The playing out of a farcical situation seems to be one of the preferred methods by which the New Wave of Romanian filmmakers deal with subjects that show the adversity that the people of their country have endured in recent years, and it seems an accurate means of reflecting on the nature of the Romanian people and their society. Most obviously it’s there in a light-hearted though nonetheless satirical fashion in Corneliu Porumbiou’s 12:08 East of Bucharest, but it’s even evident in films seemingly as relentlessly bleak and serious as 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and The Death of Mr Lazarescu, films that are made up of a shocking series of farcical incidents of incompetence, bureaucracy and officiousness that nevertheless end up having very real consequences. Falling somewhere between the low-key treatment of the former and bigger picture of the latter is Cristian Nemescu’s California Dreamin’, where the significant presence of American troops in the country, albeit in passing, has unexpected consequences for the people of one small town and perhaps Romania in general.
The US convoy, under the control of Captain Jones (Armand Assante), has been granted permission to travel through Romania on their way to deliver essential military equipment to Kosovo as part of a NATO peacekeeping mission in 1999 during the Kosovo conflict in Yugoslavia. They may have been granted freedom of transit by the authorities in Bucharest, but that means nothing to Doiaru (Razvan Vasilescu), the Station Master in the remote village of Capalnita. Nursing an old grudge against the American forces from the days of the Second World War, Doiaru refuses to grant them through passage until they provide the required customs documentation.
Other interested parties in Capalnita realise that they can get something out of the temporary residence of the US troops in their village – Doiaru’s young daughter Monica (Maria Dinulescu) has her eye on a handsome American soldier, David (Jamie Elman), and many of the other schoolgirls also see it as an opportunity to find a wealthy American soldier and escape from the country. The workers at a local factory seize on the opportunity to highlight their grievances, while the Mayor (Ion Sapdaru) intends to raise his profile and draw investment into Capalnita by welcoming the guests and perhaps twinning the village with an American town. The delay however is a diplomatic nightmare for Captain Jones, and until Bucharest can be made to put pressure on the local stationmaster, what should have been a straightforward mission threatens to become an international incident.
That far into the film, California Dreamin’ shows the promise of a Kusturica-like Balkan humorous political satire with a great deal of local colour that capitalises on the characteristics of the Romanian people, on bureaucracy and on life in the sticks, but the longer the film goes on, the more predictably the story plays out and the more evident its flaws become. How much of this can be put down to the unfinished nature of the film is anyone’s guess, the director Cristian Nemescu tragically dying in a car accident before its completion (the Romanian title Nefarsit translated here as 'Endless' could also indeed be read as 'Unfinished'), but principally the weaknesses are in the characterisation and in the situation, neither of which stand up to any real scrutiny. Captain Jones is an interesting figure, finding himself in a bit of a bind, but his response to his troops drinking, partying and “fraternising” with the local girls is surprisingly one of complete indifference. His fatalistic acceptance of the situation and his mixed relationship with Doiaru also seems inconsistent with his temperamental nature and his insistence on military precision. Some effort is made through black-and-white WWII interludes to account for Doiaru’s resentment towards American soldiers, but it’s really not enough to explain his actions either. He has nothing to gain from the situation and everything to lose – his lucrative little black-market operation skimming off passing cargo trains, his plans for expansion as a businessman, his standing in the village and with the authorities right up the line to the government in Bucharest. Not least is the very likely possibility that by delaying the Americans in the village, he could lose his daughter to them as well.
You could put it down to sheer bloody-mindedness on the part of Doiaru, but that’s not really enough and if we are to draw any meaning from the characteristics and behaviour of the Romanians and their relationship with America. Essentially, this could have been set during the Second World War since it boils down to having little more to say than the old “over-paid, over-sexed and over here” notion of American troops. And sure enough, the inevitable response from the local boys to the American soldiers fooling around with their girls is a big punch-up at the dance. In this respect, the relationship between Monica and David becomes the focus for a significant part of the film, but it’s dull, predictable and routine with its communication problems and the fact that the couple need a translator who mistranslates because he fancies Monica himself. Failure to communicate is certainly a theme of the film, but again in its context here - language - it doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny as much of a metaphor for Romanian/American relations. One would expect the script, characterisation and situations to be a little sharper than this and for the film to have a rather more modern outlook on international relations and American interventionism. Or perhaps, as the black-and-white interludes suggest, Romanian attitudes have been greatly influenced by what happened during and after WWII and they haven’t moved on since.
California Dreamin’ is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.
The quality of the transfer is for the most part good with no significant issues. The image looks a little brighter in the first hour of the film than it does in the latter half, with shadows never managing to look completely black and colours looking a little on the light side. The latter part of the film looks much better, with correct tones and colour. Sharpness and detail is good without being overly boosted or enhanced. There were two minor digital glitches on my DVD checkdisc copy of the film, both close together at around the 1 hour 20 minute mark (during the punch-up), the image pixilating briefly, but this could well have been corrected on the retail disc.
The film comes with a choice of straightforward Dolby Digital 2.0 and surround Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes. Both are fairly clear and strong if not with any particularly great dynamic, but they generally serve the purposes of the film, carrying the general ambience and only kicking into to life in a couple of scenes.
Optional English subtitles are provided in a clear white font. Half the dialogue in the film is in English, but no captions are provided for these sections. Similarly, only the Romanian interviews are subtitled in the extra features.
Apart from the Trailer (2:53), the only other extra feature is the film’s Making Of (31:46). It’s largely made up of on-set interviews with the director and most of the principal cast with added clips and some behind-the-scenes footage. It gives a good account of personalities involved in the film and the manner in which it was made. It even includes a brief interview with the Stationmaster from the real-life incident that the film is based on.
Director Cristian Nemescu died just two days before finishing editing on California Dreamin’, but although it does feel slightly over-long at two and a half-hours, it’s unlikely that this had any impact on the final cut of the film that would go on to win the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes 2007. The central incident of a train of US troops being held up at an out-of-the-way country village is evidently ripe with suggestion, but the film is not so much interested in examining the Romanian relationship with America as much as using the situation as a means of looking inwardly at Romania and the attitudes of its people. The decisive moment in the fostering of those attitudes however would seem to have been during the Second World War, and perhaps a bit more filling out of the black-and-white 1944 sections of the film might have balanced this view better. As far as presentation on DVD goes however, this is another strong release from Artificial Eye.