Nae Caranfil’s “Closer to the Moon” offers an absurdist take on a real event: an audacious 1959 bank robbery carried out by high-ranking Jewish members of the Romanian Communist Party, who pretended they were shooting a movie. Caranfil imagines the protagonists as fully cognizant of the sociopolitical inanities that surround them — not least of which is the government’s totally false propaganda film about the heist, in which the culprits are forced to participate after having been arrested and condemned to death. Shot in English with a name British and American cast, this surprisingly entertaining black comedy could connect with American auds.
The plot recalls one of the enduring masterpieces of Romanian New Wave cinema, Lucien Pintile’s equally absurdist “Reconstruction” (1970), which also revolves around the filmed re-enactment of a crime. Apparently the Securitate (the Romanian secret police), as evidenced by these two films’ storylines, took great pains to not only rewrite history, but also to shoot the rewrite as well.
Caranfil launches “Moon” with the holdup, seen through the innocent wide eyes of Virgil (Harry Lloyd, “Game of Thrones”), a young waiter in a cafe located across from the bank. Thrilled, as he believes, to witness the making of the first Romanian action film, he is inspired to become a cameraman himself. In that capacity, Virgil observes the subsequent trial of the robbers, in which each death sentence is received with applause and slapsticky gestures by the condemned defendants, elegant Yippies before the fact.
A flashback to a 1959 New Year’s Eve party in a whorehouse introduces the five members of the “gang.” All longtime Communist Party card carriers and resistance heroes during the war, they now hold important posts in their respective fields: Max (Mark Strong), the supremely ironic de facto leader of the group, is a chief inspector of police; Yorgu (Christian McKay) a respected history professor; Razvan (Joe Armstrong) a hotshot reporter; Dumi (Tim Plester) an oft-televised space scientist; and Alice (Vera Farmiga, in dramatic diva mode), Max’s ex-lover and mother of his son, is a political scientist. All are thoroughly disillusioned by what the revolution has wrought, above and beyond their imminent demotions in the ongoing Stalinist purge of Jews and intellectuals. And so their damn-the-consequences robbery plan is hatched, since any action is better than passive acceptance of historical absurdity.
After their sentencing, the gang seizes every opportunity to wrest control of their tragedy and transform it into comedy. When the drunken director of the government’s re-enactment (Allan Corduner) passes out, Max cavalierly assumes his function, Virgil happily seconding him behind the camera. Having bathed and exchanged their filthy striped prison uniforms for sophisticated formal wear, the convicts demand caviar and chateaubriand for their restaurant scene and generally revel in their short-term freedom, enjoying every aspect of the cosmic joke.
Refusing to focus “Closer to the Moon” around any individual or even shared p.o.v., Caranfil instead cuts between the protagonists, with Virgil providing a convenient point of convergence for stray narrative strands such as the character’s “Voice of America”-listening Jewish landlord (David de Keyser) and an insomniac Securitate official (an outstanding Anton Lesser) obsessed with discerning the robbery’s motive. As with much recent Romanian cinema devoted to contemplating the past, an unwillingness to subscribe to any single version of events is an inevitable byproduct of the country’s infamously unreliable revisionist history.
Thesping by the largely British cast proves uniformly excellent. Production values aim high but wisely forgo undue slickness or exaggerated period reconstructions. If Caranfil’s mix of comedy and tragedy seems too scattershot to fully achieve catharsis, it does boast a rather Jewish sense of humor, itself a curious testimonial to the past.