Tales From The Golden Age (2009) – this week’s best movie on TV
This week’s telly choice is a hidden gem, buried in the schedules but yours to discover if you tune in to Film4 on Wednesday 13th July at 11:15pm. You will laugh, and then thank your lucky stars you didn’t grow up in Communist Romania.
Tales From The Golden Age
(Various, Rom, 2009)
Kafka meets Kubrick as the grim Ceausescu regime is replayed as a succession of pitch-black farces by a crack team of Romanian New Wave talent
All you need is a handful of talented and ambitious filmmakers, an interesting culture from which to draw material, and the critical mass to get the movement launched – and voila! You have a New Wave. At various times in cinema history, it’s happened in France, Germany and Iran. During the last decade, it appeared that Mexico and Korea were the frontrunners to get the honour, until – almost overnight – the Romanians turned up.
A generation on from Ceausescu, these guys had plenty of stories to tell, and leading light Cristian Mungiu set upon the task of finding them by collating these ironically-titled Tales From The Golden Age. His nightmarish Cannes-winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days was, in fact, developed during this process, until Mungiu recognised that its allegory of defiance and conformity warranted stretching out to feature-length. That, and the fact that 4 Months’ bleakness didn’t set easily amidst the lunatic black comedy he’d found elsewhere during the ‘Golden Age.’
“Each of the Tales Of The Golden Age is a tartly comic, deadpan gem, the anthology given an overall unity and coherence by Cristian Mungiu’s sharp script but each strikingly individual…”
Yup, the title is hideously ironic. These five stories are based on urban legends; as such, they may kernels of reality embellished into tall tales, or else completely accurate depictions of the insanity endemic in a repressive society. Either way, each is a tartly comic, deadpan gem, the anthology given an overall unity and coherence by Mungiu’s sharp script but each strikingly individual thanks to being assigned to different directors.
The only regret, in fact, is that the films aren’t labelled by director; ironically, this is the work of a Soviet-style collective rather than an auteurist relay-race. So we never get to find out who’s responsible for what. Then again, the remarkable consistency is enough to send you scurrying to see what each of the helmers does next. Even the weakest film here – the centrepiece about an egg delivery man overcome by lust and greed – unfurls with taut, inexorable logic. It’s just that, in contrast to the madness else where, it’s a little too serious and conventional.
Elsewhere, chaos descends with an unpredictability that is as absurd as it is alarming. A newspaper’s picture desk, long used to insane requests to doctor photos of Ceausescu to suit the current propaganda, is rushed into a botch-job that would be hysterical if their lives weren’t on the line. A man’s stroke of good fortune in acquiring a pig for Christmas is undercut by the realisation that, should he go public, he’ll have to share the meat with his neighbours. His solution is both understandable and entirely ludicrous, and isn’t going to end well. And two modern-day grifters, educated only by a fuzzy, black-and-white bootleg of Bonnie and Clyde, pose as government inspectors to scam tenants out of their lucrative recyclable bottles.
The overall message, echoing 4 Months, is that only through guile and daredevilry can you get ahead, but it’s a dangerous job bucking the system. Then again, as proved by the sublime opening section (the anthology’s standout film) it’s equally dangerous to play by the rules. As a village prepares for an official state visit, it finds itself stymied by attempts to second-guess the likes and dislikes of the party bigwigs. Obediance becomes its own kind of hell, the total paralysis of a nation held under siege by its officious but illogical rule. Mungiu devises an extraordinary narrative coup for this story – an image of helpless laughter that’s one of the funniest, and the darkest, moments a ‘comedy’ has produced for years.