Published Oct 18, 2010I don't know much about Romanian history or politics, but I do know that former Communist era dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu was a brutal tyrant dictator, the Stalin of Romania, if you will. In Tales from the Golden Age, star director Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days) has managed to find humour in his terrifying regime with this sublime and delightful comedy about five urban legends of the era ― absurdist tales told with the now familiar neo-realist cinematic style of this new generation of Romanian filmmakers.
Opening film Legend of the Official Visit is the best, a charming story of a small village expecting an official Party visit. As the townsfolk scramble to complete their preparations, which include finding pigeons, corralling cows and possibly hanging fruit from the bare trees, the shattering news of the cancellation results in a riotously funny alternative.
The next entry, Legend of the Party Photographer, equals, if not bests, The Official Visit's sharp, absurdist wit. It's a story about Ceauşescu's publicity staff madly rushing to doctor a photo of the dictator meeting with the French President before the paper hits the streets. Mungiu transforms the stone cold fear of Ceauşescu's wrath into a hilarious comedy of errors and irony, with one great gag to payoff the episode.
Only the fourth segment, Legend of the Greedy Policeman, hits the same level of brilliance of the first two, showing the absurd lengths to which a regular working class Joe will go to slaughter a pig beneath the noses of his fellow residents at a housing complex. Episodes three and five, Legend of the Chicken Driver and Legend of the Air Sellers, are more morose and melancholic, telling stories of hopeless romances that are never consummated.
Tales miraculously manages to subvert the difficulties of most omnibus films by maintaining a consistent tone and style throughout, with each of the segments finding humour in the desperation, poverty and general fear of authority that blanketed most of the working population of the country during this time. With Mungiu as the sole writer, there's a consistent voice, which makes the whole greater than the sums of its parts.
Unfortunately the film falls short of greatness, which is annoying because it could have been corrected with one easy fix. Everyone knows in these types of compilations, whether it's a program of short films or something like Paris Je t'aime, the best one always goes last. It's head scratcher of a decision to anchor the film with the oblique Legend of the Air Sellers, the slowest and most tonally subdued entry of the bunch.
Leaving the audience with the hilariously absurd and poignant final shot of the townsfolk of Vizuresti swinging on the roundabout endlessly in The Official Visit would have left a much better taste in the audience's mouth than the final shot in Air Sellers. Regardless, Tales is the most delightful comedy of the year and another grand achievement for Romanian cinema.
Also, it's important to note that six episodes were actually filmed and presented in Cannes, but not all at the same time. For each Cannes screening five shorts were screened, with one alternating episode absent. In this theatrical version, Legend of the Zealous Activist is missing, an episode I assume will eventually show up on the DVD. (Mongrel Media)