Actress Ivana Mladenovic makes a strong fiction debut with this story of a mismatched couple in a downbeat area of Bucharest

Soldiers, Story From Ferentari

Source: Courtesy of TIFF

Dir: Ivana Mladenovic. Romania/Serbia/Belgium. 2017. 119 mins

Soldiers. Story From Ferentari is described in its official synopsis as a Romeo and Juliet tale; in this case, Romeo is a hard nut revealing a gentle interior while the Juliet figure, also male, is an intellectual discovering life at street level. Ivana Mladenovic’s fiction debut is Romanian social realism with an ethnographic edge, but it’s also a romance between two ostensibly heterosexual men achieving an unexpected bond.

Soldiers is a strong entry into drama from Mladenovic, following 2012 documentary Turn Off the Lights (she’s also known for acting in Radu Jude’s Scarred Hearts). Forceful and thematically arresting, even if it doesn’t quite sustain its length, the film should have healthy festival life, both on the LGBT circuit and beyond.

Based on an autobiographical novel by journalist Adrian Schiop – acting for the first time and essentially playing himself – it features strong non-professional performances, notably from Vasili Pavel, a.k.a. Digudai, a security guard in real life, making a fearless and affectingly vulnerable debut.

Following an oddly stand-alone opening shot – off-screen voices spell out an unseen drugs scenario –Adi (Schiop), a middle-aged anthropologist, moves into a dingy apartment after breaking up with his girlfriend. He’s come to Ferentari, a notoriously disadvantaged area of Bucharest, because it’s cheap, but also because its Roma community makes it a perfect place for his field research into the Gypsy pop genre of manele.

In a local bar, he meet Alberto ‘Knuckles’ (Pavel), a corpulent Roma ex-convict who – half affably, half-menacingly – prevails on Adi to shell out for drinks. Alberto becomes Adi’s contact man for the manele scene: in a lively early sequence, we meet a local music promoter and a couple of young singers, and get to discover contemporary manele’s hybridization of traditional folk and US R&B, plus its oddly cynical take on themes of friendship.

Alberto becomes a fixture at Adi’s run-down apartment, and while both men are supposedly straight, Alberto prides himself on having been sexually adaptable in prison and they become lovers. Both men’s loneliness plays a part, as do more basic needs; Adi needs Alberto as a passport to the community, while the latter, cut loose by his gangster patron, is after money and a place to stay. But real tenderness and sensuality emerge between a pair who, by conventional standards of screen romance, could be called unprepossessing: scrawny Adi and bear-like Alberto, whose much touted dangerous nature never really emerges.

It’s in the latter respect that some viewers might consider the film disappointing in generic dramatic terms: while Adi’s disapproving flatmate warns that Alberto is potentially violent, the film never ventures into the dramatic regions you might expect from with the story of a middle-class man discovering street life at its harshest. Soldiers - the term refers to those at the very bottom of the criminal hierarchy – is anything but an exploitative case of social tourism, with Mladenovic taking very seriously the social structures and living conditions of Ferentari. Despite such scenes as a wedding, with a singer celebrating the event’s abundance of bling, nevertheless Ferentari, its Roma community and a supporting cast of (presumably real-life) drinkers and drug users are never draped in spurious subculture chic.

While Schiop and Pavel give their all, with nude scenes included, the film is far more graphic in terms of the spoken word than in what it shows, most of the sexual action between the lovers being either elided or shot in darkness; and, although they watch porn together, the only visual content we see on their screen is Bollywood romance. Mladenovic stays true to her low-key dramatic approach by refusing a big emotional payoff.

Production companies: Hi Film Productions, Film House Bas Celik, Frakas Productions

International sales: Beta Cinema,

Producers: Ada Solomon, Jelena Mitrovic, Cassandre Warnauts, Jean-Yves Roubin

Screenplay: Ivana Mladenovic, Adrian Schiop

Cinematography: Luchian Ciobanu

Production design: Adrian Cristea

Editor: Catalin Cristutiu

Main cast: Adrian Schiop, Vasili Pavel - Digudai, Stefan Iancu, Nicolae Marin Spaniolul