Wednesday, March 27, 2019

QWFF ’19: Hawaii

During Romania’s dark days of Communism, the state controlled all three means of production with an iron fist, most definitely including natural resources, in accordance with the principles of socialism. Owning land was completely out of the question, especially a farm valued at $3 million. Taking possession of such a property in the Aloha State would be an utter pipe dream, but an oppressed cab driver is determined to claim his inheritance and his freedom, despite the serious risks in Jesus del Cerro’s Hawaii, which screens as part of the 2019 Queens World Film Festival.

Even though his sister married a borish Party member, Andrei Florescu’s family will always be under suspicion, due to his father Vasile. Back when the regime really consolidated power, Vasile and his two brothers tried to escape via a makeshift hot air balloon. He was captured alive and another brother was recovered dead, but Petrus disappeared, never to be heard from since—until now. It turns out, Petrus made it to America and eventually settled on a nice little coffee plantation in Hawaii. He lived a happy life there, but he missed his family, so when he died, he willed his estate to Vasile.

Unfortunately, Ceausescu’s strict socialist government does not recognize property rights. If the Party found out about the bequeathal, they would claim it themselves. That is not something Florescu, his father, or the American government would like to see come to pass. Increasingly annoyed by the petty humiliations and constant shortages of socialism, Floresu resolves to claim the property for himself in neighboring Yugoslavia, where Tito has much more liberal policies regarding property ownership. However, just as he starts wrestling with visa and passport applications, he ever so coincidentally meets Ioana Balan, who happens to be perfectly his type. Unfortunately, she is also her boss’s type. That would be Scarlat, a ruthless officer in the secret police.

Even though it is a much darker film, the hot air balloon plot element brings to mind Delbert Mann’s better-than-average live-action Disney movie, Night Crossing, which dramatized the Strelzyk and Wetzel families’ escape from East Germany. There is a bit of black humor, at Ceausescu’s expense, but there is no nostalgia for life under his misrule. In fact, del Cerro and co-screenwriters Manuel Feijoo, Beatriz G. Cruz, and Ruxandra Ghitescu incisively explain the psychological ramifications of living under a repressive regime, including how some dissidents could take leave of their families, potentially forever, for the sake of freedom.

Dragos Bucur is terrific as Florescu, who initially seems to be a likably roguish everyman, but he develops into a figure of great depth and poignancy.  Likewise, Cristina Flutur’s work as Blatan really sneaks up on viewers, especially when she is forced to confront the consequences of her decisions. Constantin Cojocaru performance as old Vasile is similarly complex and humanistic, while Andi Vasluianu absolutely chilling as the sadistic and manipulative Scarlat.

Frankly, it is probably a little too easy to see the Communist past in contemporary Bucharest, but production designer Calin Papura and the design team still deserve credit for their impressive recreation of the drably draconian Ceausescu era. It provides a timely reminder of what socialist living was like and also makes the case that nice guys can be interesting too. Very highly recommended, Hawaii screens tomorrow night (3/28), during the 2019 QWFF.