April 17, 2010

California Dreamin' (2007)
(Nesfarit) Grade: 81/100

Director: Cristian Nemescu
Stars: Armand Assante, Jamie Elman, Maria Dinulescu

What it's about. Set in Romania during the 1999 war between Serbia and the United States. Armand Assante is a U.S. Army Captain whose duty is to get a train laden with Marines and military equipment to Kosovo. The train is stopped at an obscure rural Romanian village by stationmaster Doiaru (Razvan Vasilescu), who refuses to let it pass until proper paperwork is provided.

Doiaru resents the Americans for allowing Romania to become part of the Soviet empire for two generations after World War II. Yet he is personable toward Assante, and the village itself, led by mayor Ion Sapdura, welcomes the American soldiers. They entertain the soldiers at banquets where the local teenage women throw themselves at the Marines, hoping that they will somehow be taken to the United States.

The soldiers have landed in the middle of a political tussle between the mayor, union leader Gabriel Spahiu, and Doiaru, a kingpin who controls the local police. The mayor tries to enlist the support of the Marines against Doiaru, even though the Marines are there only temporarily, and have no jurisdiction in Romania.

Mostly, though, this is a movie about Monica (Maria Dinulescu), the teenage daughter of widower Doiaru. Monica is pretty, vivacious, and confident, and has every intention of getting out of the isolated village, and hopefully into the hometown of Marine Sgt. David McLaren (Jamie Elman), whom she has successfully seduced. Since Monica can't speak English, she enlists classmate Andrei (Alexandru Margineanu) as an interpreter. But Andrei has nursed a crush on Monica for years, which gives him an incentive to disrupt her intense new relationship with David.

Nesfarsit translates from Romanian as "endless." The director and co-writer of California Dreamin' was Cristian Nemescu, who was killed at the age of 27 during the movie's post-production. He was in the back seat of a taxi in Bucharest when a British driver in a Corvette sped through a red light.

The film was then left untouched, at a length of 155 minutes. Probably, had Nemescu lived, he would have reduced the running time further, perhaps eliminating the unnecessary epilogue, or even removing the most dubious scenes, which occur near the end of the film. Assante joins the mayor at a political rally against Doiaru, and the mayor incites a riot against the police force.

How others will see it. The tragedy involving Nemescu undoubtedly helped California Dreamin' during its festival tour of Europe, where it picked up obscure trophies such as the Golden Iris at Brussels, the Un Certain Regard at Cannes, the Gopos Award in Romania, and the Satyajit Ray Award in London.

The movie also commands high imdb.com user ratings, particularly among viewers under 30. The lowest rating is among women over 45, who presumably find the movie slow-moving, and may disapprove of Monica's aggressive courtship of David and her insolence toward her father.

How I felt about it. I have already criticized some of the final scenes, especially the surreal party rally where Assante and the mayor condemn Doiaru. The timing is suspicious that Monica arrives just in time to see her father die in the ensuing riot.

Some may also find it unbelievable that U.S. Marines would allow an obscure stationmaster to delay their mission for several days. But the story is based on an actual event, and no doubt the Marines were under orders not to provoke an incident in Romania that would complicate their operations in Kosovo.

But overall, California Dreamin' is an engrossing movie and subtle satire that reveals how a village responds to the challenges and opportunities posed by a potentially important encounter with a foreign power.