Monday, May 20, 2013


Blog post on Cristian Mungiu's Tales from The Golden Age (2009)

“The Legend of the Official Visit”

The protagonists in this legend are the mayor, his right-hand man Georghita,and the government inspector Sandu.  Other characters include Florica the carouseloperator, Florica’s daughter, and Gogu, the second government official who arrives with Sandu.  The motif of the phone ringing explores how the protagonists of this legned interact with the government authorities.  With the inspection and the possibility of the motorcade coming, the townspeople have to  prepare their town with signs of prosperity and signs of good faith to the government.  They do not appear to resent the government, but are instead excited (though very stressed) about their village’s opportunity to participate in this event.

The majority of the legend looks to have been shot with a medium or wide lens, in order to capture a large amount of scenery in addition to the people, along with a few close-ups to show the characters’ faces, especially during pivotal moments in the tale.  These up-close shots are a way to portray the emotional dynamics more dramatically than a simple shot from one angle only.  Once Sandu  is satisfied with the village preparation, there is a scene of him eating and watching  the musicians perform. His face looks idiotically happy, and gives a very different  character to the scene than that of the scenes during the preparation.  Certain scenes are shot with a handheld camera, which gives the tale a slightly more hectic feel and accentuates the villagers’ stress.

The short film makes light of this entire situation and the potential  criminality through the interactions between Georghita, the townspeople and the  inspectors.  It becomes apparent that the expected level of sacrifice and devotion  to the government is absurd; they blindly follow because that’s what’s expected  of them. Of the protagonists, Sandu and Gogu exhibit the greatest flair.  Gogu is generally sleazy, while Sandu abuses his power.  The director also casts Ceausescu as criminal by making the dire situation of the “Official Visit” seem entirely ludicrous, thus showing the whole system as corrupt and that it is not the individuals who should bear the blame.  At the beginning of this story, the director creates a hectic atmosphere by transitioning between scenes in which the characters are receiving new and often contradictory orders.  The film cuts between the key moments while the village continues to get ready. The director’s choice to only show us the beginning and (near) end of the officials’ carousel ride retains the childlike joy of the carnival, the beauty of the scene, and the irony of the situation, undercutting the  unfortunate situations that the characters find themselves in and making them comedic rather than potentially tragic. The siuzhet does not include the motorcade passing through town, but instead closes with the final phrase, “legend has it they were still  spinning when the motorcade arrived.”

The climax of this legend is the call informing Comrade Sandu that the dignitaries will not be coming to this town. Comrade Sandu relays the message then demands that everyone get on the carousel.  Everyone, including the ride’s operator, does so because citizens had to obey the party’s orders, even the most ridiculous ones. The humor of this legend, together with the stupidity of communist Romania, is magnified by the screams of drunken party members who are trapped on a children’s play machine by their own order.  The fact that the characters are spinning in a circle as the camera pans the scene brilliantly emphasizes the chaos of the moment for the viewer.  Night also falls at that point, making the lights of the carousel stand out in the shots while hiding the village from view, further distancing the action there from the earlier part of the film.  The inspecting mission is stripped down to its essential ridiculousness and stupidity when it is viewed by a bystander (the shepherd) who has no idea what has been happening.  The final “twist” occurs when the viewer hears after the tale that, in the end, the delegation did pass through that area and found everyone still
spinning on the carousel.

The Romanian context is certainly important because it establishes the  power dynamics that drive the plot, namely Sandu’s arrogance and the villagers’ propensity to acquiesce.  The presence of the communist system is also contextually and historically specific, as it provides justification for the party’s abuse of power. It also magnifies defects inherent in human nature, such as greed and overweening self-interest.  Though the government is really at fault here, it is important for its citizens to not lose their heads and to question the things that are demanded of them.  There is, however, a universal message within this index between privilege and foolishness: those in unmerited positions of power may fall so accustomed to their privilege that they quicken their own demise and look very foolish in the process.

“The Legend of the Greedy Policeman”

This legend follows said policeman and his family and neighbors. Most of the screen time is devoted to the interactions between the policeman’s son, Danut, and the neighbors’ son, Mircea. The policeman uses his connections to have a pig brought to him illegally – during the regime, this would be considered hoarding and a serious crime. The characters in the film, while breaking the law, are not presented as criminals or immoral. Instead, the director uses the criminality of the act to comic effect, framing the regime’s laws as ridiculous and nonsensical.

The legend uses many close-up shots of Danut and Mircea’s faces when they are talking, giving a sense of friendship and closeness to their interactions. The siuzhet also cuts between the scenes at home and school abruptly, without any transition. This is used memorably in the last scenes of the legend.  When a sudden gas explosion takes place, the siuzhet switches from an indoor to outdoor view, which immediately cuts to a shot of Danut at school the next day, with only minor injuries. The siuzhet here serves to give the moment a comic rather than tragic or horrifying effect, as such an explosion may trigger.

There are two main revelatory scenes in the legend. The first is when Uncle Fane delivers the pig, and it is revealed that the pig is still alive. This immediately creates tension as the family must figure out how to slaughter the pig without attracting attention, while they were anticipating a quiet delivery of an already-dead pig. The second ensues when the pig explodes. Before that point, the family seem to have executed their plan well, and the danger seems to have passed. But with the pig explosion, their cover was immediately blown, leaving them to deal with the consequences of their actions.

A small amount of knowledge of the situation in Romania is needed to fully enjoy the film, particularly the significance of hoarding the pig. Such a thing would not register as a crime for most audiences nowadays, and so the tension of the legend might be lost. However, the character interactions should engage modern viewers. The childrens’ horse play at school is also engaging, as are the frantic and exasperated attempts by the family to slaughter the pig, even if the consequences for their failure are unclear to the viewers.

