Before He Was the Best: Cristian Nemescu Shorts 

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Cristian Nemescu Short Films
Directed by Cristian Nemescu
Thursday, September 27, at 92YTribeca

Of all the heralded films to come out of Romania in the last half decade, the smartest and most fascinating was Cristian Nemescu's California Dreamin' (2007), in which a small Romanian village avenges decades of American neglect by stalling a train carrying military equipment bound for Kosovo in 1999. Alas, Nemescu died while the movie was still being edited when a Porsche ran a red light near Bucharest and struck the taxi he was in. He was 27 years-old.

Though he left behind only that one unfinished feature, he also directed several shorts, three of which will be screened at 92YTribeca this week. Aesthetically, none hint much at what he would go on to achieve, but certain repeated themes emerge. While Dreamin' balanced youthful romance with geopolitical allegory, his shorts deal almost exclusively with the former: "Mihai and Cristina" (2001), "C Block Story" (2003), and "Marilena from P7" (2006) each deal with a young man navigating adolescent sexual awakening.

"Mihai" feels like a student film: an aesthetic tour-de-force, it's self-consciously artsy, with its high-exposure B&W;, restless camera, expressionistic special effects and French New Wave-style flourishes: it's flashy, unusually so in respect to the rest of Nemescu's oeuvre. In it, a young man in love wanders through a sexual fantasy that's both nightmarish and ecstatic, crossing paths with a series of sexually aggressive women. In "C Block," a young man pines for a neighbor while his parents trudge sexlessly through their lives. In the end, newly kindled romance and rekindled sexuality make everybody happy, though Nemescu subverts the cheerful ending: as the camera pans back, we can hear the same domestic squabbling we overheard in the opening. Enjoy the good times while they last.

That kind of cynicism, prevalent in Romanian New Wave films, is full-blown in the longer "Marilena," in which a boy develops a crush on one of the prostitutes he and his friends spy on from a low rooftop. There's a lot of Ceaucescu-era misery here: the drab, dirty apartment blocks captured on handheld, cheaply textured video. Though there are cute coming-of-age sequences, such as when the boy and his pals steal a trolley because girls like guys with cars, there's no happy ending—just violent, senseless tragedy. Still, like the best recent Romanian filmmakers, Nemescu maintains his sense of humor, such as when a screen split into quadrants, showing four johns enjoying the girls they've hired, cuts to four boys masturbating. When one is caught by his mother, she berates him in their kitchen. "Don't you have toys to play with?" she asks.

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