Sixteen years after the revolution that freed Romania from Communist rule, there is still debate about whether it delivered all that was promised. The buoyant little comedy “12:08 East of Bucharest” puts its finger on the problem in the best tradition of East European humor, savvy but concrete, gentle but sharp as a knife. Corneliu Porumboiu’s first feature adds another voice to the growing ranks of interesting new Romanian helmers in this low-key audience pleaser for small markets.
Film’s power lies in its simplicity. On Dec. 22, anniversary of the revolution, three characters are introduced as they go about their banal morning rituals. Manescu (Teo Corban), a history teacher, wakes up on the couch with a ferocious hangover and no memory of having spent the night in a bar where he insulted a Chinese shopkeeper. Old-timer Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu) lives alone and jumps at the chance to play Santa Claus for a neighbor’s kids, while TV host Jderescu (Ion Sapdaru) pompously searches for guests to appear on his show. The topic is to be the revolution.
Of course the only guests he can scare up are Manescu and Piscoci. About half the film’s running time is given over to their hilarious live TV “discussion” of the burning question: Did the revolution happen in their town, or not?
Since dictator Ceausescu abandoned the presidential palace at 12:08 on Dec. 22, 1989, the answer hinges on whether any protesters rallied in town square before that. Although Manescu insists he was there, the TV viewers who call in dispute this, leading to a hilarious on-camera squabble that cleverly shows how memories change over time.
In the opening scenes, Porumboiu’s modest fixed camera explores the post-Communist world with a wry sense of humor, which reaches its comic peak in the extended sequence in the TV studio. Cast of deadpan professionals doesn’t miss beat. A brief coda closes the film with gentle poetry.
One weak plot point for foreign auds is that it’s a reach to recognize the film is set not in Bucharest or Timisoara, but in some unnamed small town. For most viewers, the blow-up of the town square that serves as a back-drop to the tacky TV show could be anyplace in Eastern Europe. A line of explanatory dialogue would solve the problem.