By Brandon Konecny.
Moldova is currently the least visited country in Europe, attracting fewer tourists each year than Juneau, Alaska. So when you meet someone visiting from another country during your stay in Moldova, you instantly have readymade discussion topics, such as “What brings you to Moldova?” or “Have you tried the wine?” But soon afterward, one subject is doubtless to arise: Have you visited Transnistria yet?
Given the few people who know about Moldova, even fewer people know about its war with Transnistria, a breakaway region whose sovereignty no UN member state currently recognizes. It was a short but bloody conflict in 1992 that in only a few months, left around 1,000 dead and 130,000 displaced. With these weighty numbers, it’s surprising that Natalia Shaufert’s feature-film debut, Resentment (2019), is the first Moldovan fictional film to address the topic, and her film testifies that she’s fully qualified to hold that position. But Shaufert hasn’t made a typical war film – or a war film at all, maybe. In Resentment, we see no shots of civilian buildings dotted with bullet holes, no bombed-out automobiles ablaze on a roadside, no POWs being marched out of trenches with their hands aloft. What we see is a woman, one whose struggles occur concomitantly with the war in her country, and these struggles are as immiserating as the bullets showering the battlefront.
That woman is Galina (Dana Ciobanu), whom we first meet as she emerges from a house and passes through an ornate, powder-blue gate, the kind typical of rural Moldovan villages. A radio broadcast accompanies her movements, announcing Moldova’s independence from the Soviet Union and warning of territorial separatism in Transnistria. With the concurrence of these images and this audio, we know we’re witnessing the birth of something, but we’re unsure whether that birth augurs well or ill.
Galina’s life is as grey as this film’s images. She’s 30 years old, works at a tailor’s shop, and lives with her fiercely traditional aunt (Zinaida Timofti), who avails herself of every opportunity to remind Galina that she’s both husbandless and childless. Galina’s three coworkers, too, hound her about being single and recommend that she pursue alternative matchmaking channels. Although she’s hostile to their advice, she isn’t hostile to marriage. But what she really desires, even more than connubial bliss, is a child. As long as she has a child, she mutters to herself at one point, “nothing else matters.” With these pressures weighing on her mind, she attends a singles mixer, which, unsurprisingly, turns out to be comically lame. But her presence attracts the notice of Andrei (Mircea Marco), her future suitor.
Other than the necessary reproductive hardware, Andrei has nothing to recommend him: he’s jobless, a soon-to-relapse alcoholic, and a former Afghan War veteran who desperately needs psychological assistance. Plus, he has troubling views of women and silences Galina whenever she offers opinions on politics or other lofty topics. It’s a shame to witness. From the start, we sense that Galina possesses not only a talent for domestic activities, but also a gifted mind. Andrei, however, wants her only for the former.
The eventual marriage is as disastrous as Joe Gargery’s in Dickens’s Great Expectations. Andrei refuses to seek work, conceals his debts, and shows Galina no affection. Worse yet, Galina learns she’s pregnant, just as war erupts between the Moldovan central government and the Transnistrian separatists. After Galina refuses to abort the child, Andrei secretly joins the Transnistrian army and abandons her with months of back rent and no word of his whereabouts. With only a nagging suspicion that he’s enlisted, Galina diligently monitors news reports from the front and at the same time tries to decide how to survive. Now that she’s finally having a child, she’ll have to determine whether nothing else indeed matters.
It’s in documenting Galina’s answer to this question that the film displays many of its strong elements, such as its attention to period detail (90s neon windbreakers, anyone?), Shaufert’s respectable direction of non-actors, and Ion Donica’s camerawork. But the element that by far and away surpasses any other is Dana Ciobanu’s performance, for which she recently won the best actress award at the 2019 Moscow International Film Festival. Her actions in any given scene demand our attention, almost in the way a marvelous geographic site makes it impossible for onlookers to turn away, and gives Galina a mountain-like dignity in the face of all the turbulence in her life. Her gaze imbues Galina’s character with a discerning perspective of the events around her, suggesting that although Galina may not always make the right decision about how to deal with those events, she at least has an insight into the world that exceeds others’. And what’s particularly impressive, if not outright astounding, is that Resentment is Ciobanu’s feature-film debut, with only a few short film credits to her name. Audiences will no doubt hope that Ciobanu appears in future films.
Almost as admirable is Shaufert’s handling of the Transnistrian War. For most young filmmakers, war is an artistically perilous topic. With little funds and experience, a new filmmaker hazards making a film about war that’s hokey, ideologically shallow, or even unintentionally campy. But armed with months of sedulous research, archival footage, and a script based largely on her own aunt’s life, Shaufert has made a film that doesn’t succumb to those shortcomings, and she’s done so on a nearly nonexistent budget. Shaufert knew the extent of her resources. She knew she couldn’t replicate scenes such as the landing sequence in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), and she knew she didn’t have to. Instead of including such combat scenes, she shows characters watching news coverage of the war on their televisions to demonstrate how most people experience war: from their homes. In doing so, Resentment proves that a film can compellingly explore war without actually showing it.
Most important, though, Shaufert has not created a partisan film. Language laws, Soviet nostalgia, ethnic tensions, political opportunism – none of these subjects figure into Shaufert’s presentation of the war. Without being reductive, this film offers a most human distillation of what the conflict meant: that people who had lived together under one flag, who had relatives and comrades on either side of the Dneister River, took up arms against each other. As a result, many people died or had their lives altered for the worse, and like Galina, those absent from the frontlines had to continue living during and after the war, eagerly awaiting the next radio or television broadcast for news of loved ones.
Shaufert’s ability to encapsulate this meaning in such succinct yet poignant terms makes her one of Moldova’s most promising young talents. Because Resentment likely made its last festival appearance at this year’s Moscow International Film Festival, you should take advantage of any other opportunity you have to see it. Watching it may not let you visit Transnistria, but it’ll at least give you a thoughtful understanding of what it is and how it’s remembered by people like Galina.
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.