Laughing through the pain
Director Cristian Mungiu takes a satirical look at Ceausescu-era Romania
Last Updated: Thursday, October 14, 2010 | 10:44 AM ET
By Martin Morrow, CBC News
This article was originally published during the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival.
In 2007, Cristian Mungiu won the Palme d'Or at Cannes for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, an icy splash of realism about procuring an illegal abortion in 1980s Communist Romania. Now the gifted filmmaker is back with a followup, set in that same bleak decade — only this time, it's a comedy.
'These tales reflect the humour we needed in order to survive the period.'— Romanian director Cristian Mungiu
Tales from the Golden Age is an omnibus of five stories about Romanian life during the latter days of the bizarre Ceausescu regime. It was an era of widespread food and fuel shortages, draconian laws and general misery — yet the propaganda under Romania's megalomaniac president, Nicolae Ceausescu, insisted it was the country's "golden age."
Enjoying that irony, the film spins a string of outlandish yarns that encapsulate the absurdity of the times. They include tales of exploding pigs, runaway carousels and a daring Bonnie and Clyde-type couple who steal precious empty bottles instead of robbing banks.
"These tales reflect the humour we needed in order to survive the period," says the boyish Mungiu, 41, who was a student and budding journalist at the time. Sitting down for an interview in a Toronto hotel room, he recalls his own brushes with Communist lunacy. Like how he used to write for a monthly in his hometown of Iasi, which was often touted by the government as an example of Romania's free press. However, the paper was "free" only in the sense that it wasn't obliged to write about Ceausescu constantly. "We didn't have to have his picture on every issue," he says, "which was not the case with all the other publications. Everybody else had to write about him."A scene from Tales from the Golden Age. (Mongrel Media)
In Tales from the Golden Age, Mungiu is part journalist, part folklorist, collecting anecdotes that have taken on the status of legends, but also verifying their basis in truth. "These legends are for sure real things that happened," he says. "And I have confirmation for at least two of these stories." One is a slice of Orwellian slapstick, in which a pair of photographers for Scinteia, the official Communist party paper, scramble madly under deadline to retouch an unflattering photo of Ceausescu — with disastrous results.
Then there's the story of the policeman who receives a live pig for his family's Christmas dinner and, in an effort to hide it from his hungry neighbours, tries to kill it surreptitiously with gas. Mungiu says he actually read that incident in a police gazette of the time. "In the middle of a very depressing press, with only propagandistic articles, that magazine was like [a tabloid], with real cases," he recalls. "So the story of the pig came from there, and probably it was true, because it ends with the authorities coming in and arresting people."
Mungiu wrote the screenplays for all the tales, directed one and farmed out the others to four Romanian filmmakers: Hanno Hofer, Razvan Marculescu, Constantin Popescu and Ioana Maria Uricaru. In a collective spirit, Mungiu won't reveal who directed which episode. Suffice to say, each section has a different texture. One is like an absurd Gogolian folk tale; another has the expansiveness of a Chekhov story. The final account of the bottle bandits, meanwhile, is shot with an artful coarseness that's a little Italian neo-realist, a little French new wave. (Judging from 4 Weeks…, I suspect Mungiu directed that one.)
One story that didn't make it into the film sounds like a real-life Romanian version of Weekend at Bernie's, involving an attempt to pass off a corpse on a train as an incapacitated drunk. The reason for the ruse, says Mungiu, was that the government wouldn't allow the transportation of dead people to their hometowns.
Mungiu says he continues to gather stories like that. "Now in Romania, I'm organizing a national competition of the best legends of the '80s."
He also hopes Tales from the Golden Age will appeal as much to his fellow Romanians as to international cinephiles. "We Romanian filmmakers have this reputation that we do very arty, complicated films that do well in Cannes but are difficult to digest for the local audience," he says. "After [4 Months…], which was very dark, I wanted to produce a film that would welcome people to the theatres. Something that speaks about the period, but also makes people laugh."
Tales from the Golden Age opens in Toronto on Oct. 14, in Calgary on Oct. 15 and in Vancouver on Oct. 22.
Martin Morrow writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.