Tales From the Golden Age: An Introduction to Romanian Culture

When Christian Mungiu won the Palme d’Or for 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days in 2007, it was the first time a Romanian filmmaker had received such accolades from the International film community. Since then, the films of Mungiu and other young Romanian filmmakers have emerged as the Romanian New Wave, a collection of films that are generally set during the last years of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s reign and characterized by austerity, realism, and the kind of dark, biting comedic wit that only thoroughly oppressed people know how to wield with dexterity.

I am the only native-born American in an entirely Romanian family (fun fact: Popescu is actually the most common Romanian last name there is). My family left Romania immediately after Ceausescu’s fall from power and subsequent execution (the jury was out on him for about an hour before sentencing him to death by firing squad). We’ve been living in North America ever since, so while I never experienced the Golden Age of communism firsthand, I caught glimpses of it through stories from my parents.

There were stories about food shortages – like, for instance, when prices at the grocery store would be improved, by being raised 20%. There were stories about the waiting lines at propane dispensaries – these can be summed up through the common phrase, “guard your propane tank like you would your life” (I think it loses something in translation). There were countless stories about the military, all told by my father who, like all citizens during that time, was legally required to serve in the military for at least 18 months; the military was essentially a preparatory program for only the most distinguished morons to rise through the ranks to positions of authority, according to my father.

Mungiu’s 2009 anthology film, Tales from the Golden Age (Aminitiri din epoca de aur), touches on all of the issues that a lifetime of my parents’ stories revealed for me, but in just over 2 hours. Over the course of the 5 short films that make up the anthology, Mungiu masterfully weaves an intricate tapestry of daily life in communist Romania: an endless, one-sided struggle between the common man and the absurd dogma of the omnipresent State.

Absurdity is certainly at the core of Mungiu’s Tales, and the conflicts that arise in each of the stories should be the kinds of situations that you can’t fully understand unless you’ve lived through something similar. Yet each vignette is fleshed out so fully that I felt entirely immersed in the world Mungiu re-creates in Tales, even though the closest I’ve ever been to living in a communist state was a few short years spent in Newfoundland.

In one tale, The Legend of the Party Photographer, the comical tension and anxiety that Avram Birau brings to his role as the photographer for the nation’s leading newspaper demonstrates all too clearly the lengths that party officials would go to control every minute aspect of the nation’s press. But it’s the onscreen interaction between the party officials, and the preposterous techniques employed to make Ceausescu appear just a tiny bit taller than French President Giscard d’Estaing in a photograph for the front page, that drives home the megalomania of the entire communist establishment.

Yet despite the all-too-accurate portrayal of the State (the principal antagonist in each of the tales) this film never stops being funny. This is merely a continuation of Mungiu’s accurate portrayal of Romania during the 1980s, as I can say from experience that the average Romanian has a much better sense of humor than the average over-scandalized, controversy-averse, perpetually-middle-of-the-road American. As my father once told me, the only way Romanians held onto their sanity while living beneath a dehumanizing and inhumane regime was by laughing at the regime’s expense.

And there’s certainly much to laugh about in Tales from the Golden Age. Though it’s mainly very tongue in cheek, you can be sure that there’s not a single cheap laugh across any of the five films. Believe it or not, there’s real emotional depth here too, and even significant character development, considering none of the characters are onscreen for longer than ten minutes.

Whether you’ve seen a Romanian film before or this will be your first venture into our backwater region of Eastern Europe, you really can’t go wrong with Tales From the Golden Age. Sure, it doesn’t have the emotional or narrative weight of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, but it’s also a more enjoyable viewing experience (heavy would be an understatement for 4 Months).

This film depicts the death throes of communism in Romania, but does so by focusing on individual narratives. In itself, the focus on the individual is an affront to the central dogma of the communist state, but Mungiu’s film is more than just a 20-years-too-late act of artistic rebellion. It’s an ode to the countless small acts of rebellion and everyday victories won by Romanians from all walks of life, and ultimately, a very personal way of showing the overthrow of a regime that tried to extinguish personal agency.

Grade: A-. Lighthearted, perpetually playful, wonderfully written, directed, and acted.

Paul Popescu is a senior in the English Department.