Thursday, 15 March 2012
TALES FROM THE GOLDEN AGE - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Producing and writing this 141-minute omnibus feature film, Cristian Mungiu (who gave us the stunning "4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days") delivers this astonishingly funny and profoundly moving work about life in Romania under Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Mungiu directed two of the six shorts, but there is a consistency in both tone and mise-en-scene throughout.
Tales from the Golden Age (2009)
dir. Cristian Mungiu, Ioana Maria Uricaru, Hanno Höfer, Razvan Marculescu, Constantin Popescu Starring: Alexandru Potocean, Teo Corban, Emanuel Pirvu, Avram Biru, Paul Dunca, Viorel Comnici, Ion Sapdaru, Virginia Mirea, Gabriel Spahiu, Diana Cavallioti, Radu Iacoban, Vlad Ivanov, Tania Popa, Liliana Mocanu
By Greg Klymkiw
In Eastern Europe, Communism was a fairy tale concocted by a coterie of well-meaning eggheads. The result was substituting one Totalitarian regime with another. In Romania, dictator Nicolae Ceausescu wielded the Red Sword to ensure total subservience to his Party of One. Laughably, he quite seriously described the 1980's pinnacle of his bone-headed, egotistical, evil, incompetent and vicious reign of terror as "The Golden Age".
It was at this time the brilliant Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) would have just been entering his teenage years - experiencing the "joys" of Communism, the horror of a dictatorship and the idiocy of a country trying to keep an ideological falsehood alive in the face of realities it was unwilling to officially acknowledge. About the only thing Ceausescu was able to do with genuine success, was keep the heritage and language of Romania alive and sacred in his subjects' hearts when so many other Communist countries fell prey to the cultural genocide of Russification.
Mungiu would also have lived through the fall of Communism and birth of Capitalism which, frankly, in most Eastern European countries - including Romania - was the aforementioned substitution of one Totalitarian regime for another. (The fall of Communism ultimately gave rise to the Oligarchy of gangsterism.)
In 2009, on the heels of his powerful drama about abortion, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the acclaimed 2007 art house hit, Mungiu embarked upon a truly extraordinary departure - a darkly humourous omnibus film that paid homage to six urban myths from the "Golden Age" of Ceausescu's rule. Producing and writing the entire feature and directing two of the six short films that comprise the 141-minute running time, Mungiu's Tales from the Golden Age is an astonishingly funny and profoundly moving work.
Often, omnibus films will have a wrap-around story to guide us through the proceedings. Mungiu's brilliant screenplay doesn't bother with this conceit. Even though the six films were directed by five different filmmakers, Mungiu deftly managed to deliver a motion picture that's blessed with a consistency of tone. When screened in its entirety - the best way to see it, from beginning to end - the movie is endowed with an overall narrative logic (or, one might even argue, a full narrative arc). The opening and closing credits of the feature proper are also, if anything, a perfect framing device - yet another reason to watch all 141 minutes in one sitting. (You can use subsequent viewings to sample your favourites. I will allow you this indulgence.)
I am also willing to declare that Tales from the Golden Age might well prove to have as much, if not more lasting value, than 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.
The first tale, "The Legend of the Official Visit", takes place on the day before an official Party motorcade MIGHT come through a tiny rural town. In case they ARE visited, both the Mayor and party officials anxiously strip away the decrepit state people live in and present an utterly fake portrait of bucolic Communist bliss.
The Mayor's hard-working assistant populates the village with cows (to suggest bounty), fills holes in the roads and adorns all buildings, homes and fences with flags, ribbons and portraits of Ceausescu. The townspeople madly sweep, paint and clean - removing the filth and squalor they normally live in.
The biggest spanner in the works, though, is that the Party has ordered the town to have flocks of pigeons on standby to be tossed in the air in case the motorcade comes through. Alas, the only person in the village with pigeons has sold them to his brother who, in turn, has eaten all of them.
Complications ensue ever-further when an official Party inspector arrives, and presents a list of additional ludicrous demands including the undoing of many things which have already been done according to Party specifications. And I reiterate, all this for a motorcade which may or may not come through the town.
It's a slight tale, but it's laugh-out-loud, knee-slappingly hilarious from beginning to end. The surprise twist is also predictable, but seems almost intentionally so since everything is stacked for us to not only expect it, but welcome it when it finally comes.
