It’s unfortunate that Cristian Nemescu’s debut feature will most likely be viewed mainly as a promising work-in-progress. The tragic death of the 27-year-old writer/director in 2006 left the film unfinished, and the final cut was compiled according to what was known of his intentions. In spite of this, what emerges is a compelling story that triumphs on several levels.
California Dreamin’ begins with a gritty black and white prologue detailing the brutal bomb attacks on Romania during the Second World War and outlining the paradoxes of the situation: frantic locals cry out for American support while an unexploded shell bearing a ‘Made in USA’ logo crashes through an inhabited building.
Flash forward 55 years and the country finds itself in the middle of another military crisis, this time the conflict in Kosovo. A NATO-commissioned radar is being transported by train into Romania to aid the accuracy of air raids on Serbia. Due to the covert and urgent nature of the cargo, there was no time to obtain the necessary customs documents. Under guard from the US army, headed by Captain Doug Jones (an inspired Armand Assante), the train runs into trouble when it is stopped in the small village of Capalnita by bitter stationmaster Doiarum, who demands to see all relevant documentation before it can proceed. During the unplanned stopover, the young army officers mix with the small traditional community.
At the heart of the collision of cultures is Doiarum’s daughter Monica, a striking 17-year-old who commands the attention of every boy in town, yet secretly wants to escape the constricted future that awaits her in Capalnita. The influx of American soldiers not only stimulates her hormones but also her desire to leave, much to the dismay of her father who has positioned himself as a figure of authority within the community. Captain Jones sees this control as tyrannical, and soon looks to convince the locals to overthrow him, bringing the future of the village into question.
One of Nemescu’s greatest achievements is the way in which the vast historical context is weaved seamlessly with engagingly human strands of narrative, without ever feeling contrived. There’s no formulaic love story subplot; rather, the relationship between Monica and her American lover develops organically amidst the push and pull of external events. While the film is infused with allegorical meaning it never feels like Nemescu is consciously trying to get a point across. Instead, the social significance of the Americans’ arrival is perfectly demonstrated through events such as the party scene, where the excited locals invite the soldiers to a celebration complete with a Romanian Elvis tribute act.
While it is uncertain that this is the cut of the film Nemescu would have chosen, its win of the ‘Un Certain Regard’ prize at Cannes last year demonstrates the significance and accomplishment of the director’s efforts, a posthumous success tinged with sadness as one can only imagine what this young talent could have gone on to achieve.