TALES FROM THE GOLDEN AGE (2009) - A Review
AKA: AMINTIRI DIN EPOCA DE AUR
And subtitled Romanian Urban Myths of the '80s. Being that a little historical context is necessary, let's start with just a bit of text from the DVD cover: "The final fifteen years of the Ceausescu regime were the worst in Romania's history. Nonetheless, the propaganda machine of that time relentlessly referred to that period as the country's Golden Age."
Before we watched this film, I read a little about it online. Several reviews essentially said that, if you weren't there (for the Ceausescu years), you wouldn't get it. Well, that's a load of bunk. This is a film that speaks a universal language - satire. And the thing it's satirizing is a nearly universal source of angst - the stupidity of bureaucracies. Anyone over the age of, say, twelve, who's ever had to deal with a dysfunctional human system will understand what this film is all about.
One aspect of this film that is fairly unique, though, is that it's a comic anthology. Golden Age consists of six different stories, all written by Cristian Mungiu, and directed by Mungiu and four other directors. The titles of the episodes often give a hint of the type of foolishness to come: The Legend of the Official Visit; The Legend of the Party Photographer; The Legend of the Zealous Activist; The Legend of the Greedy Policeman; The Legend of the Air Sellers; and The Legend of the Chicken Driver. I don't think it will spoil anything to tell you that a recurring theme is the search for the basic necessities of life, generally food. This search is, of course, both caused by, and impeded by, the aforementioned dysfunctional human systems.
The Official Visit is somewhat self-explanatory, and concerns a small town preparing ("Clean up that cow shit!" "Bring the cow over! Bring the cow over!") for a visit from high officials - only to have things go horribly wrong.
The Party Photographer portrays the efforts to manipulate an official news photo so it meets party requirements - only to have things go horribly wrong.
The Zealous Activist is about just that - a zealous activist who volunteers to bring the literacy rate in a remote village up to 100%. Of course, things go horribly wrong...
I think you get the idea. We enjoyed each episode, and the film as a whole, though some stood out above the rest for me. The Official Visit was the most laugh out loud funny of the legends, and, since it's the first story, the film starts off on a high note. The Party Photographer was a truly classic representation of how you generally make things worse, not better, when you start massaging the truth, and it builds to a very good (visual) punchline. The educated urbanite versus the wise country folk theme of The Zealous Activist was also very enjoyable, and showed the very real perils of being overzealous. I also very much enjoyed the final legend, The Chicken Driver, though it was more lightly humorous than full-on funny, and had a pleasantly bittersweet tone to it.
So while some stood out more than others, none of the episodes here were less than perfectly enjoyable. I don't know why there aren't more comic anthologies, frankly. Lord knows we still get horror anthologies turning up. And, since dying is easy, but comedy is hard, it seems like a smart move to hedge your bets by putting together several short humorous stories like this film does. That way, even if one or two bomb, the film as a whole may still be worthwhile.
But in my zeal, I digress. Suffice to say that this film was a pleasant surprise, and is a little satirical gem. My only real complaint might be that it has a running time (well over two hours) that generally gives me pause. But, given the episodic nature of Golden Age, it can easily be taken in a legend or two at a time.
One definition of comedy is that comedy is tragedy that happens to someone else. In this specific case, the tragedy happened to Romania. But the greater tragedy, the one that will speak to anyone watching this film, is the human tragedy. In other words, whether you're Romanian or not, you will doubtlessly find many things here you recognize, and much to recommend.
Comrades! Life is beautiful! Now, clean up that cow shit!