Promise At Dawn/Hawaii

Reviews by Willard Manus

Two of the recent international film festivals in L.A. kicked
off with worthy films that deserve special attention.

At SEEFEST, the 13th annual South East European Festival, the opening-night attraction was HAWAII, a Romanian feature directed by Jesus del Cerro which powerfully dramatized what it was like to live under communism in post-WW II Romania.

The story centered on a working-class family in Bucharest whose patriarch, Vasile, had been imprisoned by the Stalinist authorities for his anti-communist activities. Now old and retired, he still listened to the forbidden programs of Radio Free Europe, an act that enraged his son-in-law, a Party functionary who also headed a textile factory. Also living in this tense, politically-strained household was Vasile’s son Andrei, a taxi-driver whose street-smarts enabled the family to live as well as it did. While tooling his cab around town, he built a network of hustlers who knew how to beat the system by dealing in black market goods. Andrei became the go-to guy for Kent
cigarettes, pork chops, and even American dollars.

Suspense mounted after the family received news that a relative had died in Hawaii, leaving them a vast farm worth some three million dollars. Under Stalinism, the state was entitled to claim the inheritance for itself. The only alternative was to leave Romania and file a legal claim in Yugoslavia.

Only problem was, travel was restricted by the authorities, especially in cases where an “enemy of the state” like Vasile was involved.

While trying to figure out how to somehow get his hands on a passport, Andrei meets and falls in love with a beautiful young woman, a swimming coach. That’s her cover; in truth she really works for the secret police. Not only that, she is part of a squad that’s been spying on Andrei’s family for decades. To earn a promotion she must inform on Andrei, a man she has come to admire and respect.

From the grim, sinister, police-state world of HAWAII to the colorful, dramatic world of PROMISE AT DAWN, the feature that opened the Colcoa French Film Festival, was a quite a leap.

Adapted and directed by Eric Barbier from Romain Gary’s autobiographical novel, PROMISE AT DAWN tells the story of Gary’s obsessive relationship with his mother (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg in a tour de force performance). Pressuring Gary at every turn–-from his childhood in anti-Semitic Poland, to his adolescence in the South of France, to his WW II adventures as a bombardier–-Nina demanded greatness from him. He had to become a famous writer, a war hero, an ambassador, a winner of the Legion of Honor, to satisfy her ambition for him.

Her demands were so large, needy and relentless that they wrecked him as a man, drove him to the brink of madness. Yet at the same time Gary somehow managed to live up to Nina’s demands, becoming the best-selling author of some thirty books, a successful screenwriter, and the French consul in Los Angeles---where he married a film star, Jean Seberg. Tragically, he then took his own life at the age of sixty-six.