Tales From the Golden Age - SideReel Review
Set during the later years of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s hellish regime, the omnibus film Tales from the Golden Age dramatizes six "urban legends" that have evolved in the post-Iron Curtain years, each one underscoring the absurdities and sadness of life under the Ceausescu government. This could easily turn dark and tragic at times, but that never once happens here. One senses that directors Constantin Popescu, Hanno Höfer, Cristian Mungiu, Ioana Uricaru, and Razvan Marculescu, however sardonically, have learned to laugh at the extremities of their totalitarian past with a certain degree of bizarre nostalgia, and the filmmakers bring those feelings off quite fluidly here. The collection includes one tale about a high school girl so desperate to raise money for camp that she participates in a recycling scam ("The Legend of the Air Sellers"), one about a photographer whose assignment editing an image of Ceausescu takes a farcical turn due to carelessness ("The Legend of the Party Photographer"), one about a government minister struggling to impart literacy to a rural village ("The Legend of the Zealous Activist"), and three others.
Many anthology films are characterized by stylistic flux and a mercurial unevenness; however, neither of those tendencies applies here. All of the contributions succeed, and they share both a stylistic homogeneity and an unwavering tone -- matter-of-fact banality crossed with bursts of piquant irony, humor, and sadness, as in the most accomplished of short fiction. The finest entry is probably "The Legend of the Greedy Policeman." It begins with a classroom scene that brings off the desperation of the era more poignantly than anything else in the picture (as two little boys vie for the favor of a pretty female classmate by offering her different lunchmeat delicacies) and concludes with a predicament that feels almost Makavejevian in its absurdity, where the members of a family debate the quietest way to slaughter a Christmas hog in their apartment without rousing the neighbors, and eventually choose a horrific path. The closer is also very satisfying, albeit slightly more earnest; titled "The Legend of the Chicken Driver," it turns on the desperation that prompts an ordinary truck driver to begin pilfering eggs, and includes a scene of tremendous emotional sway and complexity involving the laconic interaction between the main character and the proprietress of a roadside restaurant. One wishes that some of the earlier installments in this saga -- such as the one about the photograph, or the opener ("The Legend of the Official Visit"), involving a government minister’s trip to a small town -- would carry more weight, though the choice to place the shorts in order of increasing profundity and substance was a wise one, for we invest ourselves more and more as the collection rolls forward.
These days, it’s tempting to assess many recent Romanian films as abstruse meditations on life during and after Communism that cater to hardcore cineastes. For example, consider the work of Corneliu Porumboiu, such as the demanding and difficult Police, Adjective or 12:08 East of Bucharest. Though Tales from the Golden Age has something fundamental in common with those films -- in the sense that its social commentary subtext will help it withstand repeat viewings -- it’s decidedly less cerebral and sophisticated than many of its predecessors in the New Romanian Cinema. It’s also more accessible, more down to earth, and much easier to enjoy.