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Devised by Romanian director Cristian Mungiu, the ironically titled Tales From The Golden Age consists of five short films, all set during the last 15 years of Ceausescu's dictatorship
Romanian director Cristian Mungiu, who won the Palme d'Or in 2007 with the masterful 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days, was the driving-force behind this omnibus film. He scripted all the individual stories and directed one segment himself, allowing the other four to be shot by different novice Romanian filmmakers. What connects the various parts is that they all draw on urban legends from the Ceausescu era, exploring with absurdist humour how ordinary citizens survived this totalitarian regime.
Thus in 'The Legend Of The Official Activist', there are frantic preparations in a village which is expecting the arrival of an official motorcade. The title character (Avram Birau) in 'The Legend Of The Party Photographer' is required to doctor a front-page photograph of a hatless Ceausescu shaking hands with the taller French President Valery Giscard D'Estaing, in case the image gives the impression that communism is somehow subservient to capitalism. During 'The Legend Of The Greedy Policeman', the said official (Ion Sapdaru) and his family attempt to kill a pig in their kitchen without alerting the neighbours. And in 'The Legend Of The Sellers', a couple of students (Diana Cavaliotti and Radu Iacoban) devise a scam involving collecting air samples in glass receptacles which they can then sell at the bottle bank.
The outstanding contribution here, 'The Legend Of The Chicken Driver', bears Mungiu's authorial stamp, with its impressively controlled tone and the fact that the protagonist is played by Vlad Ivanov, so memorable as the illegal abortionist in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. Enduring an unhappy marriage, middle-aged truck driver Grigore (Ivanov) is responsible for transporting crates of chickens across the country. Keen to impress a female restaurant owner (Tania Popa), he accepts her proposal to sell fresh eggs from his cargo, in complete breach of his company rules.
Food turns out to be one of recurrent motifs in Tales From The Golden Age, where shortages of the most basic supplies force characters into desperate measures. A glimpse of the inside of a butcher's shop in the 'Greedy Policeman' episode makes the viewer understand just why a whole fresh pig has such value, while even amongst school kids, items such as bananas are a crucial currency.
Unlike in portmanteau films such as Eros or Paris, Je T'Aime, there are no weak links here. Bookended by patriotic anthems and archive footage of real-life party rallies, these five shorts work on their own terms while also possessing a cumulative impact. By persuasively portraying the resourcefulness of ordinary citizens in their efforts to survive in their everyday lives, Mungiu and his colleagues avoid the perils of cheap nostalgia.
Shot with clarity and plenty of dry humour, this impressive collection of five short films is proof of the youthful vitality of the New Romanian Cinema.
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On Channel 4: 20 April 2014