It is hard to imagine that Romanian director Cristian Mungiu would be able to make anything funny after his award-winning grim abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days. But there is plenty of humour in Tales from the Golden Age – Mungiu’s compilation of five short films set in Nicolae Ceausescu‘s Communist Romania during the 1980s – even if it’s mostly dark and ironic.
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In fact, even the title is ironic since what is referred to as ‘the golden age’ actually was a time of great hardship for the people of Romania. It was a time of corruption, fear, power cuts, food and petrol shortages. I was lucky – my family managed to get out of the country and settle in Sweden in 1982, just before the situation significantly worsened. But we visited almost every summer and I remember standing in the bread queue with my cousin, seeing the empty supermarket shelves (quite a contrast to the abundance I took for granted in Sweden), having Securitate agents follow us around, being really scared of the police, all the highrises being distinctly monochrome and run down and the annoyance of the water supply being switched off daily to ‘save water’. (This of course only led to people filling their tubs up to the brim, then letting the unused water drain out once the supply was turned back on.)
It’s strange how much people are able to put up with when there is no other choice. Mungiu’s five vignettes (inspired by urban legends) capture, with varying success, the essence of these dire times ‘when food was more important than money, freedom more important than love and survival more important than principles’. And, of course, when times are that tough, an ability to laugh about it is imperative.
The Legend of the Official Visit and The Legend of the Party Photographer successfully and very humorously deal with the ludicrous and often pointless demands of self-important party officials and their even more self-important (borderline mad) leader.
The Legend of the Chicken Driver and The Legend of the Air Sellers, however, I found a little too slow and lacking in content. The Legend of the Greedy Policeman on the other hand was my clear favourite. When discussing it with my Transylvanian cousin, I found that she too had been drawn to that story and she continued to tell me about her uncle – the devoted Party member – who had received a pig as thanks for his loyalty. This pig too was alive, but it made a brave escape en route by jumping out of the box trailer they were transporting it in, probably acutely aware that it was heading for a frying pan and that desperate times call for desperate measures…
Since 1989, a lot has changed in Romania, yet much remains the same. The cities are still littered with blocks of flats, but they are being renovated and dipped in happy pastel colours. There are other cars on the roads apart from Dacia and Trabant and they have giant supermarkets brimming over with food.
In some parts of the countryside, however, it looks like time stopped a century ago, and no other film depicts that better than Peter Strickland‘s low-budget, beautiful and eerie revenge drama Katalin Varga. Apart from telling a gripping story, it also shows off the breathtaking Transylvanian landscape, confirming that the old Eastern Bloc has a lot more to offer than just concrete.
Tales from a Golden Age is showing on Film Flex until 15 July.
Katalin Varga is showing on Film Flex until 20 September.