A seduction scene in which two very average-looking men well past the blush of youth do a lot of cuddling — not an activity you see a lot of at the movies — is but one sign that “Soldiers. Story From Ferentari” will not hew to gay-romance conventions. Documentarian Ivana Mladenovic’s first narrative feature is a likably ramshackle, seemingly semi-improvised “free adaptation” of co-scenarist/star Adrian Schiop’s semi-autobiographical novel about his experiences in Bucharest’s Roma slum. Looking for social entree for academic research, he instead found himself a pariah due to his open affair with his ex-con Roma “guide.”
A quirky semi-fiction with lots of colorful detail, “Soldiers” nonetheless could sorely use some — well, any — narrative drive. Gay fests and New Director spotlights will be willing to overlook the general meandering. But another editorial pass or two might be required to tempt more commercial channels.
Adi (Schiop) has just been dumped by his girlfriend of three years for unspecified reasons. He decides he’ll use this forced transitional moment to focus on finishing his anthropology thesis on manele music, the primarily Roma pop idiom. The logical place to do that is in teeming, crime-riddled Ferentari, where he finds a flat in a dilapidated building, sharing rent with younger fellow academic Vasi (Cezar Grumazescu).
Seeking someone to smooth his introductions to the cautiously closed-off, police-harassed local “gypsy” society, Adi stumbles upon