Subverted Masculinity in Tudor Giurgiu's "Of Snails and Men"

in 28th Warsaw International Film Festival

by Yael Shuv

Big strong men dance a sensual tango in prison in Frédéric Fonteyne’s Warsaw Grand Prix winner ”Tango libre”; a 38-year-old man trapped in a polio-ridden body tries to have sex for the first time in Ben Lewin’s affecting ”The Sessions”; a husband struggles to come to terms with his wife’s rape in Slawomir Fabicki’s layered and subtly nuanced ”Loving” (”Milosc”) – several of the notable films screened at the 28th Warsaw Film Festival deal with questions of subverted masculinity.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the Special Jury Award winner – Tudor Giurgiu’s beautifully conceived ”Of Snails and Men” (”Despre oameni si melci”). It is a poignant social commentary with a crooked smile about out-of-work Romanian auto-workers desperately trying to reassert their manhood and regain their dignity. Quite different from the demanding style and somber tone of most internationally known Romanian films of the past few years, ”Of Snails and Men” uses sly humor and tender moments to convey its message about shifting power in Romania after the opening of its gates to the west. This theme was prevalent in many of the other eastern European films of the festival, among them Bojan Vuletic’s clever romantic comedy ”Practical Guide to Belgrade with Singing and Crying” (”Praktican vodic kroz Beograd sa pevanjem i plakanjem”), in which Serbs make love to visitors from France, Germany and the US; and the FIPRESCI award winner – Aleksandr Kasatkin and Natalya Nazarova’s very moving ”The Daughter” (”Doch”), about the innocent daughter of a serial killer, who pours his rage out on teenage girls corrupted by western music and culture.

”Of Snails and Men” starts with TV clips following pop idol Michael Jackson’s arrival in Romania in 1992. In one of the clips the asexual man-child sex icon is seen wearing the uniform of the Romanian army. This introduction establishes an epitome of the American dream via eastern European eyes, but it is also an early hint at the film’s exploration of transformed masculinity (Jackson’s singing isn’t heard in the movie, but another singer, Julio Iglesias, will later serve as a plot point, as his singing will break a language barrier and form a romantic bridge between two major characters). We then turn to the roof of a factory, where a snail seems to be looking at Manuela the secretary (Monica Barladeanu) and George the union leader (Andi Vasluianu) having sex. “Be careful,” pleads Manuela, as she does not want to get pregnant. We later find out that she has nothing to worry about.

When the two of them come down to join their colleagues, we are finally introduced to the main plot – the state-owned ARO car factory is about to be bought by a French company which, according to the false information given to the workers, plans to convert the plant into a snail cannery and keep only 300 of the workers. The truth is, the French (a father and son played to perfection by real life father and son Jean-François Stévenin and Robinson Stévenin) want the factory for its vast scrap metal potential, and the corrupt Romanian director aims to run the factory into the ground while putting some money in his pocket. “They are used to living in deep shit. I am not,” is the shameless self-justification formulated by the French businessman. George, unaware of this cynical plan, desires to save everybody’s jobs, and comes up with a unique idea – convincing 1,000 of the men to sell their sperm to a newly opened Bucharest sperm bank. George hopes to make enough money to buy the factory for the workers themselves, and thus utilize the capital of wealthy American women to prolong a Socialist vision.

What sounds like a variation on the British hit comedy ”The Full Monty” was actually inspired by true events. In real life the union leader’s plan – publicized and ridiculed in the newspapers – never came to fruition, but Giurgiu and his writer Ionut Teianu picked it up from there and took it into new territory, fertile with irony. As the ragged men get on a train to Bucharest, the camera captures this potent phallic symbol from above, like a huge penis full of sperm rushing to the great egg (the film’s trailer adds another beaten-up icon of masculinity to the pot, using a Romanian variation of James Bond’s famous theme music). But unlike western comedies about people winning their dignity through a collective sexual venture turned on its head (such as ”The Full Monty” and ”Calendar Girls”), the Romanian workers arrive at their destination only to find out that their sperm is not wanted. American women prefer blond Danish students, they are told. Not only are they not able to provide for their families, thus having their old-school masculinity crushed, they are not able to redefine themselves as exporters of masculinity to the west. This is a droll and yet melancholic revelation and the biggest blow is reserved for the leader George. A husband, a father and a ragtag Don Juan, he now learns he is and always has been infertile, thus realizing that his son is not actually his, and that his wife cheated on him just like he constantly did on her. George’s tender response to this shocking news, though, is what finally redefines him as a good man.

And the two main women – at first appearing to dutifully fulfill the roles of the nagging wife and the sex goddess/long-suffering mistress (even crossing her legs in the Sharon Stone manner) – gradually reveal themselves to be well-rounded, mature characters with dignity and integrity. Different kinds of loyalty and betrayal intersect in one of the film’s most beautifully thought-out scenes – George talks to his wife on the phone, begging her to forgive him, only to find out that the silent woman on the other end is Manuela, who takes in the pain and yet goes on to reveal to him what she has found out about the big boss’s betrayal of the workers. The final image of the men cheerfully gathering snails on the hills of Romania jokingly refers to the popularized gender-distinction of hunters versus gatherers. It seems the men have finally found a new and satisfying definition for themselves.

Yael Shuv