All The Leaves Are Gold in Cristian Nemescu’s California Dreamin’ (2007) November 4, 2008Posted by Richard Bolisay in Cinemanila, European Films.
Romanian Title: Nesfarsit
Directed by Cristian Nemescu
Cast: Armand Assante, Jamie Elman, Razvan Vasilescu, Maria Dinulescu
Everything falls into place in Cristian Nemescu’s first – – and last – – feature film, for what seems like an anti-American sentiment becomes a searing portrait of a country’s fabricated consciousness, giving the most fitting name to an anonymous pain, conjuring a tragic tale of humorous mix-up in the greatest tradition of Renoir and Shakespeare, and skewering manifold facets of war from the Nazis to GIs.
A train said to be carrying strategic equipment for NATO in support of the ongoing war in Yugoslavia is stopped in a small town in Romania for failing to present necessary documents. The station chief, Doiaru, despite receiving orders from the Prime Minister to let them pass, insists on seeing the papers without any sign of giving in. Even the head of the American marines, who is in charge of delivering the freight as soon as possible in a time as urgent as this, walks up to him innumerable times to settle their immediate passage, but no words can stir up Doiaru’s heart: no exceptions, no entry without the documents even if Bill Clinton flies to Romania and talks him out of it. While spending the idlest moments of their lives when they should have been somewhere else shooting rabbits, the American soldiers are invited by the town’s mayor in their founding centenary, specially celebrated for the second time, and the people warmly welcome them with booze and young girls wanting a taste of foreign flesh. Factory workers crash the party with their protest signs – – against Doiaru who wants to bankrupt their place to buy it for a lower price. Meanwhile, Doiaru’s daughter, Monica, engages in a wordless relationship with Sergeant David, shares his solitude and homesickness, and as their brief romance comes to an end, Monica also part ways with her father, who is killed in a riot between the townspeople and the chief of police. As violence wraps the community, the cargo train finally leaves with the soldiers awed by the fireworks prepared for them.
There are deliberate errors and put-ons, either intentional or otherwise, that Nemescu successfully delivers to great effect. Spilling fax papers in a government office where no one is there to receive, the misspelled “Wellcome” word written by the mayor in the blackboard, Monica’s admirer who translates David’s words to her differently, the hilarious replica of the Eiffel Tower in the vicinity, and the orgy in the hotel that leads to a massive blackout, these details add up to the lingering absurdity of war where everything becomes an unredeemable evil farce. One moment it bloats, and in a sudden realization of worthless lapse, it explodes. Nemescu pokes fun without holding back, killing the beast while the enemies are upfront, and still gets away with it, in a controlled temper a little less than Kusturica. That hatred toward Americans seems to stand out, perfectly characterized by Doiaru’s obstinacy – – seemingly implying that every time the Americans arrive, there is always a hint of danger. The Americans come and stir up a bloodbath, stay for long to defend their interests, and leave the warfield with their hands clean – – and in this case, even a fireworks to celebrate their victory. Blameless bastards.
The Second World War subplot, shot in remarkable black-and-white in war-destroyed Romania, strikes with outstanding similarity – – that unmistakable semblance – – to the war in Bosnia and Kosovo, indeed history fulfilling its promise of repeating itself in such a short period of time. It doesn’t feel alienating; the war seems to be the connecting thread among each and every one of us. Later in the middle of the film, a remnant of that war – – a shell hiding underground waiting for its baptism of fire for years – – causes the entire city to grope in darkness, as David and Monica runs hand in hand while the manholes burst open one after another.
A magnificent ensemble of actors enables Nemescu to achieve this posthumous brilliance. Armand Assante’s fierce-looking yet weak-kneed marine captain commands admiration for his humorous stiffness, giving his character a nuanced consistency of a soldier trapped in playful circumstances. Razvan Vasilescu steals the heart of stone and gives it a life of his own as Doiaru, definitely the most memorable creation in this film. TV actor Jamie Elman exudes effortless charm while Maria Dinulescu seduces him with undeniable presence and unwavering sensuality. Their romance, however short it may be, displays a fascinating facet of love’s blindness – – a wordless love, a loveless sex, a passionate intercourse of unknown origin. Ion Sapdaru’s overjoyed mayor mocks every city’s witless statesman, a lovely performance from start to finish.
That the film may have benefited from tighter editing is a valid qualm to raise, that if only Nemescu has survived from his fatal car crash California Dreamin’ will turn out to be a far greater film than it is now – – but less memorable, less affecting, less complete – – because what makes it a goddamn masterwork is that nature of incompleteness, that despite being left unfinished it is still a harrowing gem that fills an empty ocean with water, and afterlife pities the world for the loss of this young filmmaker at the height of his career, his death felt immeasurably by myself – – writing this as my way of recognition. Nemescu may have wanted escape – – escape from what? – – escape to a place where he can make films without limits – – for dying is the only way for you to float free – – and in the background, The Mamas and the Papas sings the ultimate escape song of the Murakami generation – – all the leaves are brown (all the leaves are brown) and the sky is gray (and the sky is gray) – – for there is no song in our world as deeply emotional as it really is, reminding us that all it takes to escape is two minutes and forty-two seconds, nothing less than a millisecond.