An enjoyable jaunt through Eastern Europe
Is the notion of a lighthearted romantic comedy from Germany too difficult to process? If so, take comfort in the fact that director Fatih Akin is Turkish (born and raised in Hamburg, though). Or just forget about it and enjoy "In July" for the sweet little crowd-pleaser it is.
Filmed in 2000 and suggesting Rob Reiner's "The Sure Thing" infused with a more low-voltage version of the playfulness found in "Amelie," "In July" is a road movie that rumbles through a witty, candy-colored Eastern Europe. After rewinding from its startling opening scene, the film begins in Hamburg -- in July -- where Daniel (Moritz Bleibtreu of "Run Lola Run") is a fuddy-duddy young science teacher who becomes the unlikely romantic obsession of a free spirit named Juli (Christiane Paul). She sells him a ring that she swears will magically lead him to his true love if he goes to a particular cafe that night, but Juli gets there too late, and Daniel has already become smitten with Melek (Idil Uner), a vacationing Turkish beauty. After she flies home, he impulsively decides to drive from Germany to Istanbul to declare his love. Just as impulsively, he picks up a hitchhiker: the crestfallen Juli.
This kind of movie is not about the journey's end -- we already know what that will be, and director Akin knows we know -- but about the getting there. "In July" becomes a series of piquant, often funny, sometimes silly set pieces in which Daniel and Juli travel toward conciliation. They go through the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria; they travel by car, by ferry, and on foot. They steal a car ("We're the good guys," protests Juli; "We could steal a bad guy's car," offers Daniel). They try to jump the car across the Danube, Evel Knievel-style. They become separated and rejoined enough times for even dense Daniel to acknowledge the inevitable.
Adding to the wayward enjoyment are the people they encounter: a threatening truck driver (Jochen Nickel) who has Juli's best interests at heart; Isa (Mehmet Kurtulus), an apparent serial killer who turns out to have a perfectly good explanation for the body in his trunk; a gorgeous, manic Hungarian rip-off artist named Luna (Branka Katic, giving the movie a needed lift). By the time they get to Istanbul, Daniel has become another person, and his jail-cell confrontation with Isa is a small marvel of worm-turning comedy.
Akin directs with a light, stylish hand and occasional magical-realist touches: When Juli gets Daniel stoned, the two have a lazy conversation while floating four feet off the ground. The filmmaker also appears briefly as a surly border guard who informs Daniel, "No passport? No Romania."
Every so often you sense the strain involved in keeping "In July" in the air, as when the couple consult a map and decided not to drive through Yugoslavia because "there's a war there." At such moments, the film can't help but seem glib. But then along comes that trucker with a tattoo of Che Guevara on his arm, and he and Juli bond over the metaphysics of individual freedom, and you're thankful for the glibness. "In July" is a tour of Eastern Europe with all the political strife stowed away off-screen; it's a brief vacation for Daniel and Juli, and for us, too.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.