The second tale takes the idiocy of creating lies to prop up the myth of Ceausescu's Golden Age to even more ridiculous extremes in "The Legend of the Party Photographer" wherein a series of Party-inspired bungling occurs when two official newspaper photographers are ordered to alter a front page photograph to make Ceausescu look taller than a foreign dignitary and place a hat on the dictator's head so as to not make it seem as if he is being deferential to the capitalist ideals of the foreigner.
Too many fingers in the pie conspire against successfully pulling this off.
The third tale, "The Legend of the Zealous Activist" doesn't quite reach the dizzying heights of hilarity achieved by the first two films, but in some ways, this story about a Party bureaucrat trying to bring literacy to an isolated village is still quite pleasant, offers an important thematic bridge to the next series of films and frankly, provides a much-welcome respite from the happy physical discomfort caused by laughing long and hard through the first half hour or so.
In fact, the third tale also gives you a chance to prepare for the gut-busting fourth tale. I can assure you, "The Legend of the Greedy Policeman" - which involves the gassing of a live pig in a tiny kitchen and the subsequent torching of hair from the pig amidst fumes of propane, will have you screaming so loud with laughter that you'll be begging Ceausescu's Ghost to stop the almost physical torture his "Golden Age" of near-moronic hilarity is inflicting upon you. I also advise a bathroom pit-stop BEFORE the movie begins and to avoid drinking or eating anything during your screening.
Curiously, none of the film's five directors are specifically identified with any of the films. They're credited as a collective, even though various press notes and interviews have revealed that Mungiu directed two of the six shorts and that the four other directors each helmed their own short. As previously mentioned, the entire feature has a consistent tone and mise-en-scene which can easily be attributed to Mungiu as the screenwriter and lead producer. That said, if I were a betting man, I'd put everything I own upon my educated guess that the last two shorts of the omnibus are pure, unadulterated Mungiu.
The fifth tale, "The Legend of the Air Sellers" is a funny and romantic tale of a young man and a teenage girl embarking on a hilarious scam to deprive apartment dwellers of their glass bottles in order to turn them in at an exchange depot for cash. Here, the insanity of the bureaucracy and how it inspires/forces people to become thieves and liars in order to survive eventually spirals into a deeply affecting melancholia.
This leaves us with the sixth and last tale, "The Legend of the Chicken Driver". While not without humour, this bears the almost unmistakeable stamp of the Mungiu of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Whereas the bleak, poverty-and-corruption ridden settings have previously been tempered with ludicrous activities delivered with an almost Buster Keaton-like straightness, this story about a truck driver smitten with a proprietress of a roadside cafe and the lengths he goes to in order to win her favour veers into territory that is genuinely tragic.
After all the laughs - many of which have inspired tears - we're left with a sombre, almost film-noir-like tale of a man duped by his own stupidity to dare fall for a femme fatale in this world of pain and corruption.
And here, we are left with tears of sadness.
Though set in Romania, many of my laughs came from the benefit of a virtually identical experience coming from a Ukrainian heritage and hearing similar tales from relatives of days gone by, witnessing Old World traditions in the multicultural fabric of Canadian life and yes, from several trips to Eastern Europe - most notably, contemporary Ukraine. Watching Mungiu's period piece set in a Communist dictatorship in Romania seemed almost identical to my experiences in "modern" Ukraine.
Tales from the Golden Age looks back with somewhat rose-tinted glasses, but as a whole experience, Mungiu lifts the veil and presents what was truly despicable about Eastern European Communist dictatorships. Most importantly, for me, it proved that things have NOT changed - one dictatorship is always replaced with another. Even more tellingly, the film offers the added benefit of presenting a world that reminds us that we too, in our bubble of capitalism and democracy, live in a fairy tale.
If only they all had happy endings.
"Tales from the Golden Age" is available on the very fine label, the Kimstim Collection and is distributed exclusively in the United States by Zeitgeist Films. It's an exquisite transfer of a brilliantly photographed film. The movie is available in Canada via Mongrel Media. Both editions can be purchased at Amazon.ca and the Kimstim/Zeitgeist release can be purchased at Amazon.com