, I have to agree with her at least partially, even though I find it difficult to have reservations before watching a film and I don't think it is fair to curb your enthusiasm only because it would betray—go figure!—a clear intimacy with the subject. And (because I am ready to close this slow but hopefully relevant introduction), what are you then supposed to do with all those films that clearly ask you to process them through your soul before proceeding with the dissection? What are you supposed to do with all those films that you feel strongly connected to but still have to analyze? You have to admit that I'm trying to find a way between pomposity and sentimentality—and I'm not sure it's working…

Romanian cinema... the new Romanian cinema has offered me two recent examples that belong to this last group, two examples that are already considered by many to be genuine classics, two films completely different in terms of theme, style, or tone, but terribly similar at a certain level, a level of remembrance combined with an extremely poignant social approach.

12:08 East of Bucharest (A fost sau n-a fost?), whose title literally means Was It or Was It Not?, is a premiere from many points of view. It is Corneliu Porumboiu's first feature-length film. His talent was already confirmed with his shorts, A Trip to the City (Calatorie la oras, 2003) and Liviu's Dream (Visul lui Liviu, 2005). It is the first Romanian film to have won the Camera d'Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It is the first Romanian film that dares to discuss the 1989 revolution—a subject both delicate and bitter—without fervor, but at the same time without any compromises and with overwhelming humor... Even more overwhelming if we take into account the fact that, 17 years later, the Shakespeare-sounding question of the Romanian title has entirely lost its relevance. But let's not get ahead of ourselves... The premise appears to be utterly trite: on Christmas Eve, in a small Moldavian town (located to the north of Bucharest and not to the east, but what can you do?), a local talk-show host invites to his studio two esteemed citizens with whom he intends to debate on live television the question of whether there had been a revolution in their town or not. The director (whose camera indicates a confidence usually typical of veterans) shows an “unthinkable” impudence and divides the film into only two acts, nothing more and nothing less. Act One: the preparation for the show and of the guests is followed by the trip to the TV studio, which is studded with little vignettes of biting humor. Act Two: the show itself, shot almost in real time in a single set, with only three characters and a naughty camera. Two acts that serenely rewrite almost the entire history of Romanian cinema while discussing the subject (which turns from delicate to ludicrous) with an ironic and percussive detachment (which, however, is never conceited). Two acts that make us think of all those Romanians, addicted for years to their TV screens and to discussing talk-shows pointlessly, which they greedily devour every night in order to be able to discuss them on the next day while riding busses, going to the office, or working the field. Or doing nothing. The three main characters, as juicy and as politically incorrect as possible (the history teacher is the town's drunk), validate the director's flair, which hits a still sleepy nation where it hurts the most—“we made our revolution the best we could!” And, going back to my (all too long) introduction, Westerners perceived Porumboiu's movie as being a comedy, while the natives (the intelligent ones, at least) bit their lips not to cry. I don't mean that the foreigners' verdict is stupid—no way!... As far as comedies go, 12:08 East of Bucharest is a little precious jewel, but in the genre of bitter satire, it slowly leans towards a masterpiece status.

The Great Communist Bank Robbery (Marele jaf comunist, 2005)—the title has at least two different meanings—is, at the same time, a documentary, an inquiry, and a memoir; three films rolled into one that can be easily defined by means of a single epithet—staggering. And I don't even know what staggers more... The fact that a handful of young people robbed the National Bank of Romania in cold blood in 1959? The fact that the youngsters proved to be not your average gangsters but Jewish intellectuals thrown out of the Communist Party? The fact that after being caught they where forced to “act out” their own parts in a propaganda movie—titled The Reconstitution (Reconstituirea, 1960 !!!) directed by Virgil Calotescu, a “cineaste” who would put even poor Ed Wood to shame? The fact that the only survivors of this unique case in the history of the Romanian criminology are either friends of the “guilty parties” who emigrated or Securitate tormentors who freely tortured all suspects they could lay their hands on? Or, finally, the fact that one of those butchers shamelessly talks in front of the camera about his bravado? This documentary is made by the young Alecu Solomon, also a gifted director of photography who has to his credit the excellent Exam (Examen, 2003) , directed by Titus Muntean, a film bizarrely ignored whenever the new wave of Romanian films is mentioned. The Great Communist Bank Robbery is an example of essential national cinema, both in terms of subject matter and history, and, again, it can be perceived, from the outside, as a morbid curiosity—but it hurts like hell, especially if (and only) you had experienced at least a fraction of the times it depicts. In any event, it is mandatory viewing... And additional living proof that Romanian cinema deserves more opportunities than it is given … funnily enough, not by indifferent strangers but by our own high officials who seem to be allergic to the well deserved and more than welcome success of others, especially young directors. As a rule, they tend to ignore precisely these break-through films, which, I hope, will never get to be enclosed in the naively utopian category of “Remembering the Future” and will get their well deserved place in the new (and promising) history of Romanian cinema.

Here's looking at you, kids.

Andrei Cretulescu, Re:Publik , Bucharest


The Great Communist Bank Robbery, France, Germany, UK, and Romania, 2005
Television, Color and Black-and-White (archival), 75 minutes
Director: Alexandru Solomon
Scriptwriter: Alexandru Solomon
Cinematography: Constantin Chelba
Production: Les Films d'Ici and France 2/FR2 (France), Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen/ZDF (Germany), British Broadcasting Corporation (UK), and Libra Film (Romania)

12:08 East of Bucharest, Romania, 2006
Color, 89 minutes
Director: Corneliu Porumboiu
Scriptwriter: Corneliu Porumboiu
Cinematography: George Dascalescu, Marius Panduru
Original Music: Rotaria
Cast: Mircea Andreescu, Teodor Corban, Ion Sapdaru, Mirela Cioaba, Cristina Ciofu, Constantin Dita, Luminita Gheorghiu, Lucian Iftime
Production: 42 Km Film

Corneliu Porumboiu: 12:08 East of Bucharest (A fost sau n-a fost?, 2006)
&
Alexandru Solomon: The Great Communist Bank Robbery (Marele jaf communist, 2005)

reviewed by Andrei Cretulescu© 2006

Updated: 11 May 07