'Eastern Business' ('Afacerea est'): Transylvania Review

Courtesy of TIFF
Fun and fascinating.

The second feature from Moldovan director Igor Cobileanski ('The Unsaved') is a tragicomic road movie about two mismatched men trying to make some money.

Filmmaker Igor Cobileanski is from Moldova, the Eastern European nation of some 3.5 millions souls that’s about the size of Maryland and is snugly wedged between Romania — with which it shares practically the same language — and the Ukraine. But after his debut, the bleak and darkly humorous The Unsaved and now his second feature, the brighter and droller but no less observant road movie Eastern Business (Afacerea est) it seems safe to say Cobileanski's cinematic homeland is the immense gray area between black comedy and tragicomedy.

As in most road-trip movies, a couple of mismatched men go looking for a better life elsewhere only to discover that the journey’s more important than the destination. Indeed, strictly in terms of basic plot, Eastern Business isn’t exactly innovative. But what makes the film stand out is how perceptive it is about Moldova’s place in (Eastern) Europe and how it uses its characters’ behavior to illustrate points about human behavior that’s recognizable the world over. After its premiere at the Transylvania International Film Festival in Romania, this certainly has the possibility to travel widely, at least on the festival circuit.

Cobileanski’s first film was co-written by Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest), the Romanian deadpan maestro and verbal high-wire artist specialized in turning apparent non-sequiturs into the starting point of sound arguments. But he wasn’t involved in Eastern Business, which has made the film more pronouncedly Moldovan as it has allowed Cobileanski to move away from the influence of the Romanian New Wave and its recognizable brand of bleakly absurd tragicomedies obsessed with the past (the fact this new feature wasn't shot by the New Wave's star cinematographer, Oleg Mutu, himself from Moldova, also helps). Instead, the director’s own brand of dark observational comedy is allowed to flourish.

Marian (Constantin Puscasu) is a sad-sack, working-class fortysomething with long, unwashed hair and nerdy glasses who sings in a choir. In order to wow his love, the buxom but always suspiciously busy Veronica (Anne Marie Chertic), he’s been saving money by selling off things he doesn’t need so he can finally invest in a deal that’s sure to make him a lot of money. One of the film’s running gags involves Marian’s scooter, which he sells off as well at the start of the film and which then keeps changing hands for various prices. Marian meets the sturdy, no-nonsense Petro (Ion Sapdaru) this way, who’s bought the scooter from the man Marian sold it to but who now wants his money back and uses his fists to make himself understood. Of course, the two strangers end up going on a road trip together, during which they meet a third partner (Daniel Busuioc) with whom, among other adventures, they try to scam poultry farmers by pretending they have come from the Ministry of Agriculture for an obligatory and very costly anti-bird flu treatment.

The details of the deals aren’t as important as how the characters — both the perpetrators and those buying their act — perceive these transactions and deal with the fallout that often follows. Clearly, Cobileanski is interested in exploring how Moldovans are both constantly paranoid about being ripped off yet are simultaneously always up for a deal that sounds enticing and like an easy way to profit from other people’s gullibility and/or their apparent lack of business instinct. Taken together, these impulses are, of course, a recipe for disaster, which makes it perfect fodder for an observational comedy such as this one, in which a transaction involving something as unlikely as 50,000 horseshoes seems like a perfectly logical business adventure (“Tractors need gas and soon we’ll run out!” one of the participants offers as an explanation for his investment in the horseshoe deal).

Unspooling almost entirely in Lithuanian cinematographer Feliksas Abrukauskas’s medium and wide shots, Cobileanski resists the temptation to milk either the emotions of a scene or fall back on funny grimaces to score a laugh. Instead, he literally offers a bigger picture, letting the three men and Veronica stand in for a people who clearly feel they’re living in a dead-end part of an otherwise prosperous continent — one of several absurd-yet-true moments involves one of the characters explaining to an immigrant they’ve arrived in Europe but it’s “Bad Europe,” Good Europe is somewhere else — and that they’re always getting the short end of the stick. The men's often not-quite-legal behavior is at least partly justified in their own minds by the fact that they can’t help where they were born — and who can resist a good deal or the promise of easy money that might help them better their lives even a little bit?

Acting is relatively understated by the small cast, which allows the often drily comic situations to unfold in a natural rhythm. This also underlines that what happens is not some madcap or grotesque exaggeration of real life but instead something that’s been modeled quite closely on it. This, in turn, ensures that what the film has to say about Moldova, its people and its place in Europe is something that, while it may make you laugh, also demands to be taken seriously.

Production companies: Alien Film, Just A Moment

Cast: Ion Sapdaru, Constantin Puscasu, Daniel Busuioc, Anne Marie Chertic

Writer-Director: Igor Cobileanski

Producer: Iuliana Tarnovetchi 

Co-producers: Oana Prata, Dagne Vildziunaite

Director of photography: Feliksas Abrukauskas

Production designer: , Vali Ighigheanuostume designer: Maria Pitea

Editor: Razvan Ilinca, Eugen Kelemen

Casting: Florentina Bratfanof

No rating, 84 minutes

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