Paul Negoescu’s fourth feature, “Men of Deeds,” which world premieres in competition Sunday at the Sarajevo Film Festival, is at first glance a departure from the Romanian director’s previous work. Set in the rural region of Bucovina, it’s a world removed from the swanky bars and bistros of his last film, the Bucharest-set “The Story of a Summer Lover.”
The film follows llie (Iulian Postelnicu), a small-town police chief who hopes to settle into a modest, comfortable life. A man of low expectations and dubious morals, he sets his sights on a small plot of land that’s up for sale — an orchard in the countryside where he imagines he can make a fresh start.
Nothing, however, goes according to plan. Before long Ilie is being thwarted by bad choices and haunted by past misdeeds, leading to an inevitable reckoning after a series of violent events compels him to seek justice — to attempt, for perhaps the first time in his life, to do the right thing.
“Men of Deeds” is written by Radu Romaniuc and Oana Tudor, marking the first time that Negoescu has directed off another writer’s screenplay. The director said he balked when first presented with their script, with the life-long Bucharest native admitting that he “didn’t have any connection with the story.”
Eventually, Negoescu started to come around. “Ilie is the kind of character I was always interested in in all my films,” he said. “He’s the type of person who is disconnected from reality. He lives in his own world, a world that he created. And fate brings him suddenly to face reality with his feet on the ground. This sudden connection with reality is very hard for him.”
Though at first Ilie’s environment — provincial, patriarchal and a very long way from Bucharest — seemed foreign to him, Negoescu said the character “felt really familiar.” In the end, added the Romanian director, so did the world he inhabits. “Our political life is very full of provincial people and patriarchal men,” he deadpanned. “It wasn’t completely fictional.”
The corrosive effects of the patriarchy, and the burden it places on Romanian men to live up to society’s expectations, is central to the moral crisis that gnaws at the film’s anti-hero. “All his life he was told that he needs to be successful, he needs to have a family, he needs to be powerful, because this is how men are supposed to be. But this way of being is not working for him,” said Negoescu. “He’s not built to be a hero…. That’s why he feels so unfit in his world. And that’s why he feels that he needs a restart.”
“Men of Deeds” is produced by Anamaria Antoci and co-produced by Poli Angelova. Production companies are Papillon Film, Tangaj Production, Screening Emotions and Avanpost Production. German sales agent Patra Spanou Film is handling international sales.
Negoescu’s first feature, “A Month in Thailand,” screened in the Venice Film Festival’s Critics’ Week. His sophomore effort, “Two Lottery Tickets,” a low-budget comedy he shot for around €30,000 ($30,800), was the top-grossing Romanian film of 2016, bringing in more than half a million dollars at the box office.
Though rife with comic moments that recall those earlier crowd pleasers, “Men of Deeds” is undoubtedly Negoescu’s most challenging film to date. It’s also his most explicitly political, as the director probes at the tension between what he describes as a “Balkan mentality,” which tolerates corruption and thumbs its nose at the rule of law, and the respect for institutions imported some 200 years ago from the West. “There is a big gap between these mentalities, and they cannot live together,” he said. “When they come in contact, something violent happens.”
That conflict ultimately pushes the film’s protagonist toward his own moral reckoning. “Ilie realizes that he cannot support this kind of mentality anymore,” said the director. “But when he wants to do the right thing, it’s probably too late.”
The Sarajevo Film Festival runs Aug. 12 — 20.