When Max Rosenthal (Mark Strong) first pitches his four longtime compatriots on holding up an armored car in 1959 Bucharest, Alice (Vera Farmiga), his accomplice-to-be and mother of his son, wistfully remarks in voiceover that he’s the only one taking this idea seriously. That sentiment just as aptly applies to Closer to the Moon’s writer-director, Nae Caranfil, who oddly forgoes the abundant elegiac aspects of his film’s factual material for a tone approaching the ebullient. Though the film is based on the true story of the Ioanid Gang, Jewish intellectuals who executed a daring bank heist within communist Romania and were forced to film a documentary recreating their robbery, Caranfil changes the names of those involved, apparently to protect the already-found-guilty, and tells the story from the point of view of an entirely made-up character, wide-eyed Virgil (Harry Lloyd).
Virgil, an aspiring filmmaker, sees the actual heist in progress, fooled like everyone else into believing—in an emblematic touch—that it’s merely a movie shoot. Film possesses the power to influence the masses, which is precisely why the Romanian government forced the real-life players to reenact their nefarious deed, a means of engendering anti-Semitic propaganda by implying the thieves’ intended to fund lavish lifestyles. While the genuine motivation for the gang’s heist has forever been open to speculation, Closer to the Moon posits that these high-ranking Romanians grew so disillusioned with the autocratic socialist regime that they sought to strike a symbolic blow. It’s an intriguing hypothesis, yet one for which Caranfil provides scant evidence.
Though the filmmaker recounts this story through the prism of the documentary’s production, he resorts to conspicuous sentimentality, turning the movie set into a light-hearted fairy tale where the director is a “comic” drunk and the prisoners wind up calling the shots. Worse, the government agent (Anton Lesser) on set claims not to even know the robbers’ motives, contradicting the real-life recreation’s considerable agitprop. Caranfil isn’t so much unable as unwilling to pull back the front of the Potemkin paradise which has apparently caused these characters to lash out, providing no sense of the injustice under which they claim to toil, and offering virtually no insight into the gang’s previous lives as supposedly heroic agents of resistance. As such, their presumed gallows humor comes across like careless indifference, marking them less as “Romanian Robin Hoods” than frivolous nihilists who would rather pass on than lead lives of ennui. Given an opportunity to reclaim the gang’s narrative, Caranfil disappointingly declines, opting for sugary Hollywood confection. All these years later, once again, they die in vain.