Set just a few days before Christmas, Corneliu Porumboiu’s debut feature 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) is full of familiar festive fuss. In the small city of Vaslui, people are making last-minute plans, looking for someone to play Santa for their children or hunting for Christmas trees. The streets are peaceful, if rather bleak, and the only trouble is made by local children setting off firecrackers. But a local TV journalist wants to look back on the past of the town and find out what happened there on 22 December, 1989.
In Romania, the Christmas period is marred by history: the Revolution of December 1989 put an end to communism, culminating with the execution of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena. The film’s English title refers to the exact time when Ceaușescu fled the capital on 22 December, but the much subtler original, A fost sau n-a fost? (“Was It or Was It Not?”) raises questions about the nature of the revolution in Vaslui. The logic goes: if people took to the streets only after 12:08, then there was no revolution in this town — but if protests here took place earlier, then the locals can be lauded as true revolutionaries and participants in history. The trouble is, of course, that 17 years later, no one can agree on what actually happened.
Despite the serious historical context, 12:08 East of Bucharest is a brilliant comedy. Porumboiu consciously turns away from the events in the Romanian city of Timișoara, where the revolution started, and the capital Bucharest, where tens of thousands demonstrated. Instead, he focuses on one small eastern Romanian town whose inhabitants know each other all too well. Virgil Jderescu (Teodor Corban), the TV presenter who starts the discussion, initially has no one to invite on his show other than an alcoholic history professor and an ex-Santa Claus impersonator, and the phone calls sent to the studio soon turn into hilarious petty arguments.
While local news programmes, both real and fictional, have given us many great comedic moments, Porumboiu’s humorous take on this format is second to none. The actors’ deadpan delivery and the experiments of the channel’s incompetent TV cameraman are guaranteed to bring in laughs. But 12:08 also makes serious points about the unreliability of memory, and the myths involved in remembering the bloody Romanian Revolution.
Porumboiu’s debut feature was a big international success and launched his career. Since then, he has consistently achieved critical acclaim with his films, including the 2009 ethical drama Police, Adjective all the way to his most recent crime thriller, The Whistlers (2019).