In the United States of America, we sometimes ponder the rest of the world's views on our country. Some may not much care about them, and others even vehemently reject the idea of exploring them, but nevertheless they're there. It doesn't matter if the subject is important policies or follies like sex scandals, you can usually bet that the other countries of the world know more about the USA than we know about them.
Cristian Nemescu's California Dreamin' is a rather remarkable blend of comedy, tragedy and absurdity, a delicious stew of what America is and what it means to the people of a small, decrepit village in the Romanian country. Part of what makes the film so fascinating is that it wasn't made for Americans, to tell them what to think about their place in the world. It's about Romania's (and many other countries') relationship with America--the fantasy and the reality, the hatred and the longing. It would be easy to simply criticize, but Nemescu recognizes that different people have different opinions and dreams, for very different reasons.
The US soldiers collide with the village thanks to a stubborn old man named Doiaru. He operates the train station and its customs checkpoint--a job whose perks include stealing a healthy cut of all the goods that pass through. He may not always obey the law himself, but he sure enforces it when a train enters his station with US soldiers transporting equipment to Serbia during the war in Kosovo in 1999. The military has no custom papers for its shipments. Doiaru has been told to let them through anyway, but the law says they need their papers. Doiaru has been waiting for to meet "the Americans" since he was a child, and he certainly isn't going to let them pass through town so easily.
Armand Assante plays the military officer in charge of transporting a non-descript high-tech radar device. He is ready to go. He won't be stuck long. It's just a matter of an hour or two before things are straightened out and he goes on with his mission. But the country, as we've seen in many great modern Romanian films, is a bureaucratic nightmare, and don't seem capable of getting the papers to the station.
Nemescu unfolds the American's presence in the town with a precise tapestry that would have impressed Robert Altman. The Mayor somehow believes the Americans will lift his town's economy, that if he shows them a good time then they will form some sort of magical partnership. It never occurs to him they might never think of the village again once they leave. He puts on parties with Elvis impersonators, takes them to an Eiffel Tower replica in the middle of nowhere and...well, it all has to be seen to be believed.
The women of the town all want to hook up with the US troops, so they can save them from their dreary existence. One of these is Monica, Doiaru's 17-year-old daughter who is finishing high school. As a symbol of her country's future, her struggle between reliance and self-initiative is at the soul of the film.
California Dreamin' provides historical context for all these attitudes via black-and-white flashbacks set in Romania at the end of World War II, as Russians come in to occupy the town after a series of bombings. America, who when it comes down to it is simply more interested in itself than anyone else. In relationships throughout the film, we see that such an attitude is often human nature: If a boy likes Monica enough to do her a favor, she'll ask him for one.
Nemescu tragically died in a car accident shortly after finishing this, his first film. It's truly a shame that we won't be able to examine more issues through his observant and indellible cinematic eye.
IFC Films' DVD sports an excellent anamorphic 16x9 transfer of California Dreamin', letterboxed to preserve its 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
The details are crisp, compression artifacts scarce, and the grain is preserved as well as possible in standard definition. Blacks are rich in the dark scenes, and a nice range of brightness is on display in the black-and-white flashback scenes.
The film has a stereo Dolby Digital soundtrack in a mix of Romanian, English and poorly spoken English. The mix is intriguing, if a tad on the idiosyncratic side, with dialogue sometimes blending into crowd noise or other ambient tones. The dialogue and sound effects sound very realistic, and are key to immersing us in the environment, given the film's lack of non-source music. (Sound designer Andrei Toncu also died in the car crash that killed Nemescu.)
Optional subtitles are available in English and Spanish. If you're hearing impaired, the good news is that the English subtitles run through the whole movie, whether the characters are speaking Romanian or English. Unfortunately, the disc doesn't also include a track that only subtitles the Romanian material. Sometimes the lines are low in the mix (intentionally), mumbled by the actors or delivered with thisck accents, so it's certainly nice to have them available in some cases. But since the eye is naturally drawn to the subtitles, it becomes an unnecessary distraction reading. Also, in a scene in which protestors chant the same word over and over in the background, the subtitles decided they needed to include every instance of the word.
The only special feature is a a pretty good one-minute trailer of the film in cruddy letterboxed 4x3. I was hoping to learn a little more about the production at the time of Nemescu's death. A title card explains that this is the film as it was two days before the director's death. Was he happy with this cut, or were there things he wanted to rework? Is the parenthetical subtitle "(Endless)" simply a reference to the film's incomplete form, and if so why that word? There's definitely an ending, after all...
Given the fascinating layers and details in the film, IFC could have created a DVD with a little more depth. As it is, they've presented California Dreamin' well and left it at that. The only component that I truly missed was a subtitle track that translated Romanian dialogue without transcribing English.
Jeremy Mathews has been subjecting films to his criticism since 2000. He has contributed to several publications, including Film Threat, Salt Lake City Weekly, the Salt Lake Tribune, In Utah This Week and The Wasatch Journal. He also runs the blog The Same Dame and fronts the band NSPS.