With disordered press conferences, lack of transparency from the festival team and poor competition, it would be fair to call this year’s Cairo Film Festival a disappointment. Yet, for the two and a half hours I spent watching Cristian Nemescu’s Un Certain Regard winner “California Dreamin’, every moment of frustration was forgiven.
Apart from the prestigious award the film won last May in the Cannes Film Festival, I went into theater ignorant of the plot and genre. Shot in Dogma style with handheld cameras and natural lighting, the film initially looked like the stark Scandinavian productions of Von Trier and his cohorts.
Inspired by an incident during the Kosovo War – which may or may not be true – the film revolves around an American troop guarding a Nato train that carries a special radar system to be delivered to the Serbian borders in June 1999.
Assuming their stature would grant them instant pass, the American squad, led by Capt. Doug Jones (Armand Assante), is sidetracked in a small Romanian village by its stubborn railway station manager Doiaru (Razvan Vasilescu), who refuses to let them continue towards their destination without the proper customs documents.
As soon as the village folk learn of the stranded Americans, each group tries to exploit the situation as much as they can.
The shambling mayor, for example, recreates the village’s annual carnival, which has already been celebrated. He tries to convince the indifferent Jones to persuade the town’s high-ranking officials to provide them with extra funds. The workers of the biggest factory try to attract the squads’ attention to their dismal strike. Meanwhile, the local girls, including Doiaru’s beautiful, rebellious daughter Monica (Maria Dinulescu), gear up for the eligible American soldiers in an attempt to secure a one-way ticket out of the village.
“California Dreamin’ is part black comedy, part Shakespearean tragedy.
It’s also a political allegory, a tale of teenage unrequited romance and a coming-of-age story. What’s astonishing about this film is how Nemescu seamlessly weaves the different genres, plot threads and tones into a coherent, highly entertaining cinematic work.
The film takes a stab at both Americans and Romanians. The Romanian officials operate in a bureaucratic system where no one assumes full responsibility for any action. Doiaru embodies the autocratic figures still in power in these fringe communities, but there’s a deeper, bruised side to Doiaru.
As a child, he waited for the Americans to save them from the Nazi invasion during World War II. He waited for months, but they never showed. He continued waiting and grew up to be a bitter old man. His hostile attitude towards the Americans is interjected by his vague friendship with Jones, and Doiaru’s true feeling towards are never fully revealed.
Eventually, the American dream turns into a nightmare as the ever-so-practical Jones drives the quiet village into carnage and turns his back against the people.
Nearly every character in the film is memorable and lovable. While Nemescu’s characters are flawed and occasionally self-absorbed, their naivety, wit and simple motivations are embracing and real. The innocence and endearment of these characters is what makes the film a delight to watch.
The awkward relationship between Monica and the smitten Andrei (Alexandru Margineanu) overshadows her fling with the bemused Sgt. David McLaren (Jamie Elman). The flirting, despair and the indefinite bond Monica and Andrei share is charming.
I laughed, cried and was glued to my seat through every minute of the film. The use of The Mamas & The Papas “California Dreamin’ is every bit as captivating as the unforgettable rendition of Wong-Kar Wai in “Chunking Express.
Nemescu was killed in a car accident before he finished editing his film and he never got to see the remarkable win at Cannes.
“California Dreamin’ is the latest Romanian film – including “12: 08: East of Bucharest, “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days – that took the world by storm.
Here’s a film that cost $1.5 million and managed to look and feel epic. None of the high-budgeted comedies released this year have come close to matching the sheer euphoria of this film.