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Revolution as special guest

Special to The Times

AFI Fest 2006 at the ArcLight closes this weekend, so it’s worth mentioning a couple of highlights in its last days. One of the undisputed triumphs of the lineup is writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu’s sneakily funny and surprisingly affecting first feature, “12:08 East of Bucharest,” which turns very real contentions about post-Communist Romania into a deadpan satire about memory, media and the inability to move forward.

It’s the 16th anniversary of the Christmas-season revolution that brought down the Nicolae Ceausescu dictatorship, and a trio of citizens in a wintry unnamed city wakes up to assorted annoyances. History professor Manescu (Ion Sapdaru) is nursing a hangover as he negotiates a litany of colleagues and acquaintances who want money they’re owed. Elderly Mr. Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu), meanwhile, tries to find a clean suit to play Santa Claus, even though he’s decidedly Scrooge-like when it comes to kids lighting firecrackers in his hallway. And TV station owner Virgil (Teo Corban) is trying to corral eyewitness guests for the day’s talk-show topic: Was there even a revolution in their town on that momentous Dec. 22 in 1989?

The payoff for Porumboiu’s static-camera-aesthetic comedy is the hilarious live talk show itself, which is nearly half the film’s running time and qualifies as a minor masterpiece. Far from a substantive powwow, it’s little more than an accusatory Virgil, a downbeat Manescu and a paper-boat-making Mr. Piscoci -- seated side by side behind a desk like the lumpiest, glummest news team ever -- bickering with each other and callers-in over who was in the town square that tide-turning day and who wasn’t. (Everything hinges on the 12:08 p.m. helicopter departure of Ceausescu: Anything before is revolution; anything after is cowardly copycatting.) The sequence plays like an Eastern European vaudeville, but brilliantly highlights the ridiculously distracting side of political discontent that permeates civic discourse everywhere.

When a viewer calls in to tell those in the windowless studio that snow has started to fall, his report is both advice and a warning to the on-air malcontents. “Enjoy it now,” he barks. “Tomorrow it will all be mud.”

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Changes in China, of course, have sparked a whole generation of filmmakers to explore the strange new communist/capitalist bargain the country has made and its effect on everyday lives. Wang Chao’s artful, quietly powerful “Luxury Car,” the third in a trilogy of Wang’s films about modern China and an award winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is one such story about the gap between the rural and urban, old traditions clashing with contemporary values.

The spare plot centers on a country schoolteacher (Wu You Cai) on the verge of retirement who, at the behest of his dying wife, comes to the rapidly developing city of Wuhan to fetch his long-missing son, only to gradually realize that the daughter (Tian Yuan) he’s staying with -- a karaoke bar hostess sleeping with her boss -- is the real lost soul in need of reconnecting. Like a mystery whose clues traverse the terrain of the heart, the film displays Wang’s keen talent at communicating the unspoken tensions that create distance between people, and eventually the ways that distance shortens into newfound closeness.

Long-lasting plight

After the international attention given the plight of Afghan women when the brutal Taliban was being routed in 2001, the focus in the mainstream media went away, even though the struggle for a basic law-and-order respect for women’s humanity was far from over. (And the Taliban isn’t exactly dead, either.) All this makes Meena Nanji’s searing, wide-reaching documentary “View From a Grain of Sand” -- being shown Monday as part of the Jack H. Skirball series at REDCAT -- an especially timely addition to the collective history of the plight of women under repression.

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For five years starting in 2000, Nanji followed the lives of three women who escaped Afghan turmoil for a Pakistani refugee camp: Shapire, a teacher whose dreams of being a pilot were dashed by forced marriage; a sweet-faced, sensitive doctor from Kabul named Roeena; and Wajeeha, whose uneducated upbringing in rural Afghanistan has been supplanted as an adult by her activist work for the Revolutionary Assn. of the Women of Afghanistan. They are inspiring figures -- resourceful, sharp, warm and not lacking a sense of humor -- and they provide the necessary personal contours for a subject that needs human details to get its message across.

But Nanji’s film is a history lesson too. She manages to cover 30 years of struggle for Afghan women, which has mostly, tragically, been a case of curbed-then-obliterated advances, beginning with grand notions of gender equality under King Mohammed Zahir Shah in the ‘60s and ‘70s and eventually slipping into open violence against women, enforced submission and the burka under Islamic fundamentalist regimes that grew after the U.S.-backed defeat of the Soviets in the 1980s.

Overall, the well-assembled mix of archival material, narration, hidden camera footage (the cloaking burka’s unexpected benefit) and Nanji’s interviews makes for a rigorous, sobering piece of social advocacy filmmaking.

weekend@latimes.com

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Screenings

AFI Fest

* “12:08 East of Bucharest”: 9:30 p.m. today, 2 p.m. Friday

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* “Luxury Car”: 7 p.m. Saturday

Where: ArcLight, 6360 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood

Info: (866) 234-3378, www.afi.com

REDCAT

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* “View From a Grain of Sand”: 8 p.m. Monday

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 2nd and Hope streets, L.A.

Info: (213) 237-2800, www.redcat.org


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