Tales from the Golden Age (2010) dir. Cristian Mungiu, Hanno Höfer, Razvan Marculescu, Constantin Popescu, Ioana Uricaru
Starring: Alexandru Potocean, Avram Birau, Diana Cavallioti, Radu Iacoban, Tania Popa, Vlad Ivanov
By Alan Bacchus
I don’t know much about Romanian history or politics, but I do know that former Communist era dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu was a brutal tyrant dictator, the Stalin of Romania if you will. In Tales from the Golden Age, star director Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days), has managed to find humour in this terrifying regime with this sublime and delightful comedy about five urban legends of the era – absurdist tales told with the now familiar neo-realist cinematic style of this new generation of Romanian filmmakers.
The opening film Legend of the Official Visit is the best, a charming story of a small village expecting an official Party visit. As the townsfolk scramble to complete their preparations, which includes finding pigeons, corraling cows, and possibly hanging fruit from the bare trees, shattering news of the concellation of the trip results in a riotously funny alternative.
The next entry Legend ofthe Party Photographer equals if not bests The Official Visit’s sharp absurdist wit – a story about Ceauşescu’s publicity staff who madly rush to doctor a photo of the dictator meeting with the French President before the paper hits the streets. Mungiu transforms the stone cold fear of Ceauşescu’s wrath into hilarious comedy of errors and irony and one great gag to payoff the episode.
Only the fourth segment, Legend of the Greedy Policeman, hits the same level of brilliance of the first two, showing the absurd lengths to which a regular working class joe will go to slaughter a pig under cover of his fellow residents of his housing complex. Episodes three and five, Legend of the Chicken Driver and Legend of the Air Sellers are more morose and melancholic, telling stories of hopeless romances which never consummate.
Tales miraculously manages the subvert the difficulties with most omnibus films by maintaining a consistent tone and style throughout each of the segments, each of the tales finding humour in the desperation, poverty, and general fear of the authority which blanketed most of the working population of the country during this time. With Mungiu as the sole writer it means there’s a consistent voice, which makes the whole greater than the sums of its parts.
Unfortunately the film falls short of greatness, which is annoying because it could have been corrected with one easy fix. Everyone knows in these types of compilations, whether it’s a program of short films, or something like Paris Je t’aime, the best one always goes last. It’s headscratcher of a decision to anchor the film with the oblique Legend of the Air Sellers, the slowest and tonally subdued entry of the bunch. Leaving the audience with the hilariously absurd and poignant final shot of the townsfolk of Vizuresti swinging on the roundabout endlessly in the Official Visit would have left a much better taste in the audience’s mouth than the unresounding final shot in Air Sellers. Regardless, Tales is the most delightful comedy of the year and another grand achievement for Romanian cinema.
Also, it’s important to note that six episodes were actually filmed and presented in Cannes, but not all at the same time. For each Cannes screening five shorts were screened with one alternating episode missing. In this theatrical version currently playing in Toronto, and soon in select cities around the country, it’s the five short version minus the Legend of the Zealous Activist, an episode I can’t comment upon, but assume will eventually show up on the DVD.