I still recall Igor Cobileanski’s first two shorts (“Cand se stinge lumina” and “Sasa, Grisa si Ion“, video links included) with great fondness. It was the earlier days of the internet and youtube when someone recommended them to me and, to this day, every time conversations turn to movies from Moldova, I chuckle. After missing out on the first feature film directed by Cobileanski, quite different from the darkly humorous tone of his shorts, Afacerea Est (English Title: Eastern Business) promised to be more of, let’s say it, his trademark style.
A meek and naive music teacher Marian (‘intellectual’) is forced to team up with a harsh, rudimentary, yet world-wise fellow Petro (‘entrepreneur’) in order to settle a bizarre business deal involving horseshoes. Their simple trip to complete the transaction is rocked by the theft of Marian’s bag, which contained their documents and, more importantly, a wad of cash. So they’re off the train and hustling to reach the final destination, making money however they can – playing guitar and singing for donations, enlisting as helpers to a local politician or conning farmers during the peak of an Avian flu outbreak. And all of this, of course, for love – so that Marian can afford to wed his beloved, Veronica.
It’s a road trip/buddy comedy that works hard at portraying a reasonably faithful caricature of society in Moldova. Sometimes it’s overbearing how hard. The timing of events seems set in the mid 00s, but while technology has shaped the way some things work, the undertones are not as different as they should be. Judging by how the story unfolds and the themes poked at, there isn’t that much separating Romania from Moldova, only that the geopolitics exert different gravitational forces on the two.
The force holding the story of Marian and Petro together is that of deception. Everything almost everyone does is aimed at misleading someone in one way or another. What Cobileanski points out well is that we’re not faced with good and bad characters – although one might be inclined to look at Marian for the weak but positive hero of the tale, in contrast to Petro. Yet, both of them engage in the deceits and Cobileanski’s world is only segregated by size: small time crooks, big time crooks and very big time crooks. For all the hassle the protagonists go through, dealing with sums of money that appear significant, only upon meeting with their ‘client’ does scale begin to come into perspective.
The wild, wild East we’re being shown was pretty much the transition phase after the end of communism. It’s ‘doubleplus’ surreal set in Moldova, where the past and the present appear more intertwined. Cobileanski manages, at times, to really capture the irony and the foolishness of life in situational humour. Luckily, I was alone in the cinema and could laugh as hard as I felt like doing. However, there are also several scenes that come across quite flat or overly contrived, while language isn’t used as skillfully as a tool for irony. And not to nitpick, but even a couple of fools like Marian and Petro didn’t have to get off a train leading them to certain cash for a miserly stolen pouch.
All in all though, I’m glad that Afacerea Est is more of what Cobileanski promised with his first films. It’s not perfect, yet it’s good enough and presumably plays as a crazy adventure for someone not familiar with ‘the way things are done’ here.