Cristian Nemescu’s posthumous feature debut “California Dreamin’ (Endless)” was inspired by a Kosovo war incident involving American troops accompanying a NATO train who were stopped at a rural Romanian railway station because they lacked customs documents. Unfinished when the talented 27-year-old helmer died in a traffic accident some six weeks after wrapping the shoot, the pic, which would benefit from substantial trims, spins a complex dark comedy of near-Shakespearean proportions. Further fest play is assured for the winner of the Un Certain Regard section. Due to be released theatrically and on DVD in Romania, pic could be an arthouse curiosity elsewhere.
Deftly juggling a number of story strands that intersect in ways that accumulate meaning, the ambitious, large-scale pic pivots on cultural misunderstandings. It also provides a damning portrait of a Romania where corruption is endemic and officials thrive by avoiding responsibility.
Equally devastating is the picture of self-righteous Americans who stir up a bloodbath but manage to leave the scene with their hands clean.
A black-and-white prologue set in Romania during WWII during air raids establishes the complicated relationship between that country and America. The locals nurse a fantasy of American salvation that never materializes without realizing the superpower’s lethal potential.
The main story unfolds during the sweltering month of June 1999. A preoccupied Foreign Ministry functionary barely acknowledges news of a NATO train passing through the country on a mission so pressing that no one has taken time to obtain the proper paperwork. The locomotive, escorted by a platoon of American Marines led by Capt. Doug Jones (Armand Assante), and seconded by handsome Sgt. David McLaren (Jamie Elman), is supposed to rush a special radar system from Constanta to the border with Serbia.
Not long after they start out, the Americans are sidetracked in Capalnita, a remote hamlet where railway station manager Doiaru (Razvan Vasilescu), the village strongman, has his own reasons to ignore messages from the capital, telling him to grant the convoy free passage.
The five-day standoff between Doiaru and the Americans creates a situation that numerous characters try to exploit, including the bumbling mayor (Ion Sapdaru), strikers from the ball bearing factory, and local girls — including Doiaru’s beautiful daughter Monica (Maria Dinulescu) — making a play for the American soldiers.
Although unable to communicate with words, Monica and Sgt. McLaren soon achieve a physical connection that literally sets off sparks. Those familiar with Nemescu’s prize-winning shorts “C Block Story” and “Marilena From P7” will recognize how they served as exercises for this feature.
All the perfs are fine, with those by the Romanian thesps particularly outstanding. Most notable, Vasilescu makes the role of nominal villain Doiaru a multi-dimensional one, and invests it with scornful dignity, while sexy Dinulescu makes rebellious Monica a beguiling charmer.
Shot in a hyper-realist style with the camera in constant, almost Dogma-like motion that adds nothing to the story, pic uses ambient sound rather than a music track. However, music played by the characters, supports plot points and mood.
Pic’s title derives from Monica’s recitation of the lyrics of the Mamas and the Papas hit. Parenthetical (endless) was apparently added by producers after Nemescu’s death, but the word unfinished would make more sense.