[For the next two weeks, we'll be covering select films from Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema. Now in its seventh year, this film festival focuses on contemporary and classic movies from Romania. For a full schedule of Making Waves films, visit the Film Society of Lincoln Center's page here.]
Michael Jackson passed through Romania during the Dangerous World Tour in 1992, playing a show in Bucharest on October 1st. Almost three years before, communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu had been ousted. There was the promise of prosperity after years under his rule, though the country had to undergo a number of political and economic growing pains. (This is all conjecture on my part since I'm pretty ignorant of Romanian history, but growing pains may be the nature of all aftermaths following revolution.) Of Snails and Men depicts factory workers struggling with the realities of global capitalism.
The King of Pop came and went, and it was uncertain when he'd return. He was like some symbol of capitalist prosperity and Western values -- as American as McDonald's apple pie and Pepsi Cola (who bankrolled the tour).
This is the odd way that metaphors work, and it's just one of many in Of Snails and Men. In addition to Michael Jackson, you've got more fundamental metaphors in the film that have to do with national identity: escargot, common garden snails, and blue collar Romanian semen.
Of Snails and Men (Despre oameni şi melci)
Of Snails and Men is based on a true story. A car manufacturing plant is about to get bought out by a large father-and-son French company. Instead of cars, the factory will be converted in order to process and can escargot. There will be downsizing as a result of the conversion, so not everyone is guaranteed a spot on the canning floor. In order to save the plant, the factory workers need to come up with $150,000 to buy the factory for themselves. One of them comes up with a kooky idea to raise the funds: they plan to donate sperm to a fertility clinic at $50 a pop. You know what they say, desperate times call for noble masturbation. (The things we do for our fellow man.)
The film has been compared to The Full Monty, and it isn't that far off. Both are crowd pleasers that raise questions of dignity and employment. Having a good job is a source of pride, and people will sometimes do undignified things in order to make ends meet. There's also a depressing undercurrent to both Of Snails and Men and The Full Monty. Part of that comes from the realities of blue collar workers who are displaced and unwanted -- few skills, basic education, reduced need for labor given the mechanization of assembly lines and cheap outsourcing. Losing a decent manufacturing job means a major hit, not just economically but to male identity as a breadwinner. It's unlikely that these sorts of jobs will be coming back. This is the beginning of the end.
The other Full Monty link in Of Snails and Men comes in the form of its leading man, Andi Vasluianu. He plays Gica, the brains behind the sperm donation idea. He's part Robert Carlyle and part John Hawkes in terms of looks, and he's part scoundrel and part hero in terms of his character. We're introduced to him rutting his brains out on a rooftop with a head secretary Manuela (Monica Bîrlădeanu). In the foreground, a snail slimes up a green leaf. We soon learn about Gica's other sexual conquests with co-workers. Eventually we meet his wife and son. Gica gradually becomes more sympathetic, and I think a lot of that has to do with little shifts in Vasluianu's performance as the story progresses.
Manuela's story runs parallel to Gica's. While the factory workers look for a way to eep their jobs, Manuela's looking for a way out of the country. She may find it in the younger French buyer (played by Robinson Stévenin), who seems to have feelings for her. And yet there's a compelling ambivalence about Bîrlădeanu's performance. It's that in-between state, like the transition after a revolution. She seems to have feelings for Gica, and vice versa, but it's unclear what they are. Maybe it's just lust. And her allegiance may be to her direct boss (Dorel Vişan) and her potential French suitor even though she has more in common with the factory workers. It's that interesting exploration of people in a fixed state and an in-between state -- the views from the proletariat and petty bourgeoisie, essentially -- that opens some interesting class dimensions in Of Snails and Men.
This in-between state gets explored through language as well. Manuela is wooed by Stévenin's character because they both speak Spanish. Manuela's Spanish is better than his, however, which means that Spanish becomes a shared world between them where she has an upperhand. Class difference is minimized, allowing for a budding relationship that's on more equal footing. There's an exploration of bumbling language as the factory boss and the elder French buyer communicate with each other in broken French.
Michael Jackson comes back into play here, oddly, as the perfect obliteration of class distinction through pop songs. It's as if pop music cuts through the meaning of words and gets at feelings and ideas instead, both of which are more human and more resonant. There's also a goofy yet fitting cultural mishmash when it comes to appeasing the French buyers in the form of Maurice Ravel's "Boléro." A French composer evoking a Spanish dance as played by Romanian children. The punchline comes as much from the silliness of the gesture as from the misinterpretation of the gesture.
I got a strange sense of generational differences in Of Snails and Men regarding class and capital, though I'm not sure how intentional this was on director Tudor Giurgiu's part. The older French buyer and the head of the factory are pretty vile all around; both are greed and appetite personified, and the Romanian factory owner seems more than willing to sell out his own people and forsake Romanian identity. In the most humiliating terms, he surrenders to the French. The younger characters in the film -- Gica, Manuela, etc. -- seem bound to Romanian national character as well as a kind of internationalism. Escargot and garden snails, both are odd, related creatures. One just happens to be more desirable, and yet maybe there's an essential importance in the world for the two slimy gastropods. I think these touches add a little extra heft to the film.
But all these Marxist class distinctions/metaphors shouldn't get in the way of the fact that Of Snails and Men is very funny in spots. It's just funny in a sad way, like any movie about lost jobs and the changing global economy. It's light when it wants to be, but it's heavy everywhere else. Somehow this is a downer movie that successfully wears feel-good clothes. The fateful moment when Gica and company decide to make the mass donation to save the plant begins with a pigeon turd trickling down a statue. (Nudge nudge, wink wink.) It leaves behind an ashen trail. (How much more blatant do you want it?) The sequence, for all its high spirits, has a somberness to it. Each man experiences a kind of indignity to what they're doing, but it's a source of virile masculine pride at the same time. You know what comes after pride, though.
While it's not mentioned in the film, Michael Jackson returned to Romania for the HIStory World Tour in 1996 (also sponsored by Pepsi). It was roughly four years after his previous visit. By then, Jackson was divorced, dogged by allegations of child sexual abuse, received lackluster reviews for HIStory (which still sold tens of millions of copies), and was about to become a father. After this visit, the King of Pop would never return to Romania in a performing capacity.
It's odd how metaphors work.
[Of Snails and Men will screen on Thursday, November 29th and Friday, November 30th. Director Tudor Giurgiu and actors Monica Bîrlădeanu and Andi Vasluianu will be in attendance at Thursday night's screening.]