Tales from the Golden Age: A revue

15 June, 2020

The two films that comprise the Tales from The Golden Age are available on Netflix, with three words attached as a description: cynical, irreverent and comedic. Which, of course, is absolutely true. To make fun of the Party, to wrangle around with censorship, to laugh at the official activists, to reveal household secrets, or to expose how the finely-tuned state apparatus was used by certain individuals for their personal gains – well, all of these were something that would’ve been harshly punished in the eighties, the time-space which encompasses the six tales in the film.

The Tales are, in fact, short films connected in one long, two and a half hour stream of comedy, a darkly funny take on an era that sucked the life out of us and that, for some, still feels like an eternally fresh would, so many years later. These stories are urban legends that have been passed around by generations, happenings with unexpected endings, all starting from the various absurd parameters life reached to during the communist regime.

Amintiri din Epoca de Aur
Tales from the Golden Age

The Legend of the Official Visit 

The story goes that, at one point during the eighties, an official motorcade was due to pass straight through the hearts of three neighboring villages. The legendary wheels would, as it is, ennoble the villages with their mere presence, knocking them out like bowling pins, one after the other. At that time, given the chaotic and contradictory information that would stream downwards from the upper echelons of the party, as well as the generalized state of fear that made one think that any single gesture could be taken wrong, preparing such an event meant reaching a high level of paranoia.

We see our proud village people sweeping the yet unpaved roads, their animals locked away, lest they accidentally dump a load on the street. The kids are learning the national anthem on speed run, hoping that the motorcade will make a stop in their hometowns, so that the travelers would be given the treat of a song. Cabbage and grapevine leaves are being rolled into traditional sarmale. Flags are being hung all over the place, with the regulatory blue color being set at the mast, then overtaken by a second wave of red flags, since the rumour has it that the neighboring village has already put them up. Don’t crave for your neighbor’s goat, as the old Romanian saying goes, becomes a quite literal prerequisite: meaning, get yourself a goat that is as least as nice as your neighbor’s, lest you be taken for a fool. In short – it’s all a big mess. And the motorcade itself isn’t even the reason for it, the real problem is the prior inspection, which the mayor expects in the same way that he’s expecting a heart attack. The good part is that, in the countryside, the spirits are tasty, the minstrels are happy at any time, the merry-go-round has enough seats for everybody and, from a certain point onward, it’s in charge of everything. A film which seemingly illustrates a local aphorism: now that you’ve entered the dance, then it’s time for you to play.

Amintiri din Epoca de Aur
Tales from the Golden Age

The Legend of the Party Photographer

It was hard to be a journalist in the eighties. And it was even harder to be a photojournalist. If written words were easy to cut up and the imperative formulas were easy to learn by heart up to the point that they became reflexes, it was harder to edit photos on the get-go. Back then, photos were developed manually and it would take you a good couple of minutes to find out what you had managed to shoot in the first place, and then your picture would pass from one set of hands to another, it would be assessed by trained eyes that would be able to judge its worth. If the picture was one of Nicolae Ceausescu himself, things would be even more complicated, the sets of eyes meant to inspect the picture would multiply tenfold, and the one to take upon himself the decision to publish the picture would take on the weight of the world, not unlike Atlas himself.

Rumor has it, then, that one fateful day of a fateful year, where everything was blessed and none dared to say the contrary, the Great Leader was photographed in a quite delicate posture. The picture was due to run on the first page of the Scanteia newspaper, the working classes’ favorite outlet, who was rushing to find out news about the construction of socialism and the path of the motherland. It is well-known that a newspaper needs time to be printed and to be distributed across an entire country, in a process that is so finely-tuned, it even has its own fixed hours. And, most importantly, with its correct(ed) picture on the frontpage. Sometimes, however, as the legend goes, this one single time, where haste didn’t mix well with expectation, a great error took place.

The Legend of the Zealous Activist

They say that the party meeting, where the young members of the party would wholeheartedly discuss the issue of alphabetizing their countrymen, would be taken so seriously that they would even set out to the remotest corners of the land to get the job done. But how do you really set about to alphabetize an old shepherd who’s spent his whole life on a mountaintop? By force, by using the mayor’s orders? The politician would find himself duly rewarded with caches of fresh cheese, eggs, bratwurst and pies for not taking absences and subpar grades into account. He faces such challenges stoically, up until the point where he is led on by the children, who, in this case, assume the shape of adults.

