Has the so-called Romanian New Wave slowed to a trickle? Of course, one of the problems with labeling the disparate work of any national cinema a “new wave” is that it tends to subject those films that appear after the initial fevered rush of excitement to the inevitability of thwarted expectations. And yet, in the second half of the last decade when films like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 12:08 East of Bucharest, and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days dominated the festival circuit before making their triumphant mark in local art-house theaters, there really was a sense of excitement about each new Romanian film that made its way stateside.
And now the films keep coming, though rarely with the same level of achievement—at least among those made with an eye to, and thus accessible to, the international market. Worthwhile entries still abound: Witness the recent appearance of festival faves The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu and Tuesday, After Christmas, both highly accomplished, though each suffers from a lack of contextualization. Still, just as typical as these offerings are more wholly disposable items like If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle. Meanwhile Cristi Puiu and Corneliu Porumboiu each followed up their magnificent breakthroughs with challenging, but severely flawed films that seem to find their creators—and particularly Puiu—at a creative impasse.
For his part, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days director Cristian Mungiu chased his Palme d’Or winner with a long-cherished collaborative project. Conceived as an absurdly comic exposure of the urban legends that propped up the myth of the Ceausescu regime, Tales from the Golden Age consists of six short segments each scripted by Mungiu but directed by a different filmmaker. (Although Mungiu himself is one of the five credited directors, it’s never made clear which auteur is responsible for which segment.)
The first four of the film’s 1980s-set episodes are shorter in length and more anecdotal in nature than the last two and deal primarily with the pageantry and inflexible customs behind the regime with a perspective at once amused and bemused. (In Romania, these four are to be screened separately in a program titled “Tales of the Authority,” while the lengthier pair of final segments will be released together as “Tales of Love.”) Although each episode is framed as a “legend” and Mungiu has described the project as a collection of “urban myths,” he also notes that “Romanians consider urban legends to be true stories that were passed from mouth to mouth.”
Whatever the veracity of the ridiculous displays of official protocol, what emerges is the sense of a country in thrall to the arbitrary, the truth of which is to be found in the film’s sense of exaggeration. And yet, for all the evident comedy to be reaped from events such as the preparations for an official visit from a state official or a party “activist” sent to a farming village to teach its uneducated populace to read as part of Ceauşescu’s myth of total literacy, these segments have a certain sameness to them, not only in the similarly rough-hewn camera style and use of available light, but in the bone-dry sense of humor that pushes the episodes to a level of comic observation, but prevents them from going any deeper. Although one of the segments, concerning the efforts to doctor official photographs of Comrade Ceauşescu, would make a fine standalone episode (and makes excellent strategic use of overhead camerawork) and while other segments have their takeaway imagery (the view of party and village officials alike spinning in endless circles on a carnival ride has its obvious metaphorical applications), the film’s jaundiced view rapidly comes to feel limiting.
Things do begin to change with the fourth episode (though the segments have been shown in various orders on the festival circuit), as focus shifts from official absurdity itself to the efforts of enterprising individuals to secure food or the barest luxuries for themselves in the face of that absurdity. In the intermittently amusing segment entitled “The Legend of the Greedy Policeman,” the eponymous figure receives a live pig from a relative, but has to slaughter it in his apartment building without his neighbors hearing. (After all, times are hard and food is scarce.) But it’s the final two episodes that bring to the fore the scam as way of life.
Combining incipient romance and material gain, “The Legend of the Air Sellers” and “The Legend of the Chicken Driver” find a pair of couples, one young, one middle-aged, on the hustle. While these segments often deepen the concerns of the shorter segments, primarily through the added romantic angle and a less comic pessimism that emerges in the endings, the episodes still can’t help but feel like extended anecdotes that are fluffed up into a 40-minute presentation. There’s much that’s worthwhile here, whether it’s telling glimpses of the protags’ bleak urban and rural environments or smartly observed moments, like a scene of kids huddled around a television at a party watching a video of the Romanian version of Bonnie and Clyde. But just as in the earlier segments, the ability to toss off a few sharp observations and a crisp sense of the absurd will only get you so far. Both are probably essential for a Romanian filmmaker forced to deal with the legacy of Ceauşescu, but only if the director draws on these qualities to open up fresh areas of inquiry. Mungiu has already done just that in his haunting 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, but Tales of the Golden Age feels like a regression. He and his collaborators seem in every way content to settle for less and, in doing so, make sure that less is exactly what we get.