“The Legend of the Chicken Driver”

This legend follows Grigore, who transports chickens between towns. Dealing with the black market in this legend is presented as routine and morally neutral; Grigore openly and casually discusses trades with his friend over household chores. Grigore is told never to stop overnight while driving, yet one day his truck’s tires are stolen and he is forced to stay in an inn. The next day he discovers  that the chickens in his truck have laid countless eggs. The innkeeper convinces him to collect the eggs for her to trade, which he does, due to his infatuation with her. This is presented as a neutral or even virtuous action, as it can be seen as a selfless desire to help a struggling innkeeper. However, he attempts the same crime a second time later, and this time is caught and jailed. In the final scene, his wife comes to visit him, as if by karma for his attraction to the female innkeeper. His actions are still somewhat justified by the film, though, as his wife is presented as bland and stern.

The siuzhet of the film tracks Grigore most of the time, casting the events from his perspective. When he is caught by the police, it is presented suddenly, as a rapid series of shots. First sirens are heard, then a shot of police cars and flashing lights, then a shot of Grigore’s face. This makes it seem very matter-of-fact, and that Grigore getting caught by the police was an expected outcome, which for the audience it was. The turning point in the legend is when Grigore stays overnight at the inn. Before then, he had been following his routine diligently, but the stay at the inn breaks his routine, opening him up to  temptation. When he discovers that the chickens have laid eggs after this, he quickly makes the decision to gather them for Camilia.

The legend is understandable without knowledge of the Romanian time period. While the legend relies on some things such as food shortages and the black market which modern views may be unfamiliar with, they are made clear pretty well in the beginning of the film, so that the film presents a self-contained account of the times. Grigore’s relationship with Camilia is also universal and understandable. His quickness to help her, and their other character interactions, are based more on human nature than the specific Romanian context.

“The Legend of the Air-Sellers”

Of the different vignettes in Tales from the Golden Age, the one that seems to most clearly exemplify the state’s grip on the Romanian people is “The  Legend of the Air Sellers.” The protagonists in this vignette are Crina and Bughi, and they break government laws by impersonating legitimate inspectors from the Ministry of Chemistry. Bughi in particular can speak with a very authoritative voice which is complemented by his sharp suit and convincing ID card. Crina’s family qualifies as Romanian “middle class” and therefore quite poor – her parents must choose between making car payments and paying for Crina to take a trip with her friends.  The similar living spaces of her neighbors show the pervasiveness of this white-collar poverty.

When fate brings Bughi to her door, Crina decides to join him in his extortive scheme to steal bottles from folks who could otherwise get small deposits for returning them. Though Crina essentially steals from other Romanians, she is certainly not portrayed as an evil character. Rather, her scheme is motivated by poverty and necessity. The criminal actions the two engage in, while definitely wrong, as they are defrauding innocent people, also feel light and childish—a scheme one would imagine as a kid (but not try given its absurdity). After all, Crina—who is amazed by the simple sight of a video player and laments that she “eats yogurt all her life”—only wants to use the bottle money to finance a school trip that her parents initially refuse to pay for.

In this tale, there does not seem to be a major discrepancy between the fabula and
the siuzhet. Though more of the focus is on Crina and her attitudes and experiences, the events of the legend unfold in a chronological manner, without the use of flashbacks or flash-forwards on the part of the director and screenplay writer. The director alternates between close-up interior shots of Crina’s apartment and wider exterior shots of her exploits with Bughi to highlight the dual nature of the protagonist’s life.  We observe numerous scenes of Crina watching the film Bonnie and Clyde, and this motif of movie clips playing in the  background sets the stage for Crina’s telling reaction shots. In one scene, as Bonnie and Clyde plays in a dark bedroom, the camera then pans to a close-up of Crina’s face, illuminated by the flicker of the television. Her expression transitions from contemplation to that of smugness, as she realizes that collecting multiple bottles of air samples from each apartment would be more efficient than single bottles of tap water.

The short film reaches its climax when Crina takes the huge risk of asking an apartment administrator to collect bottles from every household in the  block. As she loads the car, she sees a police car parking next to the building, and the camera then refocuses on her terrified face.  The ensuing stairway and rooftop chase seem to be filmed without a tripod, and the camera shaking adds to the tension of the situation.  Then, Crina makes her escape by leaping to an adjacent building. For a few seconds, both Bughi and the audience must consider that Crina fell to her death, until she suddenly reemerges behind a clotheslined blanket on the other roof. Though stealing from those just as poor as either Bughi or Crina is condemnable  in itself, there is likely an irresistible urge to cheer for the duo in their efforts. The climax suddenly changes the course of the plot from an underdog story to that of a tragedy.

Although the legend is deeply embedded in Romanian society under Ceauşescu, a previous knowledge of the era is certainly not necessary for understanding or enjoying it. The desire and motivation to execute what amounts to be a relatively small scale scam seems very characteristic of the rebellious stage that humans go through at that age. Young people, based from personal experience, are more likely to fall victim to an illusion of invincibility. It is also shocking, though, to hear that the low hourly wage of an engineer, or that every apartment shown has problems with the cleanliness of its air and water. Yet such squalor was a reality for an entire country through the decades of the Ceauşescu regime. Furthermore, extracting the core of the story from its context, this legend shows the moral development of an individual: Crina realizes that stealing from others is not a solution to her poverty.

Post edited by Kyle Casey, Melissa Fisch, Eitan Tye

No comments:

Post a Comment