A solid film that reminds us of how America is perceived throughout the world, and what a loss it was that director Nemescu died so young.

James Plath's picture

In the 2000s, Romanian cinema came into its own, with a number of directors winning prizes on the international stage. Cristi Puiu's "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" (2005) won the Prix Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival. Corneliu Prumboiu's "12:08 East of Bucharest" won Camera d'Or at Cannes prize for best first feature a year later, and in 2007 Cristian Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" was awarded the Palme d'Or at Cannes--the first Romanian filmmaker to achieve the honor. That same year, a young filmmaker named Cristian Nemescu was six weeks into editing his own film when he was killed in an automobile accident. But the promising 27-year-old filmmaker was honored posthumously with the Prix Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Festival for his "California Dreamin' (Nesfarsit)"--the parenthetical addendum meaning "unfinished."

It's impossible to know what more Nemescu would have done to the film to shape it further, but because the first two acts feel more compelling and polished, one suspects he might have tinkered with the final third a bit more. Even "as is," "California Dreamin'" is an accomplished film that displays the sure hand of a director who knows what he wants and how to achieve it.

You get that sense from the very first black-and-white sequence set during the waning years of WWII, when American planes were bombing Romania. Nemescu manages to recreate a scene so memorable that you understand why a stationmaster many years later would behave as he does when a trainload of American soldiers passes through his little checkpoint. In that opening black-and-white sequence, an unexploded bomb "Made in Newport Beach, California" crashes through the roof of an apartment building, then falls through a floor and rolls down the stairs, as if chasing evacuees who hurry downstairs to the safety of the basement. When that bomb rolls to a stop right by that little boy whose heart must have been pounding as furiously as viewers', and you wait for an explosion that never comes, you know exactly why the adult Doiaru (Razvan Vasilescu) begins his discussion with an American military officer with some civility . . . but then it all comes out: "Fuck USA, fuck NATO!"

The year is 1999, and NATO is engaged in a conflict with Serbia over the status of the province of Kosovo. When Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic ordered his Serbian troops to retake Kosovo, which was controlled by ethnic Albanians, the slaghter of Albanians prompted NATO to launch bombing raids on Serbian targets.

In "California Dreamin,'" a no-nonsense American officer (Armand Assante) takes charge of a trainload of U.S. Marines and top-secret equipment--including a new NATO radar system--which he's ordered to deliver to Kosovo. The Romanian government has phoned all of the stations across the country with orders not to mess with this train, to let them pass. But Doiaru has other ideas. He jeopardizes his extensive black market operation by detaining the NATO train, taking its engine, and leaving it on a side track in his small town of Capalnita.

Using hand-held cameras, tight frames and guerilla filmmaking techniques, Nemescu creates a film with real immediacy. Meanwhile, his multiple points-of-view parallel editing effectively tells the story from both the American and the Romanian perspectives and establishes ironic contrasts that propel the film forward as surely as the narrative.

The concept itself is fairly conventional. Blake Edwards did something similar with "What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?" (1966), an offbeat account of a group of American soldiers who were ordered to occupy a quaint Italian town that was quite willing to be occupied--that is, as long as they had their wine festival first. In "California Dreamin'," the mayor (Ion Sapdaru), who isn't above looking for his cut of certain train shipments that the crooked stationmaster has been "skimming," decides that the perfect way to welcome the Americans is to create a celebration to which they might be invited--like the town's 100th anniversary. Never mind that they already commemorated the event. They do it all over again, because the mayor sees opportunities for the town with the soldiers. In the matter of cultural clash-with one group finding itself temporarily stranded among another, "California Dreamin'" is not unlike "The Band's Visit" (2007).

In one of the most interesting series of quick cuts, Nemescu juxtaposes the "briefing sessions" for each local special interest group. Doiaru's daughter, who tried to leave town by hopping aboard the ill-fated train before her father stopped it, meets with other young women on the topic of "seductiveness"--how to appeal to the Americans. They ogle the Marines and she takes special interest in one of them (Jamie Elman), who reminds them all of Ricky Martin. The mayor and other men talk about opportunities that could come the town's way. Even the black marketers have a strategy. Like the Americans from "What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?," the Americans go with the flow . . . though what flows here is less wine than a parade of faux Americana blatantly designed to impress. And whether it's watching a pathetic Elvis impersonator or looking crosswise at hastily painted portraits of George Washington, the Americans--or at least American audiences--really get a sense of how the United States is perceived abroad. That's something most Americans don't realize unless you travel a lot. In Cuba, I had young boys coming up to me all the time to practice their English and offer their assistance, hoping for a big tip, of course. And when I told them I was from Chicago? "Chee-caw-go. Bang bang, Michael Jordan." To them, it was all about Al Capone and MJ. The icons that "America" is distilled down to for the people of Capalnita are just as random . . . and revealing.

But it isn't just America that's the target in Nemescu's satirical film. Romania also takes a hit, with the people's and politicians aspirations unrealistically copied from wealthier western countries. It's the same willful yielding that greeted Edwards' G.I.s met in that tiny Italian town, motivated by the desire to move from a national "have-not" to join the favored "have" nations. What's most striking, though, is the complex way in which Nemescu treats the politics in "California Dreamin'." The Americans are bound by NATO orders and their own military code, but nothing has prepared them for the political system in which they've suddenly found themselves. In Calpanita, as one suspects elsewhere, power rests with locals and bribes and confiscations are part of the routine. They have a long way to go in order to figuratively get to California, which for some represents the pinnacle of American affluence, and for others--like Doiaru--that affluence respresents the inconceivable power that America has in the world. As this quiet farce plays itself out, the acting is supportively strong, but it remains Doiaru's show, with the mayor and the American Captain Jones discovering that affluence--even if it comes from the Black Market--means power on any level. "California Dreamin'" is an enjoyable farce.

There's some grain, but this IFC release offers quality transfer, with the 154-minute film presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Colors are rich, fleshtones are natural, and the level of detail is decent for a standard-def release.

Beware of a dubbed version that's floating around, and accept no substitutes. This release features an English/Romanian 2.0 Dolby Digital soundtrack with English, English SDH, and Spanish subtitles. It's a little clunky that this bilingual film provides constant subtitles--even when English is spoken--but I appreciate having the original languages. I wonder, though, why Romanian isn't a subtitle option, especially since this film was produced with the support of The Romanian National Film Center. The sound quality is adequate, though it would have been nice to have had more ambient sound spread across six channels.

The PAL version of this film contained a 30-minute making-of feature, but no such luck with the North American version. The only bonus feature is a trailer. That's it.

Bottom Line:
"California Dreamin'" is an accomplished film that poses no easy answers and manages to study two cultures and their sub-groups with all the fascination of a trainload of anthropologists. It's a solid film that reminds us of how America is perceived throughout the world, and what a loss it was that director Nemescu died so young.


Film Value