Judging by The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu and Corneliu Porumboiu's debut feature 12:08 East Of Bucharest (not to mention the reports from Cannes about this year's Palme D'or-winning 4 Months 3 Weeks & 2 Days), Romanian cinema is on a roll, led by warmly naturalistic films that emphasize character and performance over formal mastery. It isn't that the new Romanian films are devoid of style, but their virtuosity is expressed more in long conversations, allowed to play out in precisely composed frames.
The first half of 12:08 East Of Bucharest consists almost entirely of scenes that run in unbroken medium-to-long shots. It's a few days before Christmas, and smug TV host Ion Sapdaru is calling around his small town, looking for guests to appear on his afternoon panel show. Porumboiu quietly sketches the friendships and foibles of a close-knit community where kids roam the streets setting off firecrackers, subtly unnerving the two men who eventually agree to help Sapdaru: drunken, deep-in-debt history teacher Teo Corban, and grumpy old Santa Claus impersonator Mircea Andreescu. All three men engage each other and their neighbors in casual, dryly funny conversations that wind around and tell viewers all they need to know about post-Communism Romania, where people struggle to fill their days and to decide who to blame for their shortcomings.
The last half of the movie covers Sapdaru's broadcast, which is devoted to asking whether his town really took part in the recent revolution, since nobody took to the streets until after Nicolae Ceausescu stepped down. 12:08 East Of Bucharest is less interested in answering that question than in watching its three protagonists prick at each other for 40 minutes of fine farce, in which cameras fail, callers bicker, and a spirited discussion gradually deflates. But the two points—whether a revolution can happen if nobody risks anything, and whether the long memories of small-town stalwarts can be both a blessing and a curse—aren't mutually exclusive. The film expresses its politics through scenes where a little boy confronts Sapdaru and demands to know when his station is going to show cartoons, and in the way Sapdaru's skittish wife keeps trying to share moments of familial intimacy with him, only to get scared off by his snappishness. Porumboiu starts off making a mordant slice of life, but he gradually entwines the personal and the historical, then ends on a poignant note. The story and situation are slight, but in the best possible way.