When a rebellious hothead meets a young woman in hot pants, the results are classic yet unpredictable in “Last Stop Paradise.” With this scathing, ultimately touching portrait of l’amour fou at odds with evil and idiocy, ever-provocative Romanian director Lucian Pintilie follows “The Oak,” “An Unforgettable Summer” and “Too Late” with an engaging contempo tale that denounces privilege and champions stubborn individuality. Keenly played pic will be a plus in any fest lineup but will still need lots of critical support to make it into hardtops beyond France and Romania.
Pic commences with a positively surreal manhunt on the outskirts of Bucharest involving a helicopter, a police squad and an army detail. The outcome is pathetically inept, yet civilian onlookers cheer. Because the overall tone is so odd, one half-expects to learn the chase was a film-within-the-film or a staged exercise — but no, it’s for real. This knack for keeping the audience intrigued and off-balance is one of the movie’s major assets.
The other is its two lead thesps. Dimitri, known as Mitou (Costel Cascaval) lures Elena, known as Norica (Dorina Chiriac) to join him slug for slug in downing vodka. He tends pigs for a living and she waits table at Papa Gili’s sausage stand, a ramshackle roadside dive. She and Gili — a corpulent lecher twice her age — are to be wed in the fall, but that doesn’t stop Norica from accompanying Mitou to his minimally equipped apartment.
But Mitou is due to start two years of military service the next day. His despised father has already pulled strings to defer the eventuality but Mitou is full of resentment toward his family.
Pic has its own logic and communicates a heady mood of indelible sentiments and irrevocable acts. Mitou has decided that Norica is his woman and nothing — not the army nor Gili nor military prison — is going to stand in his way. Because Mitou refuses to compromise, he’s on a collision course with authority.
In her screen debut, stage-trained Chiriac, who looks like a Kewpie doll, is a find as Norica: fearless and playful yet not completely attuned to the force of Mitou’s singular obsession. As her vis-a-vis, Cascaval can appear young and boyish or worldly and hardened. Supporting players are good, with Razvan Vasilescu particularly entertaining as the sadistic prison head who watches TV on a barge while his hapless charges perform pointless, back-breaking labor.
Lensing, which incorporates a few choice freeze-frames and lots of low-slung camera angles, employs far less excessive imagery than in helmer’s previous, boldly kinetic outings. The mystical image of a rippling field is introduced with particular aplomb. Music is minimal, but does include a touch of a cappella Spice Girls and some Romanian rap.