Closer to the Moon review: political theory just got much more interesting

The story of a heist movie, made using real-life robbers and based on actual events, released as a propaganda film in 1960s Romania to deter political seditionaries – you couldn’t make it up

Did you hear the one about the band of Jewish intellectuals that pulled off one of the bigger armoured-car heists in European history by pretending to shoot a movie? No, me neither, but if you lived in Romania in 1960, there’s a good chance you were force-fed a propaganda film recreating the caper. It was no mere lazy re-enactment. It was a government-run production, with many notes of bigotry added, and the actors were the real-life suspects – the Ioanid gang – all but one of whom were later executed by the state. What’s ironic is that the group, if you believe this film, committed the crime not out of greed, but to shatter the illusion of a communist utopia. If everyone saw that people were unhappy enough under communism to covet money, the thinking went, maybe they’d see through the other lies their government had been feeding them. Closer to the Moon suggests that this strangely theoretical – but also action-packed – subversion may have helped instigate the resistance to the Ceauşescu regime.

There are a lot of moving moments in this film, and it’s to writer-director Nae Caranfil’s credit that he’s able to tease out the logic in this mostly enjoyable, if a little all-over-the-place, dark comedy. Made at a cost of $5m, it is the priciest Romanian film production, and a world away from the talk-heavy, deeply deadpan slow-burners such as Beyond the Hills or The Death of Mr Lazarescu of the Romanian new wave. For starters, we’ve got British and American actors Vera Farmiga, Mark Strong and Harry Lloyd all speaking English. Lloyd, likely best remembered from his cruel metallurgical death on Game of Thrones’ first season, is a wide-eyed kid who stumbles upon the initial heist. Falling for the ruse that the robbers are making a film (a concept later used in Neil Simon and Vittorio De Sica’s After the Fox) the kid gets jazzed by cameras and lights, and decides to do entry-level work in the moviemaking industry. Through an unlikely turn of events, he ends up overseeing the recreation of the robbery and, naturally, begins a dangerous love affair with one of its leaders (Vera Farmiga, in a juicy role).

But in the middle of this comes a huge flashback sequence that, while interesting to students of history, ploddingly retells a story with far too many details. What’s notable, though, is the way in which Jewish leaders in Romania’s elite communist circles were slowly given the cold shoulder in the years after the second world war. Mark Strong is quite sympathetic as the party idealist who ultimately comes to realise his dream has died. There are a number of patiently paced sequences that settle in for nights of talking, philosophising, smoking and looking wistfully out over the city. Those who liked Margarethe von Trotta’s recent biopic of Hannah Arendt will get a much-needed fix off of this.

These distinct tableaux don’t quite fit snugly with the gallows humour of the post-arrest scenes, or the sweet touches, such as the old landlord who only listens to crackly radio on Voice of America – “On an official station, even Brahms becomes propaganda!” he says. And nothing quite prepares you for the inevitable maudlin ending. Nevertheless, the fate of the Ioanid gang is one of those strange footnotes in history that deserves the big-screen treatment.

• Closer to the Moon is released in the US today


Jordan Hoffman

The GuardianTramp

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