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CALIFORNIA DREAMIN’ (NESFARIT) (director/writer: Cristan Nemescu; screenwriters: Catherin Linstrum/Tudor Voican; cinematographer: Liviu Marghidan; editor: Catalin Cristutiu; cast: Armand Assante (Capt. Doug Jones), Jamie Elman (Sgt. David McLaren), Razvan Vasilescu (Doiaru), Maria Dinulescu (Monica), Alex Margineanu (Andrei), Ion Sapdaru (the mayor); Runtime: 155; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Andrei Boncea; IFC Films; 2007-Romania-in Romanian/English/Spanish/Italian with English subtitles)
“A sharp-edged socio-political satire that clearly lets Americans know how they are viewed abroad by foreigners.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Romanian director Cristan Nemescu’s auspicious debut film is also his last, as he died at 27when killed in a car accident on Aug. 24, 2006, along with his friend and sound editor, as they were returning from the editing lab. The film, playing like an allegory, remains unfinished, as Nemescu never completed editing it. But soon after his death, the unfinished film won the Prix Un Certain Regard at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. It works amazingly well as a sharp-edged socio-political satire that clearly lets Americans know how they are viewed abroad by foreigners. It’s based on a true incident that happened during the 1999 NATO intervention, during the Serbian war in Kosovo.

In the film, a military train of U. S. Marines is hauling top-secret communication equipment and a radar system for installation to Kosovo, when it’s detained at the remote Capalnita station in Romania by the corrupt stationmaster Doiaru (Razvan Vasilescu). Even though the no-nonsense NATO communication officer American Marine in charge, Capt. Doug Jones (Armand Assante), says the government of Romania gave the train permission to pass through, the zealous embittered Doiaru won’t let it pass without proper custom papers.

While the Bucharest bureaucrats can’t untangle the mess, the soldiers are stuck in that backwater village for a few days. The overfriendly mayor (Ion Sapdaru), looking at the Americans as potential investors in his tourist project (that already has a copy of the Eiffel Tower and a ranch from Dallas), throws a party with an Elvis impersonator to celebrate the village’s anniversary and invites the American soldiers. The eligible town girls are anxious to meet the rich hip Americans, even though most don’t speak English. One of the girls is the sullen 17-year-old high school student Monica (Maria Dinulescu), the daughter of the widowed Doiaru. She was planning on running away from home on the NATO train before it was derailed. At the party the chesty non-English speaking Monica meets a nice-guy young sergeant, David McLaren (Jamie Elman), who reminds her of Ricky Martin, and upsets her father by being with him.

The joke here is that America is viewed as the savior of the world, but the uptight communication CO, America’s rep, is too clueless to communicate with anyone to stop any injustice and can only show clenched rage as the new sheriff in town or act clownish as he mumbles meaningless cliches about all people being one. Nemescu saves much of his poisoned darts for Romania’s own citizens who have confused ideas about democracy, how it’s bankrupt on ideas to get its country out of the doldrums ever since WW II left the country devastated by bombings (frequently cutting in with b/w shots of Doiaru’s family getting bombed) and then suffered through a Nazi occupation, a longer Russian one and had to endure the cruel dictator Ceauşescu, all the while waiting for America’s help. In the post-Ceauşescu period the still traumatized Romanians are faced with corruption, cowardly politicians, a poor economy and an overwhelmed work force of schemers. They always expected the Americans to save them, but for the tiny village it is only from this passing train that they have seen their hoped for saviors in the flesh and they are gone in a flash leaving the locals only more disillusioned than before.

Despite a downbeat climactic bloody street fight between local rivals, there’s a somewhat cautious optimistic ending as Monica gets to a college in Bucharest and still dreams of being successful. It’s an ambitious film that gives us a frightening snap-shot of a remote part of the world, where American pop culture is transported but not any real help that matters. The overlong film needed a good trimming, which it would have probably gotten if Nemescu lived. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it as it is and think it’s a good idea that no one else edited Nemescu’s savvy comical film. It scores more points because of Assante’s masterful performance, that gives the film a special force that goes beyond the script.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”