Poor Captain Jones. An American military intelligence officer in command of a company of marines, he finds himself, in the autumn of 1999, stuck in a Romanian backwater called Capalnita. Charged with the apparently simple task of delivering some non-lethal equipment, by train, to NATO forces dealing with the situation in Kosovo, Jones stumbles into a Balkan world of bureaucratic intransigence, corruption and local feuding. A square-jawed by-the-book kind of warrior who keeps whatever sense of humor he might have on lockdown, he struggles to understand why he must spend five days languishing in a place he describes as lost “in the fold of some map.”
It may be just as surprising to find Armand Assante, who plays Jones, giving the performance of his career in a modest Romanian movie: “California Dreamin’,” the first and only feature directed by Cristian Nemescu, a phenomenally talented young filmmaker who died in a car accident shortly after completing it.
Mr. Assante, a solid, hard-working actor with scores of roles on his résumé, inflects Jones’s crisp, authoritative martial gestures with hints of inner complication. Trying to assess the delicacies of the situation on the ground in Capalnita — even as he tries to force or coax his way out — he walks a fine line between hero and clown. He may be the new sheriff in town, or else just another player in the circus passing through.
The stranding of Jones and his men could be the biggest thing ever to happen in Capalnita, and the cause of it is Doiaru (Razvan Vasilescu), the village’s bitter, semicriminal stationmaster, who lives above the depot with his daughter, Monica (Maria Dinulescu). Like most of the women in town, Monica regards the arrival of the Americans as an occasion for sexual adventure and possible escape.
At a party thrown together by the unctuous, opportunistic mayor (Ion Sapdaru), the local young men stand around looking glum while their girlfriends flirt and dance with the foreigners. Monica is drawn to Sergeant McLaren (Jamie Elman), Jones’s second in command, and though they have no language in common their first touch produces a literal electric shock. The eventual consummation of their attraction causes a blackout and several explosions.
“California Dreamin’ ” is a rambunctious, closely observed comedy of cultural collision, its satirical gaze aimed at Romania’s foibles and also at the sometimes lethal absurdities of geopolitics. A crucial decade younger than the other filmmakers associated with Romanian cinema’s recent renaissance, Mr. Nemescu, 26 at the time of his death, did not share their penchant for long takes and stripped-down realism. Compared with Cristi Puiu’s “Death of Mr. Lazarescu” and Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” (to limit the field to Cannes prize-winners by directors with nearly identical first names), “California Dreamin’ ” filters its local concerns through a restless pop sensibility.
Its themes are serious, but they are addressed with a playful exuberance that suggests a young man’s unbridled delight in every aspect of filmmaking, a spirit that also infuses Mr. Nemescu’s wonderful short films “C Block Story” and “Marilena From P7.” His nascent style was eclectic and sometimes chaotic, but “California Dreamin’ ” shows his ability to direct actors in two languages, and to execute set pieces — from McClaren and Monica’s intimate moments to the farce of the mayor’s big shindig — with precision and panache.
“California Dreamin’ ” is being released as it was shown in Cannes in 2007, which is to say in an unfinished (or, as the title parenthetically suggests, “endless”) state. Had he lived, Mr. Nemescu would probably have trimmed and tightened the movie, which at more than two and a half hours runs a bit long for the scope of its story. But loose-jointed though it is, it is never boring. It rambles a bit, but it always has something interesting to say.
In particular, I think, to American audiences. Given everything that has happened since, the Kosovo intervention of 1999 may not seem like a terribly relevant or significant moment in history. But viewed through the lens of the Iraq war — which was surely on Mr. Nemescu’s mind in 2006 — this odd little Clinton-era anecdote takes on some unsettling resonances.
Jones arrives, as Americans so often do, with high ideals and good intentions, greeting the people of Capalnita with a sincere respect that contains more than a hint of condescension. The villagers are mired in their own problems — a power struggle between Doiaru and the mayor and a simmering confrontation between the stationmaster and workers in a factory he wants to buy, to say nothing of the romantic agonies of the town’s young people — which the Americans can neither ignore nor solve.
The Americans, so powerful and confident, so attractive and so clueless, are regarded with ambivalence by the Romanians (including the director), whose self-image combines a sense of grievance with a certain stiff-necked pride. They live in a small country that has often found itself in the path of imperial powers, a condition they address with guile, stubbornness and a measure of grace. And lately with some pretty great movies.