Urban legends never die. They’re told in schoolyards, at lunch breaks, at the dinner table.
Did you hear about the greedy policeman who gassed a pig to death in his kitchen?
Did you hear about the city officials who got stuck all night on a Ferris wheel?
In Cristian Mungiu’s film Tales from the Golden Age, opening on Saturday as part of Lincoln Center’s Film Comment series, these legends often revolve, pardon the pun, around David and Goliath stories—brief moments where an overworked, hungry populace gets the better of a totalitarian government. The title of the film refers to the Ceausescu era in Romania, from the late ’60s through the 1980s, “the Golden Age” according to Communist propaganda. It is threaded with details about life in Romania at that time—heavy industrialization, poverty, food-rationing—but Mungiu’s touch is incredibly light. A young girl is chastised for eating a banana in class because she is making the other students hungry. In the same class two boys try to win a girl’s affection with half-sandwiches (the girl prefers salami). A woman from the circus sleeps with the local policeman to get petrol for the Ferris wheel.
Of the six urban legends, the most powerful and surprising is “The Air Sellers.” It begins as a story of teenage angst—the loud music, make-out parties, and loose-limbed teenage shuffle need no translation. But “The Air Sellers” develops like a photograph, against a background of chemical plants that pollute the air, factories that pollute the water, and people so surprised to think that the government might care they’re willing to let two thieves into their house.
You might expect a film about legends to be cartoonish, but this is anything but. Tales from the Golden Age is beautifully shot. Some frames look like a surrealist painting—a cacophony of grit, wire-fences and multiplying windows. The stories themselves are Chekhovian. If Chekhov was a realist, it was not only for his perfectly rendered details, but also because his bleak stories dramatized our need to make myths out of our own lives.
Tales from the Golden Age screens tomorrow, 2/27, as part of the Film Comments Selects series at Lincoln Center.