Monday, August 22, 2011

Tales from the Golden Age: Collectively Laughing at Communism

The oppressive Ceausescu regime tightly controlled the flow of information in Romania. Yet somehow, stories of official corruption and incompetence secretly spread like wildfire, perhaps even getting embellished here and there, as good anecdotes often are. Cristian Mungiu and his four credited co-directors collect six iconic urban legends of life during the Ceausescu era in their inspired anthology film, Tales from the Golden Age (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

The Communist propaganda machine constantly insisted Romanians were living in a “Golden Age.” Since they were literally starving, average citizens were far from convinced. In fact, the so-called journalists at the state-controlled Scinteia newspaper are among those taking their lumps as part of Tales’ sardonic nostalgia. In The Legend of the Party Photographer a front page story on French President Giscard d’Estaing’s state visit causes no end of trouble for the staff. For whatever reason, Ceausescu took his hat off during the official reception, but d’Estaing did not. To the panicked propagandists, this implies socialism showing improper deference to capitalism—something the workers cannot be allowed to see.

Indeed, petty absurdity runs rampant throughout Tales. Sometimes it explicitly skewers the apparatchiks of old, as in the opening episode, The Legend of the Official Visit. Sort of an Orwellian rewrite of The Inspector General, it depicts the arbitrary and often contradictory demands placed on a provincial village ahead of an impending motorcade drive-by. Of course, as legend has it, things did not go according to plan.

Other episodes are more circumspect in their criticism of the previous regime, but the prominent role played by foodstuffs speaks directly to the acute shortages experienced under the glorious years of socialism. It is eggs that preoccupy the characters of The Legend of the Chicken Driver, a not-so fond ode to a time when clerks and deliverymen often illicitly exploited their access to food. Likewise, the title character demonstrates the absolute worst method to kill an ill-gotten hog in The Legend of the Greedy Policeman.

Perhaps the strangest and subtlest of the bunch would be The Legend of the Air Sellers, in which two students scam recyclable bottles by pretending to be government water inspectors in need of samples. While it depicts a certain enterprising spirit on the part of young Crina and Bughi, Tales clearly implies deference authority and crummy water quality were hallmarks the “Golden Age.” In contrast, arguably the weakest story of the anthology film would be The Legend of the Zealous Activist. Dispatched to fight the illiteracy that officially did not exist, it portrays the party hack as an object of ridicule rather than a venal villain.

Though the overall concept is attributed to Mungiu, the director of the searing 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, he and his co-writer-directors, Iona Maria Uricaru, Hanno Höfer, Razvan Marculescu, and Constantin Popescu have been deliberately cagey about just who did what, story by story, ironically making Tales a collective critique of the Communist era. While many are associated with the so-called Romanian New Wave, the format of Tales precludes any of the excesses sometimes associated with the movement. They are not really jokes per se, but every story has a set-up and punch line that must be reached in a timely manner.

Likely revisiting all-too familiar real life roles, the ensemble cast of Tales is quite strong, keeping their characters grounded in reality rather playing up their quirkiness or relying on urban mythos archetypes. Vlad Ivanov (an alumnus of 4 Months and Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective) is a real standout though as Grigore, the Chicken Driver who gets in over his head.

Tales has to be the best concept for a movie anthology since who knows what? As is to be expected, Tales is somewhat uneven, but the mood is far more consistent than most episodic films. Regardless of whoever did whatever, the execution is quite sharp throughout. A clever, decidedly unromanticized look back at the Ceausescu years, Tales is far more instructive and entertaining than Andrei Ujică’s ill-conceived and punishing Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, which will soon make its way to American theaters. Highly recommended, Tales opens this Friday (8/26) in New York at the IFC Center.