Romanian films have become one of the most compelling and noteworthy developments in international cinema over the last few years, maintaining a remarkable monopoly over the Cannes Film Festival. Invariably drawing on the legacy of a lengthy and painful communist junket, Soldiers. Story From Ferentari (Soldatii. Poveste din Ferentari) is not part of any saga of more reputable directors like Cristi Puiu or Cristian Mungiu. However, Ivana Mladenovic’s controversial and rough-hewn motion picture does not disappoint – tackling dark topics like abuse, poverty and dysfunctional love, the drama film is unapologetically blunt and does little to cover up the harsh reality of living in one of Romania’s most gruesome suburbs.
The movie is set in none other than the infamous Ferentari neighbourhood. Part of Bucharest’s underbelly, the area is widely-regarded as one of the most hazardous and cutthroat ghettos in Romania. Based on the fabricated biography of the lead actor, the film follows the story of Adi (Adrian Schiop), a self-conscious, introverted anthropologist who plans on writing a thesis on manele, the pervasive and underlying music of the Romani people. After being unexpectedly abandoned by his girlfriend of three years, Adi feels even more emboldened to finalize and excel in his academic endeavours. This is why he decides to travel to Ferentari, where he encounters the loose-lipped and barefaced Alberto (Vasile Pavel-Digudai), a hustler who knows everything about the misery and degrading compromises of living in the ghetto.
The unfiltered, raunchy performances of leading actors Schiop and Pavel-Digudai are unfailingly the highlights of Soldatii. Poveste din Ferentari. Moreover, the latter is not a professional actor, but a security guard who the producers accidentally came across. Banking on this raw, amateurish depiction, as well as on the natural chemistry between characters and the smutty, distressing depth to their relationship, Mladenovic’s film exposes how economic shortage corrodes human dignity. Alberto opens up to his newfound friend about his violent, troubled childhood and the sexual abused he experienced in prison. These recollections only seem endearing and empathy-invoking for the first half of the film, before Alberto’s noxious nature is revealed. Starting off as a gambling issue that utterly drains Adi of his finances, Alberto progressively uncovers more and more destructive and disturbing behaviour patterns.
The storyline of Adi’s academic thesis is abandoned halfway through the movie. What takes its place is the raffish, crude and abusive relationship between him and Alberto. This shift in plot direction might seem unwarranted or frustrating at first, but it opens up the way to a sublime narrative about homosexual love, human despair and an impartial, non-stereotypical look at Romani culture. As such, Soldatii. Poveste din Ferentari successfully avoids dwelling on any one subject for very long, branching out into various subtopics like homelessness, prostitution, economics, Roma music, fear of abandonment, isolation, ethnic power dynamics, abuse and the need for emotional security.
What makes Soldatii. Poveste din Ferentari unique is that it manages to treat each of these subjects with the probity, attentiveness and tact that they deserve. Some may find this intense, painstaking focus on every element of the film somewhat tiring or sluggish. However, this is to be expected of Romanian cinematography, which is renowned for its motionless rigor, realism and its murky, stringent sense of humour.
Soldiers. Story From Ferentari (Soldatii. Poveste din Ferentari) sheds light on a critical and highly controversial topic – LGBT rights and relationships. Romania is among the last countries of the European Union which does not allow or officially recognize same-sex marriage. Fights to change this and other rulings of the Constitutional Court have been ineffective, leading to the popularization of a damaging, narrow-minded view on homosexuality. One of the director’s main ambitions for her project was to change some of the bromidic judgments and perspectives on LGBT, as well as to humanise the Romani minority and to weaken the widespread prejudice and hatred against them. Mladenovic manages to do this and much more, providing a documentary-like masterpiece about life in the suburbs, LGBT politics and the social class hierarchy of a post-communist Romania.