By Brandon Konecny.
After scamming some passersby for lunch money, Marian and Petro sit in a tiny restaurant in the Republic of Moldova, Europe’s poorest country. Petro devours the food arrayed on their table while Marian sits with his eyes fixed on the floor. Marian interrupts Petro’s unremitting chewing when he laments lying to pedestrians to get money for food. Without tearing his attention away from his plate, Petro responds with a simple maxim: “Marian, people are mean, and you have to be mean back.” When Marian asks about the implications of this idea on morality, Petro scoffs and asserts that there’s nothing moral about a person who works his whole life and still doesn’t have enough money to pay for his own wedding. Petro is clearly no ethicist (certainly not a Kantian), but given these characters’ unforgiving predicament and their equally unforgiving country, it’s valid to ask whether Petro’s philosophy has some truth.
This conflict between moral duties to others and self-serving survivalism characterizes the terrain of Eastern Business (Afacerea est, 2016). It’s the second feature-length film from Igor Cobileanski, who is, by common acknowledgement, one of the most talented Moldovan filmmakers working today. He examined this moral conflict before in his first feature The Unsaved (La limita de jos a cerului, 2013), which centers upon a young man (Igor Babiac) who conspires to keep a smalltime drug dealer imprisoned so that he may attempt to charm the dealer’s girlfriend. Many of the reviews at the time commented on the perceivable hallmarks of the Romanian New Wave in the film, such as the naturalistic dialogue and minimalist cinematography, and they rightfully credited this to the creative input of co-screenwriter Corneliu Porumboiu and cinematographer Oleg Mutu. But these traits are absent from Eastern Business, as are Porumboiu and Mutu. Now, Cobileanski returns to the tragicomedy of his earlier short films to give viewers an experience that’s at once hilarious and sobering.
Interestingly, Cobileanski turns to the popular genre of the road movie to examine the film’s characters and their lives in Moldova. The plot is rather straightforward. The film concerns Marian (Constantin Puşcaşu), a meek man who buttons his shirts all the way to the top button like a child on his first day at grade school (or like David Lynch). He works as a music teacher and singer in a local choir, but recently he’s been selling his possessions to amass the necessary funds for a business venture. The venture—horseshoes (yes, horseshoes). He hopes to turn a large enough profit to finally marry his girlfriend Veronica (Anne Marie Chertic). Marian’s plans are delayed, though, when he gets into a pathetic fistfight with Petro (skillfully played by Ion Sapdaru), a fat man with a talent for improvisation in moments of conflict and a propensity for wearing ill-fitting, sweat-stained shirts. In keeping with the road movie’s generic conventions, the two characters form an improbable allegiance and set out on a journey, where they pursue their business plan, become involved in a number of hilarious situations, and learn about each other’s personal troubles.
The plot is certainly a pleasure to watch in its own right, especially thanks to its several riotously funny moments. But what is most important about Eastern Business is the way Cobileanski deftly mobilizes the conventions of the road movie to enact an incisive critique of poverty in Moldova and the conditions which make it possible. The characters’ travels take them far away from the metropolitan setting of Chișinău, Moldova’s capital city, and places them, instead, in several small towns and villages that are visibly blemished by poverty. Here, we see unpaved roads, rusted wire fences, and decrepit Soviet-style architecture, which Lithuanian cinematographer Feliksas Abrukauskas captures in impressive longshots drenched in oppressive yellow and brown hues. We see police officers and local politicians who are more interested in extracting bribes and votes from their citizenry than in bettering their quality of life. We see locals who sustain what little hope they have by swindling others for a quick leu. In this light, the characters’ impoverished rural environment increasingly seems like a nonporous container from which they cannot escape.
Cobileanski’s critique is broader than his own country, though. With keen subtlety, Eastern Business manages to illuminate the obscured connective tissue between these characters’ personal troubles and Europe’s fractured state. For instance, in one of the film’s most poignant scenes, workers at a train yard discover a frightened Mongolian man hiding in a freight car, presumably enroute to a better life in Western Europe. The station master shouts to the trembling man, “This is not the Europe you think. This is still Europe, but it’s Eastern—bad! The other Europe is far away” In a sense, this one line of dialogue underscores one of the film’s central points. It highlights the absurdity that Moldova somehow exists on the same continent as prosperous nations like Germany and France, both of which attract the interests of multinational corporations and swarms of tourists. And yet, Moldova and the struggles of its inhabitants continue to go largely unnoticed by the international community.
In the end, these conflicts sketched out in the film return us to the rather uncomfortable question of whether Petro’s self-preservationist streak is justifiable in his home country. Given the film’s particularly tragic conclusion, Cobileanski’s film seems to assert that it doesn’t. It is, after all, Petro’s type of self-interested actions that keep Moldova’s politicians from addressing the real needs of their constituents and provides solace to those in economically prosperous countries who justify inaction with arguments like “we have to take care of our own first.” Today, we see this mentality afoot in the United Kingdom and United States, where right-wing paranoia and anti-immigrant rhetoric has inspired widespread distain for some ill-defined “other.” In this poisonous context, Eastern Business has never been more relevant. Beneath the film’s comical moments, there exists a deep seriousness that prompts us to interrogate the direction of our own moral compass, and it pushes us to ask ourselves whether we see those like Marian and Petro as distant abstractions or actual human beings deserving our attention. In this way, Cobileanski makes us ponder what kind of people we want to be in this increasingly hateful world, and perhaps that’s his film’s greatest success.
Brandon Konecny is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.