In the end, it’s clear that all of these good intentions pave the road to hell, in a place that functions according to its own unbreakable rules. This tale is a good exercise of interpretation: who do you root for when the party’s orders finally coincide with what is good for the future?

The Legend of the Greedy Policeman

Gag orders were the name of the game in the eighties, and there was no better place to see them in motion other than the high-rises. Far away from the eyes of prodding neighbors and their annoying children, secrets were just like green bananas: ubiquitous in the houses of the moderately rich, hidden in the back of the top shelf and wrapped in newspaper clippings. The moment in which they turned ripe for consumption was quickly indulged, and the delicacies would vanish as if they hadn’t even been there in the first place. The policeman in this legend stuck around in collective memory due to a pig. Of course, both bananas and yapping kids with lively imaginations have a big part to play in this happening.

The pig, the most yearned-for possession of the winter season, arrives in our protagonists’ house on Christmas Eve, bringing with him a host of problems for a family which wants to keep it all to themselves, without raising any suspicions upon themselves. A task which is not at all easy, given the fact that they have to hide a live animal in their crummy apartment.

The Legend of the Air Sellers

During the communist era, long before ecology lessons and recycling were virtues in the fight for Mother Earth’s wellbeing, bottles and jars were never ever discarded. They were, instead, goods to be exchanged: empty ones for full ones, or empty ones for money. Everything was set like clockworks, and, as one knows, where there’s rules, there’s rulebreakers. The air vendor, they say, was born in a high-rise, and his particular type of business was aimed at the most gullible segment of the population – elderly people and kids that were waiting for their parents to come home from work.

The ruse was simple, and the bottles flew out of kitchens into the conman’s bag with the sheer promise that, one fateful day, tap water would be fit for human consumption. The problem arises when the vendor’s team gets bigger, and so, its profits are duly multiplied. Just like Bonnie and Clyde, watched on clandestine VCRs bought with bottle money: the more you make, the more you want to get, and where there’s a will, there’s a way, but also a lot of stupidity. So when water turns from liquid to gas, and this method is also seemingly too cumbersome, the sellers slowly, yet surely, construct a beautiful, ecological pyramid scheme within their concrete empires. There’s a beginning for everything, right?

Amintiri din Epoca de Aur
Tales from the Golden Age

The Legend of the Chicken Driver

Walk by faith, not by sight. This one saying can be read in the tired gaze of the man who’s silently watching his mean wife sleep like there’s no tomorrow, night after night. This repetitive ritual spills from the conjugal bed onto the seat of his truck, which he uses to drive around somewhere between two and three thousand chickens every day, from on town to another. This road must be taken daily, and the back doors of the truck may only be opened upon arrival. It’s not important why, it’s important that this is the rule. But sometimes, during holidays, especially during Easter, when eggs are touted around, even though you can’t find them in the stores, the rules seem to beg to be broken. Courage grows in our protagonist’s heart like a soft cake in the oven of a hard-working woman.

The legend says that all that was needed was a single night and a god-sent flat tire to make one realize that the eggs that had appeared in the truck overnight were akin to Schrodinger’s cat, they exist and yet they don’t, depending on what side of the doors you’re on. This example speaks volumes when it comes to the Romanians’ capacity to find ways in which to steal and profit from products whisked away from their workplaces, at a time in which the stores were empty.

 

Tales from the Golden Age is a project that was kickstarted by Cristian Mungiu and Hanno Hofer. Mungiu went on to write all the scripts of the films and to work on their production, directing them along with Ioana Uricariu, Hanno Hofer, Razvan Marculescu and Constantin Popescu. Starring Alexandru Potocean, Teodor Corban, Emanuel Pirvu, Avram Birau, Paul Dunca, Calin Chirila, Stefan Iancu, Romeo Tudor, Ion Sapdaru, Cristian Olescher, Diana Cavallioti, Radu Iacoban, Vlad Ivanov, Tania Popa.

The legend says that the film’s DVD booklet also contains stories from the five directors from the film sets, but, most importantly, it has six more stories from the communist age, as funny and unexpected as the first, which could be considered a third part of the film.

 

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Crăița Nanu Crăița Nanu
Screenwriter and festival reporter. She writes about movies on vice.ro, TIFF blog, Dilema Veche, Scena 9 and other publications.