12:08 East of Bucharest Review

A large part of Corneliu Porumboiu’s film 12:08 East of Bucharest takes place in a single set location - a point of view perspective on a local TV talk show featuring a host and two guests in front of a static background, discussing the events that took place on the occasion of the Romanian revolution in 1989. It’s a limited set-up for a film, but it’s to the credit of the young director - making the film independently and clearly working with a limited budget - that the low-key situation, which gives rise to a fair amount of humour, is entirely appropriate for the subject.

It was sixteen years previously on 22nd December 1989 at 12:08 that the Romania’s Communist leader Ceausescu was deposed during the wave of revolution that was then sweeping across eastern Europe. The exact time, 12:08, is particularly important in this case since Virgil Jderescu (Teodor Corban), the presenter of a local television chat show, is trying to consider the significance of the revolution in the smaller Romanian towns – specifically whether they contributed to the revolution by turning out on the streets before the revolution started or after 12:08, by which time it was more or less all over.

Unable to attract any important guests onto the show (this close to Christmas he can barely get his own crew together at the TV station), Jderescu has to settle for a couple of local characters to present their eye-witness account of the events of the day, and neither of them are particularly reliable witnesses. One is old man Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu) - the town’s Santa Claus for many a year and now terrorised by those kids with firecrackers - who has a tendency to ramble on. The other guest is Manescu (Ion Sapdaru), a persistently drunk teacher at the local college, who claims that he and some of his colleagues were in the town square before 12:08, but it seems that he may have never left the bar for most of the historic day. Nevertheless, between them and callers ringing in with dissenting viewpoints, they try to establish whether the revolution really happened in the town.

It’s a thorny issue - made somewhat more complicated by the fact that the clock in the town square has never been entirely accurate – but it’s an important one. Or maybe it’s not important at all. It’s not so much a question of whether those in the provinces turned out to take part in effecting revolution, or whether they opportunistically – and much more safely – turned up in their masses after Ceausescu was already airlifted away in his helicopter, as much as whether they have really embraced the concept of the revolution at all. For many, it was simply something that took place on television and it has effectively made no real difference to their lives – something the director successfully conveys in the simple scenes of ordinary life that frame the television show.

Porumboiu however most successfully manages to convey this in the very funny TV chat show that makes up almost the entire second-half of the film. The static camera perspective is limited in dramatic terms, but the cameraman (and consequently Porumboiu himself) makes the most of it, moving the camera around and trying to make a provincial TV chat show look a lot more sexy than it really is. And this after all is the point of the film. Romania has apparently gone through a bloody revolution, but it doesn’t seemed to have lived up to the billing, being neither as dramatic as desired, nor bringing about any great social change. With the country – at the time of the film’s making - on the verge of joining the new Europe through their entry into the EU, the same questions are undoubtedly raised as to whether this will have any greater impact, or whether the ordinary people will again be left on the sidelines.

12:08 East of Bucharest is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The DVD is in PAL format, on a dual-layer disc, and is encoded for Region 2.

The film has been given the usual solid presentation on DVD that we have come to expect from Artificial Eye. It’s presented anamorphically at the correct ratio of 1.85:1, there are no marks on the print, colours are perfectly toned and contrast is strong and accurate. The only issue is again some pulsation and flickering caused by image compression. It’s only visible in some scenes and not particularly pronounced, but much will depend on the sensitivity of individual display devices to this kind of digital artefacting.

The only audio track is a Dolby Digital 2.0 option, but it is certainly more than adequate. Dialogue and sounds are perfectly clear, and the stereo separation is strong enough to give the film an adequate three-dimensional quality without the artificial distraction of direct surround sound.

English subtitles are in a clear white font and are optional.

Again, full credit to Artificial Eye, their half-hour director interviews are the most relevant extra feature you can have on releases of new international cinema, and the Interview with Corneliu Porumboiu (28:30) is as informative as usual. Interspersed with a lot of clips from the film, the young director talks about the inspiration for the film – being based on a real TV show he had seen – and discusses how he worked on the script, developed the characters with the actors and shot the film on location, independently, with financial contributions mainly from his family. Inevitably he discusses the nature of the revolution that the film is about and considers Romania’s place in the EU, but doesn’t have a great deal more to say about the subject than is in the film. The extra features are rounded out with a funny Trailer (1:16) which captures the tone of the film and its humour well, and a Director’s Biography which notes Porumboiu’s three shorts as well as the fact that 12:08 East of Bucharest is the director’s first feature film.

A small independent film with a limited dramatic setting, Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest works those limitations to its advantage to present a simple, funny, yet meaningful film effectively. Its low-key approach is in keeping with the subject matter - not a big, dramatic and heroic entry into the revolution of new Romanian and East European cinema, but one whose intentions are certainly in the right place. Artificial Eye’s DVD release is the usual solid affair.

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