Picaresque, absurdist stories of life during the hardscrabble years of Romanian communism form the portmanteau film “Tales From the Golden Age,” conceived, produced and scripted by red-hot helmer Cristian Mungiu. The title was originally announced as an umbrella heading for Mungiu’s own series, starting with Palme d’Or winner “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” but he’s opened up the idea and offered his stellar name, paired with four tyro directors whose contributions vary from comic tales to knowing reveries. IFC grabbed the title a week before the Cannes preem, signaling a healthy international life ahead.
The question is, which version will people catch? Cannes screenings consisted of five of the six episodes, with repetition screenings switching around not just the order, but also which of the six were included. The producers said they want to re-create the confusion of life under dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, when you never knew what you were getting; they’ve also refused to attribute the individual episodes, though tonally and stylistically, both “The Legend of the Air Sellers” and “The Legend of the Chicken Driver” are unlikely to have been directed by anyone other than Mungiu himself.
The gimmick may pay off, since devotees of new Romanian cinema — the pic’s hardcore audience — are likely to pay twice to see it all. IFC hasn’t decided how they’ll handle the permutations, though it’s likely never to exceed a five-episode limit. In addition, the lightness of tone evident in at least three episodes makes it considerably more attractive to average moviegoers in Romania’s few cinemas.
The two prints reviewed both kick off with “The Legend of the Official Visit,” a lighthearted story set the day before a village receives a Communist Party visit. That the officials are unlikely to actually stop makes no difference to the apparatchiks who come to ensure everything is correct. Inspector Sandu (Emanuel Pirvu) arrives wanting to change everything, but good food and drink loosens him up and leads to a delightfully comic finale.
“The Legend of the Party Photographers” is set within the bowels of Bucharest party headquarters, where a photographer (Avram Birau) and his nephew/assistant (Paul Dunca) are put through their paces in a rush to doctor photos of Ceausescu when the great leader appears too small or incorrectly attired. The episode is quick and funny, with a firm sense of a short’s parameters.
Equally amusing is “The Tale of the Greedy Policeman,” in which Alexa (a marvelous Ion Sapdaru) and wife (Virginia Mirea, also excellent) have to figure out how to kill a pig without waking the neighbors. Passing similarities to “A Private Function” only increase the chuckles.
Thesp Vlad Ivanov (“4 Months”) again reveals the extent of his talent in “The Legend of the Chicken Driver,” playing a simple truck driver who unquestioningly obeys the rules, until an attractive restaurant owner (Tania Popa) suggests they help themselves to some fresh eggs. The stylistic similarities between this and “The Legend of the Air Sellers” leave little doubt as to authorship: The quietly observational camera accompanying characters as they move through space, tightly controlled handheld lensing and the description of rooms in single shots all suggest Mungiu.
Both episodes also maintain a tone of uncertainty, even melancholy, setting them apart from the funny situations that characterize the others. In “Air Sellers,” Crina (the radiant Diana Cavalioti, a real find) is a student in need of money who meets Bughi (Radu Iacoban), a small-time scam artist conning apartment dwellers out of glass bottles and selling them on the market.
“The Legend of the Zealous Activist,” about a young party worker (Calin Chirila) too eager to follow official party dictates, is the weakest of the six. Collectively, the episodes act as a knowing, even celebratory look at the average Romanian’s resourcefulness during the worst days of the Ceausescu regime; though many insider jokes will be lost on non-locals, everyone can appreciate the humor, and while cast as urban legends, they all have the ring of truth.
Though Mungiu’s presumed two shorts have the most individual feel, the other helmers — Ioana Uricaru, Hanno Hoefer, Razvan Marculescu and Constantin Popescu, all feature novices — show a plethora of styles within the so-called “Romanian New Wave.” Their youth and talent should allay fears that the country’s film explosion is incapable of hitting a broad range of notes, and offer hope that more mainstream, home-grown offerings can spur cinema building within Romania. Running time listed above is a hypothetical one, taking into account all six episodes and credits.