A compilation of deadpan vignettes about Romanian life under Ceausescu’s authoritarian ’80s rule, Tales from the Golden Age (its title dripping with irony) boasts tonal cohesiveness but also a dispiriting lack of bite. So dry that the humor seems to have evaporated from its various scenarios, this portmanteau—written by 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days’s Cristian Mungiu, and helmed by Mungiu, Ioana Maria Uricaru, Hanno Hoefer, Razvan Marculescu, and Constantin Popescu—doesn’t delineate which director handled which episode, an ambiguousness in keeping with the absence of authorial grandstanding. Bookended by the sound of rousing communist anthems (with the closing credits also featuring clips of Communist Party pomp and circumstance), these tales, all based on “urban legends” from the era, exhibit few distinguishing signature flourishes as they recount everyday men and women’s efforts to confront a regime, and in particular the fearsome bureaucracy that ran the country, whose illogical corruptness compelled many to behave in similarly atypical, and ultimately resourceful, ways.
With largely static handheld compositions drenched in rusty grays and grungy blacks, Golden Age offers an Eastern European tapestry of mildly surreal twists of fate. And particular emphasis on the mild, as Mungiu’s scripting often struggles, within each segment and as a whole, to settle on a satisfying balance between comedy and grimness, such that the storytelling frequently operates in a too-soft middle. In the opening “Legend of the Official Visit,” a small rural town prepares for a state motorcade visit that never materializes, thereby making futile the citizenry’s desperate-to-please preparations, including finding white pigeons and dismantling carnival rides. It’s a drolly established setup for a payoff in which everyone becomes stuck on a carousel, yet the punchline arrives with so little fanfare or energy as to negate not only chuckles, but the slyness of its overt metaphor. The same fate also befalls the story of a pair of Communist Party photographers endeavoring, without success, to please their demanding superiors by photoshopping a Ceausescu photo so the leader is taller and wearing a hat, an example of ingrained cultural-political dysfunction staged too meekly to make much impact.
Golden Age hits its stride more fully during its third and four segments, as both vignettes—about a big-rig driver who decides to steal and sell his chicken egg cargo, and a family attempting to covertly slaughter a live pig in their apartment, respectively—capture a sense of food as a financial and social commodity and, specifically, as a means to economic and romantic advancement. Especially with this hog-centric sequence (dubbed “The Legend of the Greedy Policeman”), there’s an entrancing dexterity to the intertwining of its dual narratives concerning the parents’ attempts to gas the pig, and the desire of their son’s best friend to use the ensuing pork remains to woo a popular girl in school. The tale’s commingling of fear, secrecy, hunger, and yearning has a ragged, loopy wit.
That verve, though, isn’t maintained through to the film’s final installment, about a teenage girl who, in order to purchase a car, teams up with a con artist who scams people into handing over glass bottles that he then resells. Illicit capitalist innovation made manifest, the duo’s ploy comes off as too thematically obvious and dramatically sluggish, providing a bleak portrait of its cockeyed totalitarian landscape that, like this slight, respectable Romanian New Wave collection as a whole, works as a small poke in the ribs rather than a full-on jab in the eye.
Tales from the Golden Agewill play on February 27 as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects series. To purchase tickets, click here.