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Closer to the Moon review: an unremarkable look at remarkable history

November 12, 2015

Film + EntertainmentReview | by Dominic Preston

Closer to the Moon Vera Farmiga

History is littered with little pockets of too-good-to-be-true moments. Like that time a gang of highly-ranked Jewish intellectuals, including the local chief of police and a leading physicist, committed the biggest heist in the history of communist Romania for no discernable motive. Sounds good enough for a movie. And that’s without even going into the surreal territory of what happened after the group were caught.

Closer to the Moon is a dramatic retelling of a police chief’s (Mark Strong) decision to team up with old comrades (including Vera Farmiga) from the World War II Jewish resistance. The gang’s answer to their disillusionment with the direction socialism and Soviet Russia were taking Romania in 1959 was to pull off the biggest heist the country had ever seen.

There’s some necessary dramatic license, as the true motive for the crime is still open to speculation, but even with this loose interpretation, writer-director Nae Caranfil fails to offer enough motivation. In the end it simply feels implausible that such high-ranking officials would face certain death simply to strike a symbolic blow against the regime. The supposed injustices that the character toil under are never shown, and as a result the gang come off as nihilistic and indifferent – even callous in leaving one of their young children to grow up parentless –  instead of the heroic freedom fighters and ‘Robin Hoods of Romania’ the script sees them as.

Caranfil, lauded as one of Romania’s recent great directors, takes the helm with one of the biggest budgets Romanian cinema has ever seen. The film forgoes the native language, taking on American and British actors, with its eyes firmly set beyond the local market. Unfortunately, he also imports a bit too much Hollywood gloss, forgoing the wealth of tragic aspects scattered throughout the true story to adopt a tone that’s almost jovial, missing out on exploring much of what made the story remarkable.

Closer to the Moon Mark Strong

Accordingly, the gang go about this bold feat with a pinch of big budget bravado. They convince everyone at the scene of the crime that they are only filming a movie and manage to escape to the cheers of the onlooking crowd.  The robbery is a cold slap in the face to the paranoid Soviet despots and when the team is arrested, the men in charge decide to make a show of it.  As part of the trial, the four men and one woman are tried, convicted, sentenced to death… and become movie stars.

They are forced to star in their own propaganda film about the heist, intended to portray them as downtrodden, greedy Zionist thieves. The story is told through the eyes of the fictional Virgil (Harry Lloyd), an aspiring filmmaker who was actually present at the time of the original heist, and is now given the task of filming the reconstruction. Virgil makes only a little dent in the film but serves to tie the other stray bits and pieces of narrative together.

The film attempts to right the wrongs of the past, turning the gang from villains into Hollywood heroes. But despite the fantastic premise, incredible potential and strong cast, the film falls far short. Hindered by clunky scenes and uncertain pacing, the film sets an uncomfortable tone, the quirk and flair in awkward contrast to the harsh moments of reality. In the end it’s simply an unremarkable look at a remarkable piece of history.

Words by Oliver Smith