The story behind Closer to the Moon is so bizarre and bleakly funny that it’s difficult to make sense of it. Working with an English-speaking cast, Romanian filmmaker Nae Caranfil dramatizes the escapades of Ioanid Gang, a band of Romanian-Jewish intellectuals who subverted the Communist State with a bank robbery. The details of the robbery are theatrical, not violent, and there’s a surreal quality to its aftermath since the Party tries to make an example of them and fails. There are no heroics, and the gang are too realistic to think they’re martyrs. Instead, they achieve grace through black humor, which is sublime and defiant in its own right.
Our entry point is Virgil (Harry Lloyd), a young Romanian who happens to witness the Bucharest bank robbery in 1959. The robbers have a dramatic flair — they wear gas masks, for one thing, and fire machine guns into the air — and Virgil notices that someone is filming the robbers. At first, he thinks he witnesses a state-sponsored film, and gets the bug to become a filmmaker. His new boss Flaviu (Allan Corduner) is a drunk, so Virgil rises up in the ranks to a camera man.
To his surprise, the gang members return to the scene of the crime, with another film crew. A party official (Anton Lesser) wants to recreate the robbery in order to make a mockery of its participants. Imagine if Bonnie and Clyde were taken in handcuffs to the site of the infamous robberies, explicitly for the purpose of diminishing their status as folk heroes, and you have some idea of how ridiculous this sounds. The irony is not lost on gang leaders Max (Mark Strong) and Alice (Vera Farmiga), so they mock the Party at every chance they get. Through flashback, we come to learn how Max and the others decide that the robbery is their only recourse in a nation gone mad.
I must admit that Closer to the Moon resonates with me because of my background. My parents were both born in Bucharest in the 1950s, and my dad had additional difficulties since he was raised Jewish. I grew up with stories about the little rebellions that my parents would conduct with their friends, since it was the only way they could feel free (albeit temporarily). I also grew up with stories about what it was like to live in constant fear of arrest, so this is why this story resonates with me. Few Romanians had the devil-may-care courage to do what Ioanid Gang did, which why they are worth celebrating.
Personal background notwithstanding, this is a funny film that relies on peculiar human behavior. Farmiga, an Ukrianian-American actress, steals the show when she arrives on “set” as a stylized caricature of herself. She throws a fake tantrum, berating the Party and the crew with comic exaggeration, since they need her more than she needs them. Strong also gets a laugh by taking his role seriously — he tells extras to stay in character — and Caranfil shoots with patience, trusting his audience to realize grasp how it’s all a sick joke. A lot of the film is from Virgil’s perspective, which is a sneaky way for the main characters to develop a larger than life persona, so the long flashback sequence unfolds like a delicious secret.
The Ioanid Gang started out as freedom fighters during World War 2, and their outrage is against a state the prefers a secret police over a relatively free socialist state. Max ends up in the Romanian military, yet his imagination is elsewhere. He sees Romania as a hopeless, dead place, so he develops an ego alongside a death wish. Strong and Caranfil are sympathetic to his perspective, and he convinces others to join the robbery by arguing life under the Iron Curtain is no life at all. The screenplay feels dangerous since it advocates for justified treason, but the crucial difference is that the Ioanid Gang are jokesters, not terrorists.
Closer to the Moon is a marked break of most Romanian cinema, which is popular on the festival circuit and in the art house. Films like Police Adjectiveand Beyond the Hills have muted tones and static shots, with only natural light and no music. Caranfil’s style, on other hand, looks like a Hollywood melodrama since its heroes were like glitzy A-list stars (in their own way). There’s something innately appealing about characters who flip the proverbial bird, and demonstrate courage even when their death is imminent. When the gang literally make a mockery of their death sentences, Caranfil’s point is that asserting individuality is the only weapon left for most political prisoners. And if you’re going to piss off a corrupt country, you might as well have fun, right?