In 'California Dreamin',' A Nation's Hopes Deferred

Monica (Maria Dinulescu) and Sgt. David McLaren (Jamie Elman) dance in 'California Dreamin" i i

Dance, Revolution: Monica (Maria Dinulescu) and Sgt. David McLaren (Jamie Elman) sway in California Dreamin'. Independent Film Channel hide caption

itoggle caption Independent Film Channel
Monica (Maria Dinulescu) and Sgt. David McLaren (Jamie Elman) dance in 'California Dreamin"

Dance, Revolution: Monica (Maria Dinulescu) and Sgt. David McLaren (Jamie Elman) sway in California Dreamin'.

Independent Film Channel

California Dreamin'

  • Director: Cristian Nemescu
  • Genre: Comedy/Drama
  • Running Time:155 minutes

Not Rated: The upside of war, references to Ricky Martin

(Recommended)

Andrei Vasluianu, Razvan Vasilescu and  Armand Assante in 'California Dreamin" i i

World Stage: Marian (Andrei Vasluianu), Doiaru (Razvan Vasilescu) and Cpt. Doug Jones (Armand Assante) ham it up in honor of Capalnita. Independent Film Channel hide caption

itoggle caption Independent Film Channel
Andrei Vasluianu, Razvan Vasilescu and  Armand Assante in 'California Dreamin"

World Stage: Marian (Andrei Vasluianu), Doiaru (Razvan Vasilescu) and Cpt. Doug Jones (Armand Assante) ham it up in honor of Capalnita.

Independent Film Channel

The myriad meanings of America are among the subjects of California Dreamin', although this smart, funny movie is set far from our shores. The action transpires primarily in a small Romanian village, where the U.S. military's can-do spirit runs smack into a venerable tradition of nothing doing.

Cristian Nemescu's film is based on a 1999 incident from NATO's intervention in Kosovo: A train carrying a new radar system is halted in the sleepy hamlet of Capalnita, where the locals have a surprisingly wide array of agendas.

The primary obstacle is an officious (and corrupt) stationmaster with a historical gripe. During World War II, when he was a boy, Doiaru (Razvan Vasilescu) expected the Americans to liberate his country. Instead, as flashbacks reveal, they bombed it. Then they left the rubble to be occupied by the Soviets.

The mayor (Ion Sapdaru) may have similar memories, but he has very different plans. He hopes the Americans will bring prosperity to his town, where strikers are protesting jobs lost at a factory that couldn't survive the post-communist economy.

Romania isn't even the point of the NATO mission, and the U.S. commanding officer doesn't want to be bothered with local officials. A humorously inarticulate turn by the usually suave Armand Assante, the American captain is also an allegorical figure: He embodies a country that has lots of clout, but often has little finesse.

Perhaps seeing the stranded U.S. troops as the first wave of a tourist blitz, the mayor decides to stage Capalnita's centennial festival — even though the town has already celebrated the occasion. The star-spangled party, complete with Elvis impersonator, allows girls from the local high school to swarm the young American soldiers. But small talk is limited, since the students have been taught Spanish, not English, as a second language.

Among the soldiers' admirers is Doiaru's pretty daughter (Maria Dinulescu), who had planned to hop the NATO train out of town before her father halted it. She pursues a handsome sergeant (Jamie Elman) who reminds the local women of — it's 1999, remember — Ricky Martin.

California Dreamin' — which opens this week at New York's IFC Center, with On Demand and DVD premieres to follow — is witty, poignant and elegantly made. It won the Prix Un Certain Regard at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, where Romanian films have triumphed in recent years.

Like such exemplary recent Romanian pictures as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Nemescu's movie uses a handheld camera, mixes satire and drama, and employs a compressed timeline. The vibe is naturalistic, if wry, with just a hint of the grotesque.

At two-and-a-half hours, California Dreamin' does run a little long. Perhaps the 27-year-old director would have tightened the film if he hadn't died in a car crash while still editing.

Yet the sense of being becalmed is integral to the movie, and a zippier version would miss that. After all, the NATO troops just have to cool their heels in Capalnita for a few days. Doiaru stewed for more than 50 years, waiting for the American rescue that finally arrived in the form of a sputtering, distracted captain who couldn't care less about Romania. (Recommended)

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