Monday, August 27, 2007

California Dreamin' (Endless) (Cristian Nemescu, 2007)

Cristian Nemescu was posthumously awarded the top prize in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section for California Dreamin’ (Endless), his first and only feature. Alongside Cristian Mungiu’s Palm D’Or win at this year’s festival, it represented the crest of what’s being referred to as the Romanian New Wave. Over the last few years, the country’s output has captured the attention of festivalgoers, who have declared it a hotspot of world cinema. That being said, it’s unlikely that many will find California Dreamin’ (Endless) to be the most impressive movie to come from Romania over the last few years. It’s a strong film, but it happens to be in stronger company.

Set in 1999, the movie follows what’s euphemistically referred to as a U.S. Peacekeeping mission. As a small group of American soldiers are forced to stop at a tiny town’s train station, the film begins introducing a barrage of characters. A lot of balls are kept in the air here, as the audience meets the American troops, the rascally station agent, his daughter (who hopes to run away with the troops), her schoolmates, the conniving mayor, and a group of protesting gypsies. The townsfolk devise a plan to restage their centennial in order to lure American investment to the country, then later try to use the U.S. military might to stir an uprising. The finale brings all of these groups together, and the cross-cutting between the different characters becomes less problematic as the film picks up speed. For a while, though, the plot is difficult to get into because of how busy it is.

California Dreamin’ (Endless)’s creator died before the editing of the feature was completed, and it shows, especially during the first hour. Sloppy and perfunctory, the expository scenes feel hopelessly overextended for what seems to be a simpleminded and overly cynical look at buffoonish characters. Boorish American troops are contrasted against hopelessly naïve Romanian villagers, who try to entertain and swindle them as they are held captive by a bureaucratic snafu. Thankfully, the remaining 90 minutes puncture that setup, shifting these character dynamics in unexpected ways. Eventually each of the characterizations deepens, finding a happy medium between comic and realistic extremes. The film also gradually takes on a satirical, but grounded, vibe, acquiring more sting than one would initially expect. When it’s all said and done, it’s obvious that the complicated plot has been working overtime to set up a tragic conclusion, which is surprisingly effective in tying up all of the storylines.

Nemescu’s film is strong enough that it can be considered genuinely unfortunate that his career has been cut so short. He creates some fine visual moments, here, despite a general predilection for realism. California Dreamin’ (Endless) ultimately reveals itself as a surprisingly ambitious debut. Although it starts out taking cheap shots at its characters, it cannot be accused of this by the end of its runtime. By the time the caustic ending unfolds, Nemescu has presented both a world-weary outlook toward the country’s complicated past and an almost startling role-reversal in which the Americans, and not the Romanians, are revealed to be the naïve ones. There’s no doubt that California Dreamin’ (Endless) could do with some editing (indeed, the parenthetical in the title refers to its unshaped state), but there’s just as little doubt that Nemescu’s work is pretty worthy as is. When a foreign film this accomplished strikes you as somewhat second rate, you can definitely take it as a sign of a healthy national cinema.

Rating: 58/100

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