'Tales From the Golden Age': Survival of the Witless
The 1990s coinage ostalgie, which combines the German words for "east" and "nostalgia," describes a particular sort of longing. Ostalgie is not so much a yearning for the vanished Communist past as it is an adult fascination with the youthful, formative reality lost, save to memory, in the social upheaval that came with the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Tales From the Golden Age, an ironically titled anthology film organized, written, and co-directed by Cristian Mungiu (best-known for his 2007 abortion thriller 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), addresses ostalgie in its Romanian form. Each of its six, essentially comic, episodes dramatizes an urban legend from the 1980s, the worst period (and self-described "golden age") of Nicolae Ceausescu's Communist dictatorship, as well as the decade in which Mungiu and the four novice directors who work with him here were in or about to enter their teens. Bracketed by the Ceausescu anthem, the movie recalls a social disaster in painstaking detail and with a measure of ambivalent love.
In retrospect, the most obvious thing about Ceausescu's golden age was its fraudulence. Like classic socialist realism, but even more so, Romania's official culture trafficked in the beautiful lie and pretended it was truth—the representation of current social reality as airbrushed by authority. The movie's opening tales show Romania as a golden façade: "The Legend of the Official Visit" (in which a rural town, coincidentally hosting a traveling carnival, must be hastily "improved" in advance of a government motorcade that never arrives) and "The Legend of the Party Photographer" (which details the official media's panicky, foredoomed attempt to reconcile the height differential between Ceausescu and visiting French premier Giscard d'Estaing).
Less finely tuned (and not as funny), Tales' third episode, "The Legend of the Zealous Activist," is a labored account of a gung-ho Party organizer (looking not unlike Albert Brooks) hoisted on his petard in an attempt to eradicate rural illiteracy. Although gumming the movie's momentum, the episode does serve to introduce the milieu of shortages, overcrowding, schemes, bribes, and barter economics that will characterize the remaining tales. Everybody from primary-school kids to cops is involved in petty black marketeering in "The Legend of the Greedy Policeman" (an episode further enlivened by the presence of a large pig in a small apartment).
Although Mungiu only directed two episodes, Tales has a strong continuity of style and sensibility (the look is subtly cartoonish, the humor broad yet deadpan). And though individual segments are not credited, it was assumed when the movie screened at Cannes in 2009 that Mungiu's were the more nuanced and relatively lengthy final segments. "The Legend of the Air Sellers" and "The Legend of the Chicken Driver" both concern scams. In "Air Sellers," a teenaged girl, much impressed by Bonnie and Clyde (shown at a party on VHS), joins forces with a slightly older guy to "rob" the people of their redeemable glass bottles. The final tale, "Chicken Driver," which ends with its protagonist in jail, is the subtlest and most melancholy episode, in which a love-starved trucker opens a forbidden door (in the back of his van) and, thanks to the modest treasure he discovers there, finds himself briefly more attractive than he could have imagined. In the rampant dishonesty and brutal deprivation of the golden age, even the most-plodding, least-imaginative Romanians had to steal to survive.
Sardonic as it may be, Tales From the Golden Age is basically affirmative—its true subject is resilience. Romania suffered under a regime of dangerous stupidity. Drawing on popular memory, Mungiu has orchestrated a contribution to local folklore, a suite of stories in which those rendered witless by oppression were compelled by circumstance to live off their wits.
This review did not appear in print.
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