Banal Evil

in 22nd Transilvania IFF, Cluj-Napoca

by Bartosz Zurawiecki

Ilie (Iulian Postelnicu) dreams of owning an orchard. However, he is short of money, so he tries to sell his parents’ apartment. But unfortunately, it is not worth too much, so Ilie looks for other ways to realize his dream.

The beginning of Paul Negoescu’s film Men of Deeds (Oamemi de treaba) – shown as part of the “Romanian Days” section at the 22nd Transilvania Film Festival held from 14–23 June in Cluj-Napoca – seems to promise a drama about a middle-age man searching for peace of mind. However, it quickly becomes apparent that the film has nothing to do with the idyll. Existential problems recede into the background, and the whole thing gradually transforms into a thriller and a grim satire on relations in a little community. Ilie is a small-town cop. He turns a blind eye to many things, because he has to get on well with the locals. One day, however, a brutal murder occurs, involving the two most important people in the town: the mayor (Vasile Muraru) and the orthodox priest (Daniel Busuioc). They will make Ilie an offer he can’t refuse.

Negolescu reaches for simple oppositions typical of detective stories with social overtones. He contrasts the opportunist Ilie with the idealistic Vali, a young police officer fresh out of school, who is determined to solve the murder mystery. And there are the brutal, sexist protagonists with the defenceless wife of the murdered man; she also becomes a victim of their ruthless games. The director paints a gloomy picture, albeit bathed in summer sunshine, of corruption and decay, as well as an alliance of throne and altar to which everyone agrees and that no one dares oppose. For me, a Pole living in another post-communist country where religion (this time Catholic) plays a big role, this image is disturbingly familiar.

At the same time, the genre confusion of Men of Deeds can upset viewers. Should we laugh at what we see on the screen or be horrified by it? Similarly, Postelnicu’s performance is a balancing act on the verge of comedy and drama. Ilie is a curious mix of a loser, violent despot and sensitive man, whose conscience is slowly awakening. Until he finally becomes the only righteous man in Sodom.

In the final sequence, the film changes tone in a very abrupt manner and transforms into a bloody black comedy à la Quentin Tarantino. It does not come off quite convincingly, and in addition, it softens the pessimism with which the earlier passages were imbued. It is hard to remain serious when we watch a man with an axe in his back walking around like a zombie and laying down his opponents with accurate shots.

Men of Deeds left the Transilvania Film Festival without an award, but earlier it triumphed at the Gopo, the Romanian film industry awards, in the most important categories: best film, director, screenplay, leading and supporting male role. This means that the film’s “strangeness” mentioned above, somewhat disorienting for the foreign viewer, in the eyes of the native audience aptly describes the peculiarities of the Romanian province and the system prevailing there. The most suitable term for the Negoescu’s film is “eastern,” that kind of western, in which the schemes and the plots known from American cinema have been transferred to the realities of Eastern Europe. Instead of wide landscapes and spectacular duels, we have a backwater town, unglamorous heroes, and banal evil, from which none of us is free.


Bartosz Zurawiecki
Edited by Birgit Beumers