It’s a safe bet that there aren’t many people in the world whose first choice of a movie to see on a Friday night is the latest offering from Romania. It’s hardly a country known for its movie industry, after all. Yes, there may be an increasingly large number of films shot there, but that’s surely all down to the cheapness of the labour and locations? And what of Romanian culture? The country may now be part of the EU (albeit as one of the most deprived member states, whose membership was highly controversial), but for most Brits the little we do know of the place and people can be summed up with three words: communists, peasants and gypsies.
Long part of the European backwater – repressed then left to fend for itself by the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the 19th century, largely ignored during the two World Wars, and then isolated in the world after its communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu pulled the country out of the Warsaw Pact during the 1960s – the Romanian sense of national identity has long been shaped by this often forced independence. So little wonder that it is this national spirit that lies at the heart of this fascinating, amusing, and intriguing film.
We all remember the 1999 NATO invasion of Kosovo – a humanitarian bombing campaign and invasion that not only set a precedent for the 2003 invasion of Iraq but which has still not been resolved to this day, with tensions still threatening to bubble over into fresh conflict over Kosovo’s recent unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia. Much as with the Iraq war, the military action was not sanctioned by the UN, and so technically illegal – and there were protests about NATO’s action, even if nowhere near on the scale of those we saw in 2003.
It is one such protest that received little coverage that forms the basis of this film – a tiny, hilarious-sounding incident in which a NATO supply train, packed with American soldiers and equipment, was halted en route through Romania to Kosovo by a village official thanks to some missing customs papers. You can just picture the thought process: “Yes, you may be the world’s only superpower on the way to war, and we may only be a bunch of peasants living in the middle of nowhere – but if your paperwork’s not right, you’re not going anywhere.”
It’s a great premise for a film, allowing all sorts of culture-clash moments as the arrogant Americans try to deal with the indignant locals, with both groups naturally coming to learn much of each other along the way. Because of this, it could also have ended up far too predictable and clichéd to provide much of interest.
Thankfully, first-time 26-year-old Romanian director Cristian Nemescu had a glorious talent for avoiding the obvious in his humorous take on the incident, blending just the right amount of genuine resentment and absurd comedy to make this a delightfully sweet exploration of local tensions in a globalising world. I say “had”, because sadly this is Nemescu’s first and last film – he died in a car crash in August 2006 before he had a chance to finish the editing.
The loss of Nemescu, on the evidence of this film, is a genuine tragedy for the nascent Romanian film industry. Combining subtlety with a genuine understanding of both sides in the dispute and a glorious taste for the little details that make this in any case absurd situation feel that much more real and funny, this is the kind of film that would be a joy no matter what country it comes from.