Sperm, labor unions and escargot. This is the recipe for a sharp and crowdpleasing new film from Tidor Giurgiu.
For one of the only times in the nation's history, all eyes were on Romania in late 1992. As the country adjusted after decades of totalitarian rule under Nicolae Ceausescu (an adjustment that included a death by firing squad for Ceausescu and his wife on Christmas Day 1989), Michael Jackson flew in on his jetpack. He filmed his Dangerous Tour concert in Bucharest for a worldwide concert. More importantly, the formerly state-run factories were beginning to privatize, and capitalists from elsewhere in Europe were licking their chops.
Of Snails and Men tells the story of a car factory facing tumult and how the workers, bosses and petit bourgeois in-between strategize to land on their feet. While this might sound like a tense or depressing film, it comes coated in that glaze of sweetness often found in "adorable foreign gems" that lets you know that everything is going to be all right. There are dopey side characters and moments when everyone is shouting and flailing their arms around. When applied too liberally you can end up with the deplorable "happy, wacky ethnic" situation like Slumdog Millionaire. If added as garnish to a good story with intricate performances, you have something marvelous like the Barrytown Trilogy (The Commitments, The Snapper, The Van.)
Of Snails and Men is certainly on the right side of this equation, and while a side story romance between the factory temptress and the underling to the big bad foreign buyer may feel a little forced, these are still recognizable, richly defined characters. Our hero is Gica, a union leader who starts off more interested in getting a piece of extramarital tail than fighting for the rights of his fellow worker. He is, however, a good man - you can see it in his eyes, even when he's lying to his wife. (Think Colin Farrell in the Weinstein Company remake.) Gica's shot at redemption comes when he thinks he's discovered a way to save the factory: donating sperm.
A local clinic is paying $50 for a healthy wad and Gica figures if all the workers wank it X amount of times over X amount of weeks well, then, they may all still have a future. (Hey, it's no more ridiculous than The Full Monty, Calendar Girls or Brassed Off.) Reactions from fellow workers and the community make for some highly amusing sequences.
The factory is being sold to the French for the alleged purposes of creating an escargot cannery. (Coincidentally, this small Romanian town is itself rife with snails, letting the peculiar creatures act as something of an open-ended metaphor.) In reality, the French plan merely to sell the factory and its equipment off, leaving the workers to fend for itself.
Of Snails And Men isn't subtle in its view of rampant capitalism. The boss of the factory is a fat, lecherous snake who doesn't blink before screwing over his community. Furthermore, he spreads the false hope that 300 workers will be retained in the handover, a bald-faced lie meant to quell any collective action on behalf of the workers. With a potential golden ticket in the balance, no one wants to make waves, and that's how Gica's plan to beat off in a medical clinic is cut together to represent an act of social activism and defiance.
On the other hand, the owner gets a great moment when he reminds Gica that he can't have it both ways. He fought for freedom, and with deposing a socialist regime like Ceausescu's, one leaves oneself open to uncertainties of the free market.
Of Snails and Men finds its way toward a happy ending that isn't too far-fetched, and also throws a few relationship twists our way, too. What works best about it is how it shows that most people - even those who would be bosses - can find their humanity if they would only talk to one another. One remarkable scene shows a Romanian and Frenchman awkwardly trying to connect through a language barrier, then positively glowing when they both realize they speak fluent Spanish. That they then soon bond over their love of Julio Iglesias didn't speak to my tastes on a personal level, but I was happy for them that they found common ground.
Of Snails and Men is the opening night film in Lincoln Center's "New Romanian Cinema" series happening November 29 - December 5. Further distribution plans are unknown.