The only feature completed by Romanian director Cristian Nemescu before his death at age 27, in a car crash, California Dreamin’ is a deft fable that maps global concerns onto a local story with confidence and wit. Closer in feel to the political satire of 12:08 East of Bucharest than the mordantly harrowing ordeals of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, this latest import confirms recent Romanian cinema as among the most arresting in the world.
It’s 1999, and Captain Jones (Assante) is leading a group of American NATO troops through the country as part of the campaign against Serbian violence. An apparently routine checkpoint stop at the small town of Capalnita takes a Kafkaesque turn when station manager Doiaru (Vasilescu) insists on binding the soldiers’ train in red tape. The newcomers’ presence affects every level of the town, from the mayor (Sapdaru), who wastes no opportunity to impress these “potential investors,” to the students who see them as exotic, erotic emblems of aspirational escapism. For the troops, being “stuck in this fold in the map” is both frustrating and kind of a trip.
Nemescu taps the carnivalesque possibilities of his setup to great effect, but keeps things grounded in naturalistic technique and sophisticated characterization. Good intentions are yoked to heedless aggression, unabashed venality to understandable grievance, while literal and cultural mistranslations abound. The film could probably be shorter without sacrificing its potency, but Nemescu’s grasp of both personal and political concerns is an eloquent testimony to the promise of a sadly curtailed career.