Sunday, June 22, 2008

Review - California Dreamin' (Nesfarsit)

California Dreamin' is not quite the film it might have been. Before the picture starts, a title card tells us that director Cristian Nemescu died in a car crash on August 24th 2006, and that the movie we're about to watch is presented as it was when he passed away. One wonders what changes Nemescu would have made to his engaging debut had he been allowed more time to work on it; perhaps he would have tightened the structure, cleaned up some of the narrative strands, and eliminated the flashbacks that feel like an unnecessary burden for the picture to carry. Such speculation gets us nowhere, though, and instead let's simply take California Dreamin' on its own terms; as an enjoyable, skilfully acted drama that just about avoids outstaying its welcome.

Loosely based on an incident that occurred in 1999, Nemescu's film follows a trainload of American NATO troops who have been assigned communications equipment that must be urgently delivered to Kosovo, where the war continues to be fought. The squadron is led by Captain Jones (Armand Assante) who runs a tight ship and is determined to meet the deadline that he has been set, but he unexpectedly runs into trouble in the tiny Romanian village of Capalnita. The local stationmaster in this town is a corrupt character named Doiaru (Razvan Vasilescu), and he refuses to allow the train passage when he discovers they don't have all of the required customs papers. The furious Jones tries to find a diplomatic solution, and he makes phone call after phone call in an attempt to untangle the red tape he has become embroiled in, but the officious Doiaru will not budge.

From this premise, Nemescu spins a variety of individual stories, perhaps too many for his film to handle. As Jones and Doiaru find themselves at an impasse, romance blooms between Doiaru's teenage daughter Monica (Maria Dinulescu) and Jones' second-in-command David (Jamie Elman), and the town's mayor organises a welcoming party for the visiting troops, hoping to use their presence to boost Capalnita's profile and economy. California Dreamin' is an unwieldy picture that sometimes seems to be pulling in too many directions at once, but even at 155 minutes I was never bored. The central theme of communication is explored by Nemescu in a number through a number of funny, clever sequences; best of all during the party that forms the film's centrepiece. As a Romanian Elvis impersonator tries to make the Americans feel at home, the town's female population swarm around the soldiers like flies, not letting the language barrier stand in the way of their desires, and Nemescu stages this sequence brilliantly, allowing his camera to roam between the various encounters that are taking place in the square. Most of California Dreamin' is shot in a realist fashion comprising of long takes filmed on a handheld camera – mirroring other recent Romanian films such as The Death of Mr Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days – but Nemescu allows some fantastical elements to creep into the picture as well. During a sex scene between Monica and David, the city outside the window seems to pulsate in time with their racing heartbeats, and as the loved-up pair run through the streets later, a jet of water explodes out of every manhole cover the oblivious couple pass.

Such switches in tone leave the film feeling uneven, but the strong performances Nemescu has drawn from his cast keep it anchored, with Armand Assante's increasingly frustrated Captain being the picture's main driving force. As California Dreamin' progresses, Nemescu adds layers of complexity to the characters and generates tension in a steady fashion, but the ending is a let-down; it seems rushed and I didn't feel the sense of tragedy that was clearly intended. Again, we have to wonder whether a sharper edit would have found a more effective movie under the one we have, but in its current state California Dreamin' remains an intelligent, funny and textured satire, and to describe it as the weakest example of the recent Romanian new wave probably says more about the high quality of the other films than it does about this one. This picture might not have reached its full potential, but there's certainly enough here to suggest that Cristian Nemescu was a filmmaker with a lot more to say.