An unfinished film set in an unsettled corner of the world, Romanian director Cristian Nemescu’s California Dreamin’ ponders history’s cruelties even as, in a wholly unexpected way, it embodies them. Six weeks into editing this darkly farcical meditation on geopolitical haplessness, the talented 27-year-old filmmaker died in an automobile accident; nine months later, his first feature would win the Prix Un Certain Regard at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.
Ambitious and somewhat allegorical in its situation comedy, this complicated saga of mutual frustration was inspired by an event that occurred during NATO’s 1999 war on Serbia: A train carrying a new radar system for installation on Romania’s western border is detained en route from Turkey by a zealous, small-town railroad official for its lack of proper authorization. Its legend preceding it as it rolls through Romania, the NATO train is pure golden opportunity. When the corrupt stationmaster Doiaru (Razvan Vasilescu) stops its course in the village of Capalnita, a hamlet where cows amble down Main Street, he unknowingly thwarts his teenage daughter’s plan to jump aboard and run away. Consequently, the beautiful, sullen Monica (Maria Dinulescu) turns her attention, like the town’s other girls, to the detained American marines. And while the Bucharest bureaucracy wonders who is responsible for clearing the train, Capalnita’s glad-handing mayor (Ion Sapdaru, who had similar dryly comic roles in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and 12:08 East of Bucharest) restages the town’s centennial celebration as a welcome party for the Americans.
Nemescu takes the long view of life in and around the Balkans by opening with (and periodically returning to) the Allies’ World War II bombing of Romania, and gives his film additional resonance by making the NATO train the repository not only of advanced weapons, but of the promise that America inspires. But the unexpected American visit also affords the filmmakers an opportunity to stick a thumb in America’s eye—mainly by showing the tight-assed American CO, Captain Jones (Arman Assante), as a nodding, twitching prehistoric relic who can’t articulate a single mumbled assertion without pursing his lips and blinking. Fittingly for a movie predicated on multiple misunderstandings, he’s a communications officer.
Authority is abhorrent and patriotism a priori absurd. The insolent Doiaru sits around in his underwear insisting that even Americans are obliged to obey the law. To add to his enjoyment, Captain Jones drops in on chez Doiaru to offer him a bribe, which he’s pleased to refuse. The captain’s visit also permits the stationmaster—who, for complicated plot reasons, is among the few English-speaking locals—a conversational gambit: “What is wrong with Bill Clinton, letting people suck his dick in the White House?”
Like other Romanian films, California Dreamin’ is characterized by lengthy takes and a mobile camera. Running over two and a half hours, the movie enjoys a long leash, leisurely sniffing its way into drama once the grand fiesta commences: Romania, American-style. The mayor garnishes his cheap suit with a stars-and-stripes tie. Primitivist oil paintings of George Washington (as seen on a dollar bill) and Arnold Schwarzenegger flank the stage on which an Elvis impersonator plods through a phonetic English rendition of “Love Me Tender.” Monica bops around in pursuit of the cute sergeant (Jamie Elman), who reminds the girls of Ricky Martin. With no common language, the couple briefly employ one of her classmates as a translator until, with a gusto that shorts out the electrical power for miles around, they switch to nonverbal communication.
Nemescu clearly had a head full of ideas on the subject of Romania’s confused national aspirations. (At one point, he turns tour guide, staging a scene in a local resort that boasts replicas of the Eiffel Tower and the ranch house from Dallas.) The filmmaker also had a few notions regarding the fantasy of American power—or the power of American fantasy. Historical inertia is endemic. That this posthumous movie’s open ending seems cautiously optimistic makes it all the more poignant.