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March 2010

Tales From The Golden Age

cast: Diana Cavallioti, Emanuel Parvu, Vlad Ivanov, and Ion Sapdaru

director: Cristian Mungiu

126 minutes (12) 2009
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Trinity DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
review by Jim Steel

Tales From The Golden Age

This portmanteau film is probably one of the most melancholic comedies ever made. Comprising of five short stories (six, counting one that didn't make the final cut but is included on this release as a bonus feature), Tales From The Golden Age (aka: Amintiri din epoca de aur) shows the grim, ridiculous nature of life in Ceausescu's Romania, and each of the stories, featuring entirely unconnected casts of characters, is built around a Romanian urban myth. It also shows people surviving and, if not exactly triumphing, at least making the best of their lot.

A big success at Cannes, this depiction must have offered a massive contrast to that playground of the ´┐Żber-rich. 1984 it is not - the sheer ineptitude of the regime ensures that, in this film at least, it never descended to that level of nightmare - but what it does have in common with George Orwell's dystopia is that it is viewed from the future. In Orwell's closing essay, 'newspeak' is referred to in the past tense, offering the reader the knowledge that some will survive, and, for Mungiu's viewers, there is the unbridgeable river of history that separates us from the events in the film. Sometimes it is hard for a cynical westerner to second-guess the thrust of the narrative. The characters aren't exactly innocents, but the scale of their ambition is microscopic.

It might be expected that we'd have a feel for this alien culture by the time we reach the last of the stories, but - no - we cannot grasp what is going on until it spelt out for us in The Legend Of The Air Sellers. Fifteen-year-old schoolgirl Crina (Diana Caallioti) answers the door to a young man in a dodgy suit (but then, all the suits we have seen through the film are poorly cut and shiny) who states that he is here to collect a sample of tap-water to test for pollution. Crina says that she can't allow him in as her parents are not at home. He's fine with this, so she fills a bottle of water for him and he leaves.

Later, at a party, she bumps into him again, and it is obvious that he is not a party official. He is relatively well off, though, as he owns a video-recorder (although it gradually becomes apparent that he has only the one film), and alarm bells start to ring. Not for Crina, though, and when he asks her if she would like to come and help him with his 'work' the following day, she recklessly agrees. The nature of his 'work' remains obscure and it seems to consist of targeting blocks of flats and asking for samples of water.

Are they trying to gain entry to steal from the occupants? No; Bughi (Radu Iacoban) specifically warns Crina against going inside if possible. It remains a puzzle until they take their collection of bottles to cash them in for money. It's a variation on the old story of the man who left a diamond mine with a barrowful of soil every night, and every night the guards searched the soil until eventually they realised he was stealing wheelbarrows. This is just the set-up, and the couple become increasingly ambitious until the inevitable stumble.

The most famous of the stories is The Legend Of The Greedy Policeman, where a policeman (Ion Sapdaru) receives a 'present' of a pig - I've no idea if this is also a pun in Romanian - and then finds to his horror that the pig is still alive. He has to come up with a way of killing the pig without alerting his neighbours in the other apartments. The pig is dealt with in an almost understated manner and the temptation to slip into slapstick is carefully sidestepped, but the real delight comes with the interaction of the local children, both at school and at home. This could almost be Britain in the 1970s (if we'd had rationing). Even in the city, it is the silence that strikes home as the strangest thing. Birdsong and empty roads leave a vague feeling of wrongness that never quite evaporates.

The first of the stories, The Legend Of The Official Visit, deals with the arrival of an inspector to check the preparations for an official visit, and it hinges on the willingness of people to blindly follow orders, and there is another, The Legend Of The Party Photographer, that deals with a rushed attempt to doctor a newspaper photograph so that Ceausescu appears to be the same size as Giscard d'Estaing, which equally demonstrates the powerlessness of people at every level, but it is The Legend Of The Chicken Driver that is possibly the bleakest.

If there was a Trabant version of today's Jack Nicholson, it would be Vlad Ivanov who plays Grigori, a man trapped in a dead marriage. He regularly drives a lorry-load of chickens to the port, and that's as good as it gets for him. It's not stated in the film, but one of the reasons for the constant shortages was Ceausescu's mania for exporting everything that wasn't nailed down to help Romania's balance of payments - those palaces weren't cheap, y'know.

Anyway, Gigori has to make the journey in a day, but when one of his tyres is stolen while he is eating at his regular roadside cafe, he has no choice other than to stay the night. The next morning the chickens have laid lots of eggs that might as well be made of gold. The manageress persuades him to make this a regular event, and he is led on by hopes of a better existence.

The story that didn't make the final cut, The Legend Of The Party Official, is not without its charm, but the broken-backed plot shows why it was the weakest. A zealous official (Calin Chirila) is trying to improve literacy standards in a village, but his nemesis is a farmer (the excellently-named Romeo Tudor) who cannot see any need for self-improvement and who knocks down all of the official's arguments that his grandson quotes to him.

The twist comes when he eventually follows the official's instructions and goes against what his own knowledge tells him is sensible. Luckily for him it is the official who comes to grief. But like all of the other sections it is wonderfully paced and charmingly cast. Many of the characters are fools, but none are villains. The only other extra is the trailer which is nicely sprinkled with constructivist graphics.



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