"Accounting," says a character in this film, "is a respectable profession regardless of the political system." That may well be true. But when the political system is an impassive fifty-year-old oak and you are a leaf on that oak, distant from the trunk yet still subject to the same wind and weather, you may at times find it easier to be a little less than respectable. So often has the infantryman or flunky excused his complicity by claiming he was just following orders that we wondered how all those unruly classmates we had known over the years could have turned out to be such dutiful adults. Now we have the answer: they were simply waiting for the masses to speak.
The Romanian title, as clarified in just about every review, literally means "Was there or wasn't there," and the subject of that pair of verbs is revolution. Revolution, mind you, in the humble hamlet of Vaslui which, I was disappointed to learn, actually exists. Not surprisingly, my research tells me that Vaslui (now home to roughly 70,000 inhabitants) is also the birthplace of the film's director. Demographic studies have the population peaking shortly after the December 1989 putsch that saw the overthrow and public shooting of this reviled autocrat, then contracting in the last fifteen years to its current size. Not that you would be able to obtain an accurate head count from watching the film, since some municipal code apparently prohibits more than fifty people from leaving their homes at any given time. In fact, four people assembled in front of a public statue would constitute, on a Vasluian scale, not only a crowd but a threat to governmental stability. The only question remaining is whether those four people arrived at the scene of democratic liberation before or after Ceauşescu's escape by helicopter had been announced.
Tiberiu Mănescu (Ion Sapdaru), the only living member of this heroic quartet, is a teacher and a raging alcoholic, not necessarily in that order. He is also, for one special day, a guest on the very low-budget television news program of a textile engineer-turned-journalist by the name of Virgil Jderescu (Teodor Corban). The original Vergil did a bang-up job leading Dante through a possible variant of hell, and this Virgil has similar expository ambitions: he will prove once and for all whether a town east of Bucharest was indeed the site of revolution before the 12:08 helicopter lift-off. To this end, he has invited Mănescu, who cannot remember the orgiastic events of the previous evening but allegedly has total recall of his movements on that fateful day sixteen years ago, and a retiree, Emanoil Pişcoci (Mirea Andreescu), to get to the bottom of the mystery. A harmless vulgarian (and, at Christmas, a Santa impersonator) who detests the whole investigative charade, Pişcoci admits from the very beginning that he did not have the testicular wherewithal to challenge a healthy Ceauşescu regime. He is a coward, but so is everyone else who waited it out and flooded the square once the news broke. A whole country of cowards, he says. On the other hand, Mănescu maintains that he and his cohorts drank themselves brave then proceeded to march on town hall with Robespierrian fervor. Yet the select few who call in to the miserable show (including a former state security officer who assures viewers he was just an accountant at the time) refute this claim. Mănescu is a drunk, and could there be a less reliable eyewitness than a drunk? And who would believe this sad sack anyway given that a sentry, a neighbor, and a silver-tongued accountant-turned-entrepreneur (who apparently punched him in the face then shoved him into a sentry booth) all vividly recollect that there was not a soul in front of town hall before at least 12:30 pm? Then, the disembodied voices concur, a crowd certainly appeared and it "only took ten minutes for the entire square to fill up." Most revolutions, they imply, are bandwagon affairs.
Apart from some nice banter among the panelists and callers, there is also the recurring character of Chen, the town's most conspicuous (and perhaps lone) Chinese citizen. The immigrant shopkeeper is the only one of the six callers to defend Mănescu, even though Mănescu abused him verbally in a drunken stupor and owes him a large sum of money. With appropriate philosophical distance, Chen confesses that he does "not like the way Romanians treat each other." After a predictable xenophobic barrage from Virgil, Chen adds, almost with a sigh: "I just say what I see." If only Virgil, who quotes (but hasn't a clue about) Plato and Heraclitus, could follow this advice himself. But, he argues, his line of work limits him to echoing what others say, and as a journalist he cannot possibly be held responsible for the opinions of the general public. Vox populi, vox dei, Vaslui. Or something like that.