California Dreamin' (Web Exclusive) 
Reviewed by Monica Filimon

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Produced by Andrei Boncea, Dan Badea, Calin Furtunescu, Iuliana Tarnovetchi; directed by Cristian Nemescu; screenplay by Tudor Voican, Cristian Nemescu, Catherine Linstrum; cinematography by Liviu Marghidan; production design by Ioana Corciova; costumes by Ana Ioneci; edited by Cătălin Cristuțiu; starring Armand Assante, Răzvan Vasilescu, Jamie Elman, Maria Dinulescu, Ion Sapdaru, Alexandru Mărgineanu, Andi Vasluianu, Gabriel Spahiu, Cătălina Mustaţă. Color, 155 mins. An IFC Films release.

Awarded the “Un Certain Regard” prize at Cannes in 2007, the annus mirabilis for the new Romanian filmmakers, Cristian Nemescu’s first—and, unfortunately, last—feature film, California Dreamin’ (Romania, 2006) could easily have qualified as a film about the consequences of war had stories of organized corruption, bureaucratic ineptitude, carnivalesque partying, and budding love teetering between intense sensuality and delicate shyness not derailed it. Nemescu’s untimely death in a car crash in 2006, before completing a final cut of this film, makes it impossible to know his definitive take on these many episodes, so diverse in tone,.

The contrast between California Dreamin’ and the other Romanian film featured in 2007 at Cannes—Cristian Mungiu’s “Palme d’Or” winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days(2007)—could not have been greater. With stark realism, Mungiu’s film examines the effects of totalitarianism on the individual’s emotional and ethical space. In that respect, his work is of a piece with other Romanian films now well-known in the United States such as Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) and Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), which also focused on poverty and corruption in post-Communist Romania.

Almost a decade younger than these filmmakers, Nemescu’s work embodies a different sensibility. For him, social and political reality takes second place to effervescent, playful storytelling. He chose to set shorts like Mihai and Cristina (2001) or C Block Story (2003) in ghettoized neighborhoods of Bucharest—the “products” of extensive demolition campaigns during Communism—but designed these tightly packed love stories as intensive visual and aural experiments. California Dreamin’, produced by the same crew, was a project started in 2004 but received insufficient state funds—the traditional source for young directors—and was made only in 2006, when a private studio stepped in. This film tames the formalistic boldness of Nemescu’s shorts, but allows flashes of the poetry and humor of his earlier works to percolate through its narrative.

Loosely based on a true event, California Dreamin’ unfolds in a remote Romanian village during the 1999 Kosovo War. The local stationmaster, the irascible and feared Doiaru (Răzvan Vasilescu), sidetracks a NATO transport for five days for failing to present the proper transit documentation. While the papers are meandering through the uncoordinated offices of Bucharest bureaucrats, Captain Jones (Armand Assante), Sergeant David (Jamie Elman) and their troops become the main point of attraction for the isolated community. The grandiose visions of the mayor (Ion Sapdaru) concerning the future are archly humorous even as Nemescu’s sharp irony constantly undercuts them. The mayor throws a party in honor of the transport troops and, on the sly, plots to eliminate Doiaru for reasons not immediately apparent. Monica (Maria Dinulescu), Doiaru’s rash, but sensitive daughter who has become increasingly restless living in the village, constantly berates her father and plans to leave. Attracted to David, she tastes, for a short time, the exciting life she has been craving. Andrei (Alexandru Mărgineanu), Monica’s nerdy but lovable classmate, completes this odd romantic triangle as the English interpreter—Monica does not speak English—even though his desire for Monica gives him an incentive to misinterpret the lovers’ conversations. After a second night of partying and Doiaru’s demonstration of control over the situation even in the face of Bucharest officials who threaten his job, Captain Jones joins the mayor’s dubious scheme to eliminate the stationmaster. The documents, however, arrive just in time to relieve him of this uncomfortable promise and the NATO train leaves as the village explodes into street violence. The epilogue, set several years later in a calmer Bucharest, turns to the love between Monica and Andrei as the catalyst for a more peaceful future.

One character congeals the tense energy of the film, sometimes excessively: Doiaru, whose nickname suggests his habit of parking cargo trains on the unused second track in order to loot them, is central to the multi-layered plot and to the passions that stir an apparently dormant community into action. A corrupted official himself, he has a shrewd awareness of the idle turning of the bureaucratic machine that runs the country. He knows how to use it for his benefit and to the disgruntlement and frustration of almost everybody else. A controlling father, he repeatedly provokes spells of silence or anger in Monica and he becomes a lightning rod, angering the villagers, who blame him, rightly or wrongly, for their misery.

Nemescu hastily sketches most officials in broad stereotypical strokes, but Doiaru proves to be a more developed character, though difficult to penetrate. His looting activities appear more as personal victories against an inept, but suffocating system than as efforts to get rich quickly. He lives in the old station building and divides his share of the stolen goods with the mayor. He loves his daughter, but cannot find the proper way to express it. Having caught Monica trying to run away, Doiaru first rebukes her, but then praises her qualities and advises her to “escape” by going to college. The fragile intimacy between the two becomes palpable in Nemescu’s sensitive camerawork—peeking through the door, too polite to burst in, or trembling on close-ups of Doiaru that mimic his stoically hidden apprehension of the one situation he cannot control.

Doiaru’s biggest challenge is the army-lifer Jones, with whom he shares the same contempt for incompetence and even the same tactics. (When circumstances require, Jones has no qualms about offering bribes). Painful memories of World War II, however, separate Doiaru from his American counterpart. The black-and-white prologue introduces Doiaru’s reasons for harboring less-than-cordial sentiments toward the Americans. As a young boy, he witnessed the destruction of his house by an American bomb and then, when the Russians, not the Americans, took over Romania, he had to endure his parents’ disappearance into Communist prisons for having used their factory to help the Germans during the war. Romania remained captive behind the Iron Curtain for over forty years after its defeat.

Similar memory bits function as repeated overtures for four of the five film episodes, transfusing the narrative with the specific historical consciousness of the one character that everybody loves to hate. Doiaru’s emotional anachronism—blaming the Americans for never coming to rescue his parents—echoes an older generation’s disillusionment with the Yalta Conference and its promises of democracy in Eastern Europe after 1945. His memories continue to shape his present political alertness. In 1999, Romania, a new NATO candidate, was the subject of intense media disputes concerning its role in the Kosovo bombings against a neighbor that had traditionally supported Bucharest. This background surfaces in fragments through the newscast constantly playing in Doiaru’s house and in the thorny questions he drops on Jones about the impact of NATO’s military mistakes involving civilians. The character regarded as the most corrupt thus demonstrates a steady, albeit disproportionate, historical awareness lacking in his peers. This could have become the grounds for a more solid critique of the past and its implications for Romania’s future but, unfortunately, the plot leaves such questions dangling.

The film compensates with an almost ethnographic account of the little village located, as Jones says, in a “fold of the map.” The villagers are collateral victims of the power struggles surrounding Doiaru. Nemescu’s neorealist lens warmly portrays a community suspended somewhere between God and capitalism, although his ironic humor still lurks just beneath the surface. The otherwise restless camera slows down to absorb, in long shots, the sluggishness of life in this provincial backwater, where apathetic cattle share the road with rusty cars and ancient tractors. Time has etched the deprivations of a subsistence economy into people’s faces, captured in documentary close-ups as they witness the preparations for the mayor’s party. The peeling walls of the community center with its old disco ball, the tattooed man by the second-hand freezer, the home-made wine at the party and, to top it all off, the local Elvis-imitator performing on stage—all are sometimes sincere, sometimes awkward, carnivalesque depictions of a hybrid culture whose inhabitants live day by day with vestiges of local traditions while enjoying the first fruits, Eighties style, of a long-delayed global consumerism.

Nemescu’s exploratory stylistics are most accomplished at moments of concentrated emotion. The erotic intensity between Monica and David bursts into the frame through pulsating windows, gushing water pipes, or magical-realist electrical sparks that turn into a power surge when they make love and provoke a city blackout. This intensity literally explodes the American bomb haunting Doiaru’s memories, reinforcing the film’s preference for emotion as the overriding basis for personal or political relationships. Moments of exuberance infuse images of couples riding ageless buses, accompanied by the timeworn voice of a Gypsy drummer, or images of silent rooftops, solitary party lights, and scattered television antennae as the city wakes up. These lyrical intermezzos slow down the mad rush of the film, endowing it with more contemplative tones.

Love is not the only pretext for the film’s stylistic stunts. The result of soaring tension, a final street confrontation demonstrates Nemescu’s preference for uncanny image-sound pairings. Doiaru and his gang fall into a trap: lured into a showdown with the Gypsies who have been looting “his” trains, he advances towards the crossroads where groups of angry opponents lie in wait. Replacing the earlier claustrophobic shots of hallways, doorways, and train aisles, the open space of the street becomes the stage for a violent battle. The combination of subjectively selective and subdued sound and rapid cutting, tracking, and panning, along with fast-motion effects, merge Doiaru’s almost stagnant inner temporality with overly rapid external blows. At the climactic moment, the camera remains briefly immobile, only to take in Monica’s torment at the gory sight of her father, bloodied and dying at her feet. Nemescu’s is a highly sensational, emotion-driven cinematography, especially effective on the big screen.

The director’s quest for emotional effects sometimes leads to questionable choices. The episodic division into chapters, while reinforcing chronological development and thematic focus, often appears as artificial and not fully coherent. A case in point: the third chapter, “Day Three: Monica and David,” goes well into the fourth day of the story and includes Jones’s tacit approval of the mayor’s plan. This scene would be more appropriate as part of the following chapter, “Day Four: Doiaru and Jones.” Other thematic and visual motifs, however, help to refine the plot and ensure its coherence. The means of communication—cell phones, television sets, radios—shift their symbolic function to highlight thematic contrasts. In the hands of Doiaru’s opponents, the phone becomes an instrument of violence or corruption; in the love plot, it transmits desire and unites the lovers. The symmetrical presence of 1940s radios in the prologue and epilogue suggests the sense of a history completed and overcome. At first, the radio announces the 1944 bombings; at the end, a similar radio is merely a decorative relic of a long-gone era.

In spite of its careful attention to details, the narrative occasionally veers off course. Nemescu cannot resist including one or two episodes merely for the sake of “atmosphere” and character-building, as evident in the “Mystery of Dracula” scene in which the stereotypical icon of Romanian culture entertains the Americans in the midst of a burlesque show. Such episodes, insufficiently motivated or out-of-sync with the rest of the narrative, lengthen and weaken. In spite of such lapses, California Dreamin’ is nevertheless a fresh and honest film. Born in 1979, too late to have experienced first-hand the frustrations and paranoid fear of the Ceau������escu era, Nemescu opened a new chapter of Romanian cinema—exuberantly experimental and vividly baroque in inspiration. Whether other filmmakers, in the wake of Nemescu’s death, will turn the page of that new chapter, it is still too early to determine.

To buy California Dreamin’ click here (N.B., Region 2 DVD).

Monica Filimon is a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature at Rutgers University.

Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste, Inc.