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In 1999, during the Kosovo War,a train carrying NATO equipment, escorted by American Marines with Captain Doug Jones in command, is held back in Capalnita, a Romanian godforsaken village, by Doiaru, the station master, who blocks the train over a paperwork technicality. For five days the villagers try to take advantage of the Americans' unexpected presence. The mayor, for instance, organizes a celebration in their honor. On the other hand, sergeant David McLaren, Jones's second in command, falls in love with Monica, the crafty's station master's daughter, who dreams of a better world... And what about the Marines' initial mission? Written by
It's always touchy to look and judge unfinished work. Nemescu's death was perhaps one of the cruelest things to have happened in 2006 (a year of sufficient cruelty), as it always is when young, talented people fade out too quickly. Yet, in watching "California Dreamin'" I cannot but accept the fact that this may not have been the director's final vision, while still going on to comment on the things I saw and felt. What might have been, what could have been - these are things of the past. We have to enjoy "California Dreamin'" for what it is and judge it accordingly.
The story of Capalnita is a sad one, as it is the story of many parts of Romania, a country in desperate need to be seen and heard. While the movie takes place on a more personal level, the allusion is inescapable, as are quite a few other things about life around here.
The main plot revolves around a NATO transport sent to Kosovo by train, which is stopped in - literally - the middle of nowhere, by a station conductor who claims he wants to see the transit papers for whatever is being transported. As these documents are missing, he decides to pull the train over until the necessary papers come through. The convoy's American forces accept this delay grudgingly, but they quickly join the celebrations held in their honor by a mayor who sees profit opportunities in the unexpected turn of events. Soldiers get together with local girls, love and sex stories unfold, with no actual surprises to the mature mind. In the mix is a young local boy, head over heels in love with the most attractive girl from the village - a common story of shyness and deep affection. As the delays pile on, spirits start rising and the situation gets more and more tense - especially as the American commanding officer, Captain Jones (Armand Assante), grows wearingly restless. The outcome of the story is for you to relish or despise, but at two and a half hours, you'll have to be patient.
The film's length is, I'm sorry to say, unjustified and the story drags you along in something that resembles agony more than joy. Also, structure and style tend do be more conventional than not. Yet, there are many beautiful moments to be had, many moments which reflect a desperate world, moments with universal validity on both social and personal levels. The characters themselves are quite intriguing at first (as is the whole movie, for around sixty minutes) but they start wearing off towards the end, plagued by what I found to be strange inconsistencies - or plainly a raw denouement to the picture. There is something subtle, something beyond the obvious realm of the film that quietly unfolds, a story of immense sadness, a story that reflects exactly how diseased modern society is, with an emphasis on Romanian problems that have shaped the late 20th century for all the people living there. However, the humanity which lies behind these unobtrusive connections knows no boundaries of land and nationality. The problem I saw myself faced with was that the film did not clearly focus on its direction(s), and despite its unsympathetic running time, it still rushed a half-fabricated end - which I found to be a serious letdown. All in all though, the underlying message is clear and sensible: there will be no Americans (or any "others") to come and save us, we need to find the resources ourselves to deal with life as it as and as we've made it be.
Armand Assante plays it straight all the way, the tough guy trying hard to keep calm in a situation which defies his notions of bureaucracy and efficiency. The lack of response from Romanian authorities was - to my mind - completely unimaginable to a foreign army man, yet the usual resourcefulness of American imagination clears the way for a solution. While I found it disturbing and unsatisfactory, it is for you to judge its validity. Charming as she was (and always is), Maria Dinulescu portrays a character so typical and so unbelievable that it is hard to truly feel for her fate, as ultimately is the problem of almost the whole of Capalnita. Despite the fact that the film very accurately (and often amusingly) portrays the underpinnings of Romanian hospitality, this effect wears off about halfway through the film - as I've already mentioned.
So how valuable a film is "California Dreamin'" and did it deserve a win at the Cannes? Well, it is a film which could have been good - even very good - had Nemescu had time to round it all off, but as such it is more of a long and unsatisfactory ride through the mysterious world of a tiny town at the outskirts of Bucharest. There's a lot of stuff there you can enjoy, a lot of sad truths and a great central character in the person of Doiaru, but the final impression is weak and underplays the film's potential. Yet...we live with what we have.
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