The arrival of a traveling cinema of Soviet propaganda films in a remote Romanian village signals a cultural invasion of a particularly unwelcome kind in Titus Muntean’s 1959-set “Kino Caravan.” But the visiting bureaucrats’ political agenda is unexpectedly upended, inciting a gentle tug of war between by-the-book ideologues and laid-back country folk. Beyond the absurdist comedy lurk more dire consequences, but if one suspects another shoe is poised to drop, no one could predict the sinister shocker that closes Muntean’s impressive tone-shifter. Lacking the sweep and subtlety of recent Romanian masterworks, this highly accessible pic could nonetheless make arthouse inroads.
The picturesque town of Mogos, reachable only via rope-drawn ferry, has bucolic charm in spades. The townfolk have evolved a workable, tolerant balance: The lovely cultural secretary runs the library, the village idiot herds communal cattle, chicken-stealing gypsies amicably gossip with local law enforcement, and everyone practices a cooperative policy of mutual laissez-faire.
The intrusion of a film-toting duo of self-important regional representatives threatens that harmony. Tavi (Dorian Boguta), a young agitprop agent on his first official assignment, sees conspiracies behind every raindrop and treason behind every freak accident (a herd of cows nudges the cinema truck into a ditch, waterlogging several reels). He draws up a damning report, which he forces the village president (Mircea Diaconu) to sign. Once the document has been drafted, the villagers shift tactics from trying to oust the humorless hatchet men to plying them with liquor and conviviality.
They are greatly aided in this endeavor by Tavi’s instant attraction to the pretty librarian, Miss Corina (Iulia Lumanare). The odd couple’s naive, awkward courtship affords helmer Muntean a wealth of comic detail, though Tavi’s would-be-“Ninotchka”-style makeover fails to take into account that “human” doesn’t necessarily mean “humane.”
Tavi’s role is not merely to proselytize. Mandatory film attendance not only exposes the populace to the propagandizing power of cinema, but is designed, through post-screening “debates,” to keep tabs on how closely individuals hew to the party line. For Tavi, any deviation from the soulless norm constitutes subversion that must be eliminated at any cost.
As in Horatiu Malaele’s similarly set “Silent Wedding,” the timeless beauty of the Transylvanian landscape, dotted with quaint cottages and gazebos and traversed by tranquil rivers, make the machinations of city intruders seem unreal and their political imperatives irrelevant — until true power shows its face.