New waves come and new waves go, but they can also linger on in the careers of filmmakeres as they spiral out and become individuals. The Romanian New Wave that began to break only five or so years ago seems to have already dissipated — only Corneliu Porumboiu’s “Police, Adjective” has emerged in the last two years. Maybe the Romanian vibe itself was just too dire to last, or maybe the economy kneecapped the movement. Perhaps momentum was lost when one of the Wave’s most vibrant and commercially orthodox voices, Cristian Nemescu, died in a car wreck in 2006, forever 27, amidst the post-production on his first feature, “California Dreamin'” (2007), which itself has taken three arduous years to finally be made available to American viewers.
The Romanian films we’ve seen in the last five years were all made by thirtysomethings, all of them still teenagers and film-school students when Romania became a “new democracy” in 1989, operating since like so much of the Third World on the outskirts of legality, poverty and social order. Somewhat organically, then, the films have all been similar in their style and approach — state-of-the-art hypernaturalism, natural underlighting, open-ended narratives and shallow-grave comedy. The settings are more often than not paradigmatic post-Communist Bloc villages of newly capitalist predators, their lives structured around black marketeering, bitter self-indulgence, and maddened dreams of either somehow scoring big or getting the hell out.
Nemescu’s featurette-length “Marilena de la P7” (2006) begins as a Bucharest “Los Olvidados,” before devolving into a street kid’s coming-of-age experience with a young hooker; the filmmaker apparently had an unquenched thirst for Elvis impersonators and electrically-charged women. “California Dreamin'” is a more traditional Eastern European social farce, less formally chilly than the other Romanians, and closest in uppity attitude to Catalin Mitulescu’s “The Way I Spent the End of the World” (2006). A kind of my-sour-little-village picaresque, the story centers on a destitute town in the muddy Carpathian basin during the Kosovo war visited upon by a NATO train carrying American Marines and munitions. Naturally, opportunism and corruption keep the train from going any further, and days pass as virtually everyone involved attempts to turn the American presence to their profit.
As Nemescu’s title says, America is both the promised land and the object of socioeconomic derision (“Fuck Bill Clinton!” is the crowning moment of defiance), personified by Armand Assante as a hawk-faced, get-it-done officer faced with the utter recalcitrance and carefree self-service of the Romanian trod-upon. Razvan Vasilescu, the ubiquitous Jack Nicholson of Romanian film, is the beady-eyed catalyst for the chaos, which mixes in striking workers and ass-covering bureaucrats, but ultimately focuses on village girls looking for handsome American husbands and a one-way ticket out of Dodge. Climaxing with the carnage of a heartbreaking riot, Nemescu’s epic comedy (a winner at Cannes) leaves virtually nothing out – which is its own irony, because it’s technically an unfinished film, left dangling after its director’s untimely demise. Cynical and grim as the movie is, this is not the grueling Romania of “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” or “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” — Nemescu was a satiric entertainer, and the film embraces a broad-stroke sensibility halfway between Harold Ramis and ascetic arthouse.