Film Review: California Dreamin'

Another rewarding dark satire from Romania, the feature debut of a director who died tragically young.

Even in the title, Cristian Nemescu brings a Beckett-like sense of the absurd to California Dreamin’, the only feature from the young Romanian director who died at the age of 27. Fans of Nemescu’s earlier short films will immediately “get it,” while others will only slowly realize this documentary-style account of military activities in 1999 Romania is meant to be scorchingly funny.

Nemescu’s last work is a sociopolitical essay par excellence. In the tradition of Duck Soup, The Great Dictator, A Foreign Affair, Dr. Strangelove and Catch-22, California Dreamin’ is first and foremost a critique of buffoonish war-mongering. Specifically, Nemescu also targets Romania’s provincial corruption and NATO’s inept attempts at peacekeeping. Ergo: Should someone be investigating whether the director’s fatal 2006 car crash was really an accident?

Set during the Kosovo conflict at the end of the last century, California Dreamin’ concerns a NATO mission to install a radar system on the Romanian border in order for the Allies to spy on Serbia. The immediate problem is that a local station master, Doiaru (Razvan Vasilescu), of the town of Capalnita, won’t allow the train carrying the equipment (and the American troops) to pass through without his seeing the necessary paperwork.

While stuck in the small village, Captain Doug James (Armand Assante doing a tough-guy self-parody) and his soldiers are treated like royalty by the Mayor (Ion Sapdaru) and most of the citizens. But despite the goodwill, which is really a crude ploy by the Mayor to seek foreign investment, the stationmaster still refuses to let the train move.

Finally, matters come to a head during a village meeting that pits Doiaru’s forces against the rebellious locals and the American military. Jones and his crew finally leave Capalnita, reach their destination, and install the radar, only to find out a cease-fire has been declared in Kosovo.

Like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Romanian-born Cristi Puiu’s 2005 masterpiece, this new film (a prize-winner at Cannes) uses a hyper-realistic cinéma-vérité approach to deliver a modernist sarcastic punch. Though it runs more than two-and-a-half hours, California Dreamin’ takes place mostly in one spot—the rundown little town. And the soldiers who wait for their train to move might as well be “waiting for Godot.” While more obviously humorous than Lazarescu, California Dreamin’ contains a dark underlying message about human folly and the idiocy of war.

Apart from the devastatingly ironic ending, Nemescu’s screenplay (co-written with Tudor Voican and Catherine Linstrum) is filled with sharply witty observations and nuanced bits of business, including the subplot about Doiaru’s teenage daughter—named Monica as a homage to Ingmar Bergman’s eponymous heroine and well-played by Maria Dinulsecu—getting romantically involved with one of the young sergeants (Jamie Elman) and causing all kinds of political problems for her father and the Mayor.

All in all, California Dreamin’ is a winning, satisfying film, though the death of its director leaves a sad feeling.