Tales from the Golden Age

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/28/11 00:18:30

"Laugh, or else you'll cry."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

When Cristian Mungiu last took audiences to Romania before the fall of communism, he gave us the tense, oppressive "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days"; it seldom referenced the Ceausescu regime directly, but still managed to perfectly evoke what a terrifying prospect having the government poking into every aspect of one's life must be. A single challenge can, perhaps, be met with pluck and determination, but "Tales from the Golden Age" suggests, in witty fashion, that getting through it on a daily basis requires a healthy sense of the absurd, and retells (with the help of several other Romanian directors) six urban legends that, back in the day, were only whispered.

In the first, "The Legend of the Official Visit", a small village spends days preparing for a motorcade with an important Party official to pass through town, changing plans based on what they hear from previous stops and the whims of a pair of advance scouts. It's a fun little character piece, with Alexandru Potocean making a fine straight man as Gheorghita, the mayor's aide tasked with actually pulling everything together. By the time this section reaches its conclusion, it has jumped onto a metaphor that doesn't quite match its story, but still delivers a fitting punchline before the screen of text explaining how legend has the story ending.

That's somewhat the pattern with the next segment, "The Legend of the Party Photographer", in which the nervous title character (Avram Birau) and his assistant (Paul Dunca) are charged with snapping a picture of Ceausescu meeting with a French diplomat - and perhaps more importantly, retouching it so that it sends the proper message to the workers who will be seeing it in the paper. Of all the segments, it's perhaps the easiest for outsiders to digest - it attacks an easy target, and does so like a well-oiled machine, with an especially good contrast between its two leads, who (along with Mungiu) don't just make them stock characters, but inject a serious darkness into their contrasting personalities. I suspect the reasons for that contrast are what help "Party Photographer" resonate later; of all the stories, it probably maps to other times and places best.

The manipulation of truth is also a factor in "The Legend of the Zealous Activist", where title character Curelea (Calin Chirila) makes his way to the village with the lowest literacy percentage in the country to raise those numbers, only to face resistance, especially from shepherd Jon (Romeo Tudor). It gets a fair amount of mileage from how clueless the well-meaning city apparatchik is, especially in contrast to the peasant's common sense, although it could perhaps make its central point (that the party's attempts to get a single metric up is hurting the village as a whole) a little more directly; the end almost feels like the filmmakers gave up and just decided to move on to the next bit.

That would be "The Legend of the Greedy Policeman", in which Sergeant Alexa (Ion Sapdaru) uses his connections to get his family a whole hog for his holiday celebration while the rest of the city is often going hungry (kids at his son's school compete for the pretty girl's favor with sandwiches). The trouble is, the pig is still alive when left at his apartment, and nobody in the family knows how to get from there to pork roast. It's a fun slow burn and big finish, with the most broadly funny punchline of the group.

Next comes "The Legend of the Air Sellers". It introduces us to Crina (Diana Cavallioti), a high-school student trying to afford a class trip despite her parents already being overextended. A man who claims to be a water department rep comes to her door, but when she sees him at a party later, she figures out that this Bughi (Radu Iacoban) is a con artist - and that she may be a better one. Compared to the segments that come before it, this is something closer to a full story; where the others often feel like somewhat drawn-out jokes, the scheme Crina and Bughi develop is actually interesting on its own, with the urban legend source feeling more an interesting footnote than the whole reason for the piece. That's in large part thanks to Cavallioti and Iacoban, who quickly develop a nice bit of chemistry and grab the audience's interest, despite their mercenary nature.

The last segment, "The Legend of the Chicken Driver", also feels like a complete story. The chicken driver, Grigore (Vlad Ivanov), is a man of late middle age who frequently stops at a roadhouse run by Camelia (Tania Popa) while hauling valuable fowl and eggs back and forth across the country. They accidentally hit upon a scheme when Grigore's truck breaks down and they realize that the eggs the chickens lay during the trip aren't accounted for on the manifest, and might fetch money on the black market. In many ways, this may be the best of the segments, or at least the one that could best be expanded to a full feature; Ivanov's Grigore is fleshed out enough to seem like a real protagonist who helps define all those around him, and it's enough of a joy to watch the long-standing friendship between Grigore and Camelia maybe blossom into something more that it wouldn't be bad to see it elaborated on a bit more.

Interestingly, the last two segments were cut when shown in France to get it down to a more manageable size (the movie runs roughly two and a half hours), an odd decision considering that they are some of the film's most satisfying. It is, admittedly, a long and sometimes uneven sit, but one that contains a good combination of interesting stories and black comedy.

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