Closer to the Moon: Film Review

Oddly lighthearted film entertains but never quite convinces.

Vera Farmiga stars in a title revolving around convicted bank robbers who are forced to reenact their crimes for a propaganda film.

A quintet of Jews seeing their status drop in postwar Romania rob a bank in Nae Caranfil's Closer to the Moon, only to be caught, convicted, and forced to reenact their crime in a slyly anti-Semitic propaganda film. Though based on a true story, the film discards some of its claim to authenticity right off the bat, casting Brits and Americans in all the leads and having them speak English instead of Romanian; later, it will have trouble establishing the gang's motives for a crime they all but knew would lead to their execution. Stateside potential is modest for the semi-convincing yet enjoyable tale, relying on familiar names in a cast that acquits itself well given the demands of the unusual plot.

Led by a high-ranking police officer (Mark Strong's Max Rosenthal) and the political academic Alice (Vera Farmiga), the five friends had been wartime resistance fighters and later attained prominent positions in the Communist party. As years wore on, though, Jews and intellectuals found their influence waning. As the movie would have it, the former movers-and-shakers decided to rob the bank as a political provocation, preferring to receive death sentences if they were caught than to live lives of diminishing excitement.

The film opens with their flamboyant crime, a quick caper in which they pulled up to a national bank in trucks, announced to bystanders that they were shooting a movie, and hijacked a poorly guarded van delivering cash. One witness is Virgil (Harry Lloyd), a fresh-faced waiter who, believing he has seen a real film shoot, immediately decides to pursue filmmaking.

Cut to some time later, when Virgil is apprentice to an alcoholic director and often gets to do his boss's job. Assigned to film the kangaroo-court trial of some accused thieves, he's shocked to see the faux-moviemakers. After they're convicted, and Party officials decide to praise the State's efficiency in a film dramatizing their scheme and capture, he's part of the beleaguered crew.

This hokey documentary actually was made (we see scenes in the end credits), and Caranfil imagines its production as a bureaucrat-monitored affair in which the convicts practically ran the show, cavorting and playing dress-up for the cameras while Virgil looks on admiringly. Their mirth during all this (even at their sentencing, they can barely suppress giggles) is difficult to digest, too close to actual merriment to be considered absurdist gallows humor. But their camaraderie sustains things while the script teases with near-happy endings and flashbacks to the plotting of the heist. Late in the film Caranfil returns to a rooftop birthday dinner where Max has the idea for the crime and sells his pals on it, with a big moon in the sky and talk of the Space Race illustrating his longing for greatness. The dialogue may not sell viewers on the motivations for a robbery where the loot was a nearly worthless currency, but the setting offers a melancholy that would be welcome elsewhere in the film.

Production Company: Mandragora Movies, Agresywna Banda

Cast: Vera Farmiga, Mark Strong, Harry Lloyd, Anton Lesser, Joe Armstrong, Christian McKay

Director-Screenwriter: Nae Caranfil

Producers: Michael Fitzgerald, Denis Friedman, Alessandro Leone, Bobby Paunescu, Renata Ranieri

Executive producers: Penelope Glass, Ugo Tucci

Director of photography: Marius Panduru

Production designer: Christian Niculescu

Music: Laurent Couson

Costume designer: Doina Levinta

Editors: Larry Madaras, Roberto Silvi

No rating, 112 minutes