Closer to the Moon (2013)
Editor’s Notes: The following review is apart of our coverage of the Transilvania International Film Festival. For more information visit http://tiff.ro/en and follow TIFF Romania on Twitter at @tiffromania.
The story told in Closer to the Moon is the sort lonely obnoxious people like to store away so they can have examples ready to prove their point that truth is stranger than fiction. In 1959 in Romania, five well educated Jews, former rising stars in that country’s communist party, robbed a bank van of a large sum of money - in broad daylight, with crowds watching as they pretended that they were shooting a film. Once caught, they were ordered by the government to recreate the raid for a propaganda film with anti-Zionist overtones. It is a strange tale, to be sure, and Closer to the Moon manages to capture some of that strangeness despite its paint by numbers approach to historical drama.
The most interesting structural feature of the film is its non-linear approach to time. Split into chapters, the film jumps back and forth between the creation of the film and the events prior, to gradually reveal the motives behind the robbery. This is not a new technique, of course, but it feels more at home in a crime film a la Tarantino than in a relatively straightforward historical drama. The gambit mostly works because it serves to deepen the characters, especially charismatic Max (Mark Strong), the leader of the expedition, and his lover Alice (Vera Farmiga). It also helps draw in Virgil (Harry Lloyd), the young camera man in charge of the film, who finds himself sympathizing more and more with the people he is supposed to vilify.
…the film takes few chances in its presentation of the events. It takes most of its cues from the giant playbook of important historical dramas.
Aside from that central structure, the film takes few chances in its presentation of the events. It takes most of its cues from the giant playbook of important historical dramas. These characters actually existed, of course (the central ones, at least), but here they have been polished and shined to resemble the stock characters in a story about courage in the face of oppression. Aside from Max and Alice, the gang consists of a thoughtful physicist, a reluctant history professor (naturally he’s the chubby one), and a journalist who’s a loose cannon. There’s the bad guy who obsesses over a broader conspiracy, then the real bad guy behind him, the one who pulls the strings. Virgil of course plays the role of ingenue, inducted into a world his naive eyes cannot imagine. There’s even a drunk, regretful artist - in this case Virgil’s director mentor. Most cringe worthy of all is Virgil’s landlord, a worldly wise old Jewish man who seems to exist solely to underscore the film’s themes in red pen. To be fair, the old man is played with a mischievous sparkle by David de Keyser, but he still mostly functions as a heavy handed metaphor.
This roteness extends to other aspects of the production. The palette of the film consists largely of beiges and grays, the go to signal that life in this world is drab and hopeless. Perhaps the biggest offender, though, is the score, composed by Laurent Couson. Taken by itself it is not too bad - it tries to capture the spirit of the era with some jazzy inflections thrown in. The real problem is how it gets used, namely constantly. Music runs through most of the scenes, as if to remind the viewer constantly in what era the film occurs. By the end, as the score intruded on one scene after another, I was left craving blessed silence.
Perhaps the biggest offender…is the score, composed by Laurent Couson. Taken by itself it is not too bad - it tries to capture the spirit of the era with some jazzy inflections thrown in. The real problem is how it gets used, namely constantly.
Like in many historical dramas, the acting in Closer to the Moon exceeds the material. Any movie with Vera Farmiga in it cannot be wholly bad, and she does her usual stellar job here, in a role that swings back and forth between extremes - sometimes detached and cool, sometimes almost hysterical. Mark Strong brings a devilish charm to the role of Max, playing him as someone who has nothing to lose. The other gang members are good as well, especially Tim Plester as the scientist who dreams of space. Allan Corduner as the drunken director and Anton Lesser as the obsessed villain have the good sense to camp it up a bit, chewing scenery in a way that gives the film an occasional jolt of energy.
If only they were better served by the movie around them. Mostly, though, Closer to the Moon seems content to hit the usual beats: communism bad, anti-semitism bad, freedom good. Yet there’s a faint glimmer of something more. When the gang first appears (sans robbery masks), they are high fiving and mock acting their way through their sentencing in court. It’s a strange scene that makes them seem almost unhinged. Later, the film develops the idea that these five, Max especially, had been pushed to the point of despair and had emerged ready to face death with a dark, gallows humor. That humor pops up in places in the film; I hesitate to call it a comedy, but it makes overtures in that direction. Unfortunately that theme does not get developed nearly enough, so it hangs in the air as a what if. Closer to the Moon is a perfectly serviceable historical drama, but it could have been great if it had pushed itself to aim a little higher.
Despite great performances and hints of something more, Closer to the Moon cannot overcome its fill in the blank approach to historical drama.