29.4.18

A Film a Week - Soldiers. Story from Ferentari / Soldatii. Poveste din Ferentari


New wave of Romanian cinema has dealt with an array of important social issues like the collapsing health system, over-whelming poverty, toxic influence of religion, the detachment of upper classes and the discrimination towards Roma people, but the LGBTQ angle was not on the menu. Until recently, that is, since the debut fiction feature Soldiers. A Story from Ferentari by Serbian-born Bucharest-educated filmmaker Ivana Mladenović is a pioneering effort in that direction.

The title neighbourhood of Bucharest is a Roma ghetto of sorts, riddled with poverty, drugs and crime, which makes it a perfect place for Adi (co-writer Adrian Schiop on whose semi-autobiographical novel the film is based on) for a fresh start after a break-up with his girlfriend. He is a doctorate student, working on his thesis on manele music, a blend of pop and folk music performed by Roma singers. And since Adi really stands out as any skinny, nerdy guy would do at the place like this, he needs a local guide through the microcosm of the local community, whom he finds in Alberto (non-professional Vasile Pavel-Digudai), an ex-con with 14 years of prison under his belt and a compulsive gambler and drinker. While their initial friendship grows into a risky romance that could get both of them hurt (since Alberto’s local patron-cousin threatens that he will get “all of their legs broken”), Adi’s money is running out because of Alberto’s scheming and their future prospects are getting bleaker and bleaker…

Usually, I don’t mind the slow(er) pace if it leads to anything resembling an emotional crescendo. Here, it is not the case since their relationship is pretty much one-note: Alberto is threatening Adi or scheming or simply being persistent in asking for more and more money, alcohol or cigarettes, Adi is giving some half-hearted resistance before submitting himself to Alberto’s wishes. Also, the character motivation and development arch are almost non-existent categories here since Adi suffers from serious lack of motivation to do anything with his life no matter how close he gets to the abyss and we are not buying Alberto for one second – he is neither pretty, smart, resourceful, useful, interesting in any way nor he even tries to pose as a good person. He is just plain lazy, ungrateful and boring with his prison stories. With characters written like those two, the actors should be miracle workers to pull anything off, and the ones we got are just not.

However, the film seems more alive when it moves from the painfully predictable relationship dynamics towards the small, vignette-like portraits of Roma community, the customs, the issues and the everlasting power-struggle within its frames. That is where Mladenović’s documentary filmmaking roots kick in, her previous work was a documentary called Turn off the Lights (2012) dealing with ethically grey areas in the attitude of Roma ex-cons towards the violence as a mean to an end. Whether it is an interview Adi conducts with manele legend Dan Bursuc, bumping into a wedding party, taking his foreign co-worker to a local night at the club or simply driving his bike on the crowded streets of Ferentari on his way to work, revealing a rich and complicated texture of the place, we can just regret those moments are few and far between.