NEW YORK — “Nobody exactly knows to this day what really happened,” Romanian film director Nae Caranfil says of the Ionid Gang, a group of Jewish intellectuals and high ranking Communist Party members who executed the most famous bank robbery behind the Iron Curtain.
Caranfil became fascinated with the story after seeing a recent documentary about the topic, and kept coming back to one image: a group of scraggly prisoners on a day trip from death row entering a barber’s shop and emerging as movie stars. Among the more unique facts of the case is the burglars were later forced to make a propaganda film recreating (to an extent) their caper.
Caranfil’s new film “Closer To The Moon” was the opening night film of this year’s “Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema 2013,” the 8th edition of the annual celebration of Romanian movies at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. It also served as its world premiere.
“Closer to the Moon” is the most expensive Romanian movie ever made, starring American and English actors like Vera Farmiga (“The Departed”), Mark Strong (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”), and Harry Lloyd (“Game of Thrones”). It is rather different from the talk-heavy, oftentimes deadpan/absurdist dramas of “New Romanian Cinema” that have gained attention in recent years like Cristian Mungiu’s “Beyond the Hills,” Cristi Puiu’s “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” Radu Jude’s “Everybody in Our Family,” Calin Peter Netzer’s “Child’s Pose” or Corneliu Porumboiu’s “12:08 East of Bucharest.”
(Suggestion: dip your toe in by renting one of the above films. The “New Romanian Cinema”-style is for a very particular taste. If you like one of these movies, you’ll like ‘em all. But if you find yourself bored to tears – if not even annoyed at how long it takes for anyone to stop talking and do something, then don’t worry, you have a lot of company.)
“Closer To The Moon” has much more spring in its step, but that doesn’t mean it lacks insight into life during the Communist era.
A pre-title crawl tells how Romanian Jews were quick to join the Communist Party prior to and during World War II. After the Red Army came, many of Jews were integrated into positions of power. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, however, anti-Semitism had entered the equation and many found themselves shunned. Furthermore, the party had strayed from much of its idealism, leading to some friction with Jewish intellectuals.
This doesn’t explain exactly why a group of Jews ripped off a bank in 1959, but the film offers an interpretation that by forcing the people to recognize that crime could happen in the “worker’s paradise” it would expose feelings of resentment.
The government, however, suggested it was a Zionist conspiracy to smuggle Jews into Israel, and as counter-revolutionaries, the group must be made an example of. “We are not anti-Semites,” a prosecutor says in the film, “but we are not indifferent to the threat of Zionism.” The government therefore decides to shoot a film about the event, starring the actual players, before their death sentences are carried out.
That’s where Harry Lloyd’s character comes in. He’s the young filmmaker hired by the government to shoot the state-dictated scenario. It’s through him, his kinship with group leaders Mark Strong and Vera Farmiga that we learn, or at least get an inkling, as to what truly went down. It’s also where we see some good bits of dark comedy, like a government censor admonishing a police officer for reacting as he would naturally on film. “Communist police don’t strike people!” he shouts, ordering a different take.
Moviegoers interested in political theory will have a good time with the dinner parties and rap sessions in “Closer to the Moon.” Those looking for a whip-smart “Ocean’s Eleven”-style heist picture should probably look elsewhere. But those interested in Jewish signifiers ought to have a field day.
When we first meet the accused (the name is changed to the Rosenthal Gang in the film) they are dressed in concentration camp-style gray striped uniforms. The “true” propaganda film that plays during the closing credits shows different clothing. Then there’s Harry Lloyd’s landlord, Mr. Zilber, a bearded old Jew who spends his nights drinking Slivovitz and listening to static-y Voice of America. “Why not listen to Brahms clearly, on an official station?” he’s asked. “Because on an official station even Brahms becomes propaganda,” he warns.
Lloyd and Farmiga’s character form a romantic relationship and the film’s tearful finale is cut to a montage that includes her young son learning traditional dances for his bar mitzvah. We learn in closing credits that her children later emigrated to Israel, where some descendents still live.
But were these righteous people or were they crooks? “Closer to The Moon” is an odd enough film that a stray shot of people stealing milk bottles is meant to be looked upon as something of a good thing. That by shaking things up they would eventually fray the Communist system enough that it would fail. You and your own group of smoking intellectuals can see the movie and argue if that makes sense.
In addition to its unique political perspective, the movie also opens with some light humor (Lloyd’s filmmaking mentor is a fall down drunk) that may seem at odds with the seriousness of direct political action during the Communist period.
At the Lincoln Center world premiere a Romanian woman in the auditorium shouted down the director, producer Michael Fitzgerald, actor Harry Lloyd and one of the festival organizers. She complained that this was not how Communism was, that this was a silly “western or Italian film” and basically frothed at the mouth and clutched her pearls.
Director Caranfil responded in good form. He lived through Communism, too, and recalled that not every day was bleak. People laughed and sang and lived life – it was not “gray every day” as you sometimes see in movies. He also added that if it seemed like there was slapstick, it was intentional, that “the propaganda of the time was all slapstick – all farce.”
Further distribution plans for “Closer to The Moon” have yet to be detailed, but one can expect it to hit international markets next year.