Twenty years on from the fall of Ceausescu, Romanian filmmakers are finally learning how to make people laugh about their country’s dark pastby Brian Semple / December 22, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
On Christmas day 1989, people across the world turned on their televisions to see Nicolae Ceausescu, president of Romania’s brutal communist government, shot dead with his wife by a firing squad from his own army. Ceausescu had been in power for 24 years, but his regime unraveled in just four days: protests and rioting on 21st December forced him to flee Bucharest in a helicopter, before he was arrested by the Romanian army, sentenced to death by a military court for crimes ranging from genocide to corruption, and promptly shot.
Their execution was one of the most shocking and memorable moments of the end of the cold war, yet despite the many column inches dedicated this year to the fall of the Berlin wall, there has been little attention given to the 20th anniversary of Ceausescu’s demise. But if the west has been slow to remember the tumultuous end to Romania’s “golden age” (as Ceausescu described his reign), a new generation of film directors who grew up in that era are determined to ensure it is not forgotten.
Foremost among them is Cristian Mungiu, whose first major film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days won the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 2007. A harrowing but mesmerising account of a backstreet abortion (under Ceausescu abortion was outlawed to combat low birth rates), the film was conceived as the part of a cycle of stories based on Romania in the latter years of Ceausescu’s regime. The second installment, Tales from the Golden Age (also the name of the trilogy), was released in October, and, in contrast to 4 Months, is a darkly comic take on the lives of ordinary Romanians struggling to survive under a chaotic and absurd regime. It shows the residents of a tiny village desperately painting trees, scrubbing cows and paving roads in preparation for an official party visit that never transpires. A panicked state photographer scrambles to prevent the daily newspaper going to press after he realises it features a picture of a hatless Ceausescu alongside the be-hatted French president (thus suggesting capitalism’s superiority over communism). And a policeman who has been given a live pig by a relative for Christmas devises a crazy plan to gas the animal in his tiny apartment without attracting the attention of his hungry neighbours.