CLOSER TO THE MOON: A review by Diane Thomas and Bill Osher

closer_to_the_moon_xlgCloser to the Moon

Narrative Feature | 112 mins. | USA /Romania/Italy/Poland

Director: Nae Caranfil

RELATED: Read Diane Thomas’s Interview with Michael Fitzgerald

You could sum up the American-Romanian feature film collaboration “Closer to the Moon” as a bank heist film. At its start, with the robbers’ apparent devil-may-care attitudes and the seemingly antic robbery itself, that seems what its makers intended. On a closer look, however, the nonlinear style of this film-within-a-film reveals it as something much more like those nested Russian dolls that each open onto another, somewhat different version of its predecessor, making the experience provocative and fascinating, something you can’t let go of.

The film, produced by Michael Fitzgerald and Richard Romero, is based on an historical incident in 1959 Romania. Five Jewish friends, four men and a woman (Vera Farmiga), all former World War II resistance fighters whose positions have since declined sharply amid growing anti-Semitism, do rob a bank to make a political statement: Robbing a bank is a crime of Capitalism not supposed to happen in a Communist country, hence, something must be wrong.

Such politically motivated crimes are punishable by death in 1959 Romania, and the film’s title arises from a conversation in which the friends discuss the various means of execution that might be made available to them. Their leader, Max Rosenthal (Mark Strong), a former official with the State police, says he would choose to be sent up in a space satellite, but the idea is quickly dismissed as a possibility because it would turn them into heroes. They are apprehended, of course, and sentenced to death. But while they await execution, they are forced to appear as themselves in a propaganda film and reenact the event for a State film crew.

The story is told through the eyes (and lens) of young Virgil (Harry Lloyd from “Game of Thrones”), a waiter who quite literally stumbles into the role of cinematographer and into the lives of both the film crew and its miscreant “stars.” When he steals the wooden “Filming in Progress” sign from the movie site, takes it to his rented room and pores over his landlord’s dog-eared cinema magazines, we know we have found the movie’s warm and obsessed heart.

For “Closer to the Moon” is, most of all, a film that loves film. Romanian writer/director Nae Caranfil has delicately laced into it enough homages to make nailing them a parlor game. We found references to Fellini’s idea of life as a circus and his evocative circus-style music, to Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard,” to “Summer of ’42,” and some marvelous and moving cross-cutting between scenes of death and hope that we know we’ve seen before and can’t place.

Director Carafil deftly transports us through comedy, tragedy and high drama, giving us idealism in the face of suffocating political oppression and heroism in the face of peril. Grounded in reality, yet surreal in tone, the script presents a universe where even a clichéd phrase like “the party’s over” comes to us fresh and fraught with multiple meanings. The acting is so fine and realistic as to go unnoticed, and the film’s various 1959 locations are so well realized they bring to mind favorite art-house features of the day.

With its film-within-a-film story and its nonlinear presentation, “Closer to the Moon” presents a demanding viewing experience. It teases out your full attention, your involvement. But it will reward you with moral and political questions worth a lifetime of coffeehouse discussions—and a story and a cast of characters impossible to forget.

[Diane Thomas’s second novel, In Wilderness, is due in 2015 from Penguin Random House. She is a former theater and film reviewer on the staff of the Atlanta Constitution newspaper and holds an MFA in Theatre and Film History and Criticism from Columbia University. Bill Osher is a retired university psychologist and longtime film buff. Diane and Bill curated Reel New Mexico, a monthly film series that screened films with a New Mexico connection.]