3 stars (out of four)
Live television going down in flames is always good for a laugh. Much of the stone-faced Romanian comedy "12:08 East of Bucharest," a clever rumination on the vagaries of the past, concerns the casual assemblage and painfully screwy execution of a provincial Romanian TV talk show commemorating the 1989 overthrow of the Ceausescu regime and the local townpeople's role in the protests.
The central joke here is simple but fruitful. Neither the show's guests nor the callers agree on a single detail about the events that went down (or didn't) in the town square that fateful day. Were there protests? Did the revolution really even happen there? Did anyone actually shout "Down with Ceausescu!" en route to the local tavern?
Roughly half of this picture, a debut project for writer-director-producer Corneliu Porumboiu, depicts the broadcast itself, put together on a budget two steps below "Wayne's World." The host, Jderescu, is played by Teo Corban, who has a face like a basset hound wearing specs. As Jderescu waits, patiently, then desperately, for a caller or two to spice things up, his guests amuse themselves by playing with blank sheets of paper and contradicting each other's memories of the glorious revolution. (One caller flatly declares life was better before '89.)
One panelist is an alcoholic history professor (Ion Sapdaru) who wakes up the morning of the show with a terrible headache and a vague memory of insulting a local Chinese shopkeeper. The other (Mircea Andreescu) is an older man who works now and then as a Santa-for-hire. Christmas looks pretty grim in this post-Communist part of the world. The snow finally arrives at the end of "12:08 East of Bucharest," but with it comes a typically Romanian reminder that applies to more than the precipitation: "Enjoy it now. Tomorrow everything will be mud."
Porumboiu's picture, small and pungent, lacks the resonance of "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," Cristi Puiu's masterpiece of contemporary Romanian malaise released in the U.S. last year. But this one's less forbidding, and it has a satisfying shape and fullness.
'12:08 East of Bucharest'
Written, directed and produced by Corneliu Porumboiu; photographed by Marius Panduru; edited by Roxana Szel; music by Rotaria ; production design by Daniel Raduta. A Tartan DreamWorks Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:29. No MPAA rating (parents cautioned for language).
Piscoci - Mircea Andreescu
Manescu - Ion Sapdaru
Jderescu - Teo CorbanCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times