Cinemagoers in Paris are, by some stretch, the most privileged in the world. With some three hundred films, spread among new and repertory stuff, the city possesses a cinema culture that few other cities can match. It's the main reason I first made my way here, in my mid twenties, when I was considerably more impassioned about cinema than I am now (some people might find that hard to believe but I watched way more movies back then). One great privilege we get is the opportunity to watch, the week after the Cannes film festival, the films selected in both the Un Certain regard sidebar and the Director's Fortnight. Work commitments have prevented me from seeing as many films as I would like, such as Lenny Abrahamson's Garage, which is screening tomorrow evening, and Roy Andersson's You, the Living. But I did manage to get to see the eagerly anticipated California Dreamin', the other Romanian success story of the festival, winning the 'non-competitive' Un Certain regard prize.
The film is the first and only feature directed by the late Cristian Nemescu, who died in a car crash at the age of 27 in Bucharest last year. The film has been preserved as it was at the time of his death, which unsurprisingly means it is structurally uneven and a bit too long. I will probably be accused of being cynical in thinking that the award was given mainly as a sympathy award to recognise posthumously a talent that may have blossomed into one of Europe's greatest filmmakers. To be completely frank, it is hard to believe that it was the best film on show in the sidebar, though this is not to say it is not an impressive debut feature.
The film treats of the visit of a platoon of US marines stranded in a small Romanian village en route to Kosovo in 1999; they are unable to move on due to a corrupt station master, who also appears to have the entire village under his thumb, refusing to allow them to pass without the appropriate customs papers, even though the Romanian government has give the green light. The marines end up staying for five days and the younger soldiers fraternise with the local women, are feted by the shambolic but genial mayor (played by the wonderful comic actor Ion Sapduru, who was brilliant as the alcoholic academic in 12:08 East of Bucharest) while their captain, Jones, played by a gracefully ageing Armand Assante drives himself almost insane trying to force a way out of the impasse.
There are nods to both Robert Altman and Emir Kusturica in Nemescu's broad picaresque canvas, and if the film is occasionally unconvincing in some of the situations (particularly the final fifteen minutes), his ambition is matched by his ability to render memorable characters, over whom the shadow of history looms. The obstructionist stationmaster Doiaru, played by Razvan Vasilescu is a man embittered by both the deportation of his capitalist parents by the Soviets after the second world war and what he sees as the betrayal of his country by the Americans in the carve-up of Europe that followed. A film where the American military are portrayed in such a sympathetic - even strangely gentle - light could only come from post-Communist Eastern Europe though it is a bit surprising that Doiaru should be the only dissenting voice. I don't know what the sentiments of ordinary Romanians would have been during the NATO bombardments of Yugoslavia but I can imagine that there would have been some sympathy at least felt for their neighbours, if not for its government.
As I said above there are a number of structural problems with the film but the intention of the producers to leave it as Nemescu had until then fashioned it is a respectful one. Though the film is no masterpiece, it is hugely enjoyable and certain sequences - such as the opening scenes of a World War II Allied bombardment - are virtuosic enough to suggest that Nemescu might in time have become a great filmmaker. His tragic death robbed a country with an impressively renascent national cinema of another great talent.