A Dream's Merchant: Film Review

Three engrossing hours of real-life motorcycle diaries build into an instant classic of modern travelogue.

Romanian Bogdan Ilie-Micu's motorcycle diary documentary takes viewers through a 16,000-mile trip from eastern Europe to Mongolia.

CLUJ, ROMANIA -- Though inevitably destined to enjoy the tiniest fraction of the audience and attention that Walter Salles' Cannes-premiered Jack Kerouac adaptation On the Road is currently receiving, Romanian motorcycle-diary documentary A Dream's Merchant ironically gets much closer to capturing the spirit of the Beat icon's timeless wanderlust poetics. 

An engaging epic assembled on the proverbial shoestring, newcomer Bogdan Ilie-Micu's rough-edged ode to the open highway takes us, largely via narrated stills, on a four-month, 13-country 16,000-mile round-trip from eastern Europe to Mongolia. The continent-straddling itinerary emphatically justifies -- even demands -- Ilie-Micu's three-hour running-time, a duration which might initially daunt buyers, programmers and audiences. The picture, which instantly recouped half its reported $2,500 budget when landing the Best Romanian Debut prize at Cluj, thus deserves significant exposure at events favorable to non-fiction fare.  
While readily divisible into three or six chunks for broadcast -- where it would enrapture fans of Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman's relatively slick BBC programs Long Way Round and Long Way Down -- the picture derives maximum impact from being consumed in a marathon theatrical session. And it's just the kind of unassumingly heartfelt, grittily authentic project that could, with suitable handling, amass a cult following far beyond the 'petrolhead' crowd.
If 29-year-old director/writer/producer/editor Ilie-Micu -- making an impressive transition from shorts to an ambitiously grand canvas -- needs funds for promotion or further post-production he should consider approaching German auto-giant BMW. Because it's impossible to imagine a finer advertisement for the Munich conglomerate than this testament to the astonishing reliability and resilience of the 'Enduro' touring-bike -- thirtyish photographer Mihai Barbu's conveyance to Ulan Bator and back over multifarious terrain. 
A genially spiritual, scraggly-bearded chap who travels with Orthodox icons in his saddlebags -- and whose not-so-passing resemblance to Jesus Christ is amusingly noted by a passer-by at one stage -- easy-rider Barbu's animistic bond with his machine is such that he christens it 'Doyle', after a canine companion from Spike Lee's 25th Hour. He treats it with the chummy reverence one might accord a faithful steed: "Come on - we gallop!" he urges, his devotion recalling Robert M Pirsig's perennial bestseller Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
The bike even figures in the Romanian-language title -- Un gând, un vis, Doyle... ?i-un pix ('A thought, a dream, Doyle... and a pen') -- which also refers to the letters Mihai writes to his numerous sponsors at regular intervals. Substantial extracts from these articulate, wryly comic missives are narrated by actor Ionu? Kivu, illustrated by around 800 photographs taken by Mihai and briskly assembled by editor Ilie-Micu.
Barbu's eye for composition and detail are evident from striking images that capture the remarkable places and people he encounters through Ukraine and Russia, and on through the Caucasus republics to the wilds of Mongolia: "The road has two traffic-lanes, straight up to infinity and less-traveled," he marvels. Insatiably curious and reflectively empathetic, torn between exploration and homesickness, Mihai himself occasionally appears in functionally-shot fireside interview, tranquilly recollecting adventures that covered the winter of 2009/10. 
A Dream's Merchant -- the slightly awkward English-language title referring to Barbu's imaginative way of funding his journey by "selling" portions of the trip -- takes its time to establish a particular mood and tone, progressively drawing us in to Mihai's world. No new ground is broken in terms of documentary-film form, and the low-fi look and feel of this video-shot enterprise may take a little getting used to. 
But as the second hour gives way to the third, we realize the extent to which we've gradually become emotionally invested in Mihai and Doyle's picaresque progress, to the extent that the picture's cumulative payoff becomes unexpectedly moving -- for some perhaps even overwhelmingly so. As Barbu himself puts it at one stage when conditions are particularly testing: "The road is bad -- almost very bad -- but that doesn't matter, because the energy is very good."
Venue: Transilvania International Film Festival (Romanian Days)
Production company: Mototol Film
Director-editor-producer: Bogdan Ilie-Micu
Screenwriters: Bodgan Ilie-Micu, Mihai Barbu
Director of photography: Adrian Grigorescu
Sales Agent: Bogdan Ilie-Micu, Bucharest
No rating, 172 minutes.