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Watering the Money Tree: Eugen Damaschin’s Beautiful Corruption (2018)

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By Brandon Konecny.

In 2014, Moldova experienced what many observers called the “theft of the century.” One billion dollars disappeared from the country’s banking system. That’s nearly an eighth of its gross domestic product. Because some worried that the country’s already fragile economy would collapse, the government intervened. The banks got a bail out, while the Moldovan taxpayers picked up the bill in the form of sovereign debt. Some of the oligarchs involved in the scandal were arrested. But that didn’t stop one of them from running in (and winning!) Orhei’s mayoral election, despite being under house arrest. It’s the common refrain of corporate greed: the crooked elite emerge more or less unscathed; the common folk shoulder most of the consequences.

Not that this is particularly surprising. Moldovan politics is fantastically corrupt, so much so that real-life parliamentary events appear as if they model themselves after the well-attired scofflaws and political clichés in House of Cards. But in his feature-film debut Beautiful Corruption (2018), Eugen Damaschin shows that this corruption isn’t something specific to governmental institutions and high-profile politicians. Rather, it’s something that affects the everyday lives of Moldovan citizens. With its keen style, cast, and relevant themes, Beautiful Corruption stands as one of the best crime films to come out of Eastern Europe in 2018.

The film follows Andrei (Igor Babiac). He’s college educated, having studied finance and banking, but can secure a job only at a rundown carwash. Pressed for cash, he sells stolen iPhones out of his car for his friend and small-time crook Viorel (Ion Borș). Even with two jobs, he can afford only a drab, unglamorous apartment, whose discolored interior makes the building seem as if it were jaundiced. All he has to show for his daily labor is the paltry sums he deposits in a small potted tree, its branches as bare as his apartment walls. Hard work isn’t enough to make its branches flourish.

Andrei isn’t alone in his dire situation. Desperation touches all his friends and family, just as debt affects each character in a Dickens novel. His friend Mihai (Tudor Andronachi) is drowning in debt after getting a small business loan from Viorel’s uncle, Uncle Kolya (Valeriu Andriuță), with usurious interest rates. Andrei’s mother (Galina Rosca) has been ill for some time but refuses to attend her doctor appointments. He eventually convinces her to see a doctor who’s a personal friend. But en route to the doctor’s office, someone T-bones his car, injuring Andrei and putting his mother in a coma. When he awakes in the hospital, a doctor tells him a drunk driver hit his car and that his mother is in critical condition. He later learns, though, that the drunk driver has bribed the police to alter their case file. Now, it says that not only was the driver sober, but that Andrei was the one at fault and thus financially responsible.

At first, Andrei maintains a naïve optimism about remedying this injustice. He goes to the doctor who tended to him at the hospital, but she claims she has no idea what he’s talking about. So he visits a curmudgeonly sergeant (Constatin Haret) at the police department. Not only does the sergeant feign ignorance about Andrei’s accusations, but he solicits a bribe from him for more information about the file. Actually, he doesn’t forthrightly solicit a bribe (that’d be too direct). Instead, he points to a small potted tree on his desk, with its leaves green and healthy, and informs Andrei that it’s called a “money tree” since it doesn’t need much watering. He then invites Andrei to return tomorrow and “water his tree.”

Beau 02None of this shocks Viorel, who thinks Andrei is a fool for even attempting to pursue his ends through official channels. For him, much like Thrasymachus in Plato’s The Republic, justice divorced from self-interest is a sucker’s game. What really matters isn’t abiding some concept of what’s right or wrong, but looking out for your own gain. Otherwise, people will take advantage of you; and as he sees it, it’s better to take advantage of others before they do the same to you. But Andrei isn’t able to accept such a bleak, if not nihilistic view. The remainder of the film challenges Andrei in his conviction that unbiased justice is still possible, even in the most corrupt circumstances.

All this makes for a fine story, and it’s hard to believe that Beautiful Corruption is Damaschin’s first feature film. As in his impressive short film Lazarus Syndrome (2018), Damaschin displays a level of stylistic maturity that would elicit the envy of many young filmmaking aspirants. With the film’s bleak urban setting, low-key dialogue, and handheld camera shots, he adopts a visual style and pacing similar to Romanian New Wave cinema. In this sense, Beautiful Corruption is much like other recent Moldovan films. But instead of recycling these well-known aesthetic tendencies without alteration, Damaschin distinguishes his film by disrupting New-Wave slow pacing and close observation with brief action scenes one might expect from a Hollywood film, such as Andrei’s car flipping. The result is an exciting tempo at which audiences are able to comfortably follow Andrei in his amateur investigation while still being surprised by adrenalin-inducing events.

The film also includes an impressive roll call of Moldovan actors, most notably Igor Babiac (Playing the Moldovans at Tennis [2012], The Unsaved [2013], and What a Wonderful World [2014]), Valeriu Andriuță (Occident [2002] and Beyond the Hills [2012]), Ion Scutelnicu (Wedding in Bessarabia [2009]), and Igor Kistol (Tango over the Abyss 2 [1999] and Wedding in Bessarabia [2009]). Ion Borș also reveals himself to be not only a skillful filmmaker (his film Plus Minus Unu [2018] is one of the best Moldovan short films of recent years), but a gifted actor as well. However, Babiac in particular has a commanding claim on audiences’ attention. He has a flair for inhabiting characters who bear so much burden until they suddenly burst with righteous indignation, as in the scene where Andrei, who has maintained a saintly composure up to this point, throws a steel bucket at a wall after learning he unfairly didn’t get a financial advisor position. In this moment, his face conveys a universe of frustration and reaffirms Babiac’s status as one of Moldova’s finest talents.

But this film has more to offer than technical skill and entertaining actors. Ultimately, Beautiful Corruption is a serious exploration of whether impartial justice is worth pursuing, and it’s an exploration that’s tethered to reality rather than purely abstract concepts. Indeed, what lends this film its thematic gravity – and what checks audiences in their potential disbelief that such rampant corruption could exist in a European country – is the fact that Damaschin based Beautiful Corruption on actual events. Besides Andrei, every character has a real-life counterpart. As a result, the film transcends the typical crime film by prompting audience members to reflect on their own circumstances and consider whether justice is still possible in these crooked times. The film emphatically suggests that it is. The criminality these characters experience can’t continue indefinitely. Like Andrei’s abrupt explosion of fury, people will reach a point at which they can’t tolerate it any longer.

However, the film poses another, more challenging question. It asks whether people will maintain this same intolerance when injustice affects others, not just them. For Damaschin, that’s the film’s key proviso. “[P]eople in Moldova ask for justice only when they are victims,” he says, “meaning when they are mistreated, but from the moment when they are on the other side, they prefer to benefit from corruption” (personal contact, 10 December 2018). So if Beautiful Corruption doesn’t explicitly show how to end scandals such as the “theft of the century,” it’s because it addresses the impulse of greed, not necessarily its well-publicized manifestations. To stop corruption, people, whether Moldovan or foreign, need to confront it at the personal and local levels first. That means collectively pursuing a distributive justice that touches all members of society, native and immigrant, day trader and electrician, actuary and school janitor. Until that occurs, people are as lost as Andrei trying to make a dead tree grow.

Brandon Konecny is a regular contributor to Film International and an attorney. His work has appeared in Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, The Enquirer-Journal, NCCU Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Law Review, Journal of Fandom Studies, Journal of Religion and Film, Film Matters, and Jurnal de Chișinău.

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