Don’t let the unwieldy title put you off. And don’t let the fact that the film is about the revolutionary events of Dec. 22, 1989 in Romania, when Communism finally ended, fool you. This movie is hilarious. There’s a satirical biting edge to it, and a ton of anger, but it’s all filtered through an absurdist lens, and I roared with laughter watching it. It’s a delight, it really is. Complete craziness. Complete slapstick.
On December 21, 1989, after a week of extraordinary events throughout Romania starting in the town of Timișoara, head honcho and all-around Big Fat Authoritarian Bore Nicolae Ceaușescu came out on the balcony overlooking the main square in Bucharest to make a nice-nice speech about the wonders of the glorious socialist society. It was poorly timed. Ceaușescu was so insulated and arrogant that his critical thinking skills, if they ever existed, had deteriorated. He started his speech, and the crowd gathered there began to heckle him. It’s one of the most memorable moments of the entire crumbling of the Communist bloc. He didn’t know how to handle it. He had zero context in which to put the heckling. Then, in an act of desperation, he told the crowd there that every single person in Romania would be given 100 lei for Christmas. I mean, you can’t make this stuff up. The booing got so loud that Ceaușescu retreated from the balcony in confusion. All of this was televised. Terrified, Ceaușescu and his equally monstrous wife fled by helicopter. And of course we all know their end. Most of the other leaders in the Eastern bloc just cowered away in defeat, and the people just let them go. Why bother punishing such inconsequential men? But not in Romania, which speaks to a lot of different things, but really speaks to how much Ceaușescu was hated, and how repressive and horrible and personality-cult-ish his regime really was. He and his wife were forbidden to leave Romania, arrested, and finally … tied up and executed on Christmas Day, 1989. It was the only country where such a violent reprisal occurred against the fleeing former leaders.
So. That happened.
In Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest, it is 16 years later, and the anniversary of those momentous events in Romania. It takes place in a small town “east of Bucharest”, and a local TV host (Teodor Corban) has on two guests, an alcoholic teacher (Ion Sapdaru), and a cranky old guy (Mircea Andreescu) to discuss the question: Was there a revolution in our small town? Yes, people flooded into the main square AFTER 12:08 on December 22, 1989, when news came from Bucharest that Ceaușescu had fled and the Communist regime had collapsed. But celebrating after the fact does not a revolution make.
The first half of the film shows the morning leading up to the televised talk show. A Christmas tree stands in the town square, blinking its lights, a whimsical sight especially surrounded by Stalinist space and architecture. The town is sleepy, wintry, and the streetlamps all come on at the same time, lighting up the blue dawn. It’s a beautiful opening, and will be echoed in the final shots. TV host has to rustle up some guests for his afternoon talk show. He also has to manage the affair he is having with his needy mistress as well as his marriage to his wife. He’s a busy guy. He used to be a textile engineer. Now he owns a “TV station” (which is really a room with a camera and some mics. And broken tripods. Times are tough.) He makes some calls. He asks his wife where she keeps the book on Mythology, he needs it. (This will come up later, hilariously, when he awkwardly introduces his guests, throwing in random references to Heraclitus and Plato’s cave, in order to sound smart but obviously showing that he has zero understanding of anything he is saying. The teacher and the old guy share awkward stunned looks of embarrassment behind the TV host’s oblivious head. It’s so funny.)
We see both talk-show guests going about their mornings. The alcoholic teacher wakes up hungover. He got in trouble again the night before. He drank at the local pub, and, like always, insulted “the Chinese guy” again. He bought rounds of drinks for the whole bar. He couldn’t pay the bill. He owes money to everyone in town, it looks like. He goes to collect his pay with a line of his fellow teachers, and after he gets his paycheck, one by one each teacher approaches him and says, “You owe me 60,” “You owe me 40”, “Hey, don’t forget you owe me 20.” Defeated, he passes out his entire paycheck to his colleagues.
Meanwhile, we watch poor Piscoci, the old guy, deal with the stupid kids in his hallway who throw firecrackers and scare him out of his mind. He screams at them, he showers abuse on them. He is perpetually annoyed, puttering around his home. It’s Christmastime. He is going to be Santa Claus again. Every year, he is Santa Claus. It’s a town tradition. A neighbor comes over with a hand-me-down Santa suit for him, and he tries it on, grumbling the whole time about how frayed it is, how it’s stained on the cuffs. “In conclusion,” he declares, “your costume is shit.”
Both talk-show guests pay a call separately to the aforementioned “Chinese guy” (George Guoqingyun), who owns a store (he sells firecrackers, of course, and other things.) The Chinese guy has lived in Romania for 10 years. He speaks the language. Everyone shops at his store. He is a member of the community. But he is still (and probably always will be) “the Chinese guy”.
The alcoholic teacher first of all wants to apologize to the Chinese guy for whatever he said the night before. Chinese guy repeats the insults hurled at him in the bar, one being, “You’re yellow inside.” The teacher says, “I said that?” Chinese guy says, “I don’t even know what that means, but you said it.” The teacher apologizes. He shouldn’t drink, he knows he shouldn’t drink. The Chinese guy agrees with him, no, you shouldn’t drink, and let me guess, you also need some money, right? The Chinese guy gives the teacher some money. Teacher promises to pay him back. It’s a great little scene, one that will pay off later when the Chinese guy calls into the show. (He calls in, introduces himself, and the TV host looks blank for a second, and then says, “Oh. The Chinese guy?” “Yes.”)
Later, Piscoci stands in the Chinese guy’s shop, wearing a billowing Santa suit that makes him look like a Cardinal, and demands of the Chinese guy, “Why do you sell firecrackers?” Chinese guy replies, “Supply and demand.” So fine, Piscoci buys some firecrackers, too. He’ll show those rotten kids what’s what. Then we get to see Piscoci sneaking into his own apartment building, dressed as Santa, and ambushing the hoodlums with firecrackers, before running away, cackling in glee. The man is out of his mind. It’s hysterical.
TV host, harassed and over-it, drives around and picks up his two guests, and they all drive to the studio in a tiny rickety car. They argue about stupid things. They talk about Christmas trees and the like. Once in the studio, a local band from the grade school is playing, all of them crowded into the small space with a pimply kid filming them. They are playing what sounds like salsa music with great gusto, and one of the tiny kids is singing, and the chorus includes the lyric, “LATINO MUSIC IS MY LIFE.” I was dying laughing. What?? The poor TV host interrupts them, exasperated. “Today is the anniversary of our revolution. What is this shit? Latino music is my life? How about some Romanian music, for GOD’S SAKE?” They immediately begin to play a mournful Romanian Christmas carol.
The second half of 12:08 East of Bucharest is the TV show itself, with TV host flanked by his two uncomfortable guests. The camera-work becomes hilarious and amateur, with random inaccurate zooming-in, faces filling the screen but with their eyeballs or chins cut off, and slow awkward panning-outs to show all three guests. (During a commercial break, TV host snaps at the pimply camera”man”, “Where did you learn to film like that??”) Alcoholic teacher sneaks sips from his flask on-air. Old Santa Claus guy makes paper boats, the crumpling of the paper distracting everyone. TV host tries to keep control. He fails. He asks each guest to describe what they were doing on the day of December 22, 1989.
Alcoholic teacher says that he and three of his colleagues gathered in the town square that morning and started a protest, throwing rocks, and getting into an altercation with a member of the Securitate. People start calling in, disputing his story. One lady: “You were drunk in a bar the whole time. I saw you there.” The security guard calls in and says he will sue everyone if they mention his name on the air again. One person calls in, furious, and shouts, “Things were better under Ceaușescu! Shit!” “Please,” TV host says, “watch your language.” TV host does not believe the teacher’s claim that he started a protest BEFORE 12:08, and so the entire show then becomes not a tribute to events in 1989, but an interrogation of the teacher as to the veracity of his story. It goes on forever. It starts to feel like the teacher is about to be arrested for lying. “There is no proof that you were there,” TV host says gently to teacher. “Are you calling me a liar??” drunk teacher cries. It’s a debacle.
It seems that if the teacher can somehow prove that he and his four drunk friends were actually in the town square BEFORE 12:08 p.m., then maybe some dignity can be salvaged for their little town. But everybody says the guy is lying. Everyone knows he’s a drunk. The town square was totally empty until news came from Bucharest that the leaders had fled. Then everyone came out. End of story. The teacher will go to his grave insisting he was there. He threw rocks. He fought with a security guard. Nobody can tell him he wasn’t there.
Piscoci tries to interject (and, of course, the camera is never ready for it – when Piscoci starts to speak, we see the camera hurriedly pan out to capture all three men). Nobody will let Piscoci speak. When he finally does tell the story of what he did on the morning of December 22, 1989, it’s a touching personal tale about his jealousy of his wife and how he was trying to buy her flowers, and what a horrible husband he was. He is interrupted constantly by the TV host with mundane questions, causing Piscoci to say, “Am I boring you?” “No, no, please. Continue.” But Piscoci’s story is really the whole point, as you will see. It’s beautifully written, and beautifully performed. Piscoci describes hearing the speech where 100 lei was promised every Romanian, and he and his wife start planning a vacation and they were very excited about it. The subversive commentary in that one detail is enough to take your breath away if you think about it.
The actors are all amazing. Much of the film takes place with all three of them in the same frame. The reaction shots are priceless. Everyone is so in the moment, so in character. It looks improvised. With the backdrop of a giant photo of the Stalinist-designed town square in question, it looks totally surreal. And it is surreal. Ceaușescu is ancient history now, like Plato’s cave, like Heraclitus. 1989 may as well be in the B.C. era for all that current-day people give a shit or even remember. Did that even happen? Did our country spend 50 years in a nightmare? What the hell happened back then? And why does it matter if one drunk guy said he threw rocks before 12:08 p.m.? What will that prove? What is the point?
Any hope that we might actually learn something about the Romanian revolution is completely lost in the chaos of that TV broadcast (and, apparently, the film was based on an actual local TV program that director Porumboiu saw once). Nobody cares about the Revolution. Revolution? Timișoara was where it was at. THOSE people were part of a Revolution. And Bucharest too. But here? We were getting drunk and trying on Santa Claus outfits. And we’re still doing that now.
A film spiked with hilarity, rudeness, and off-the-cuff mayhem, 12:08 East of Bucharest is strangely and sneakily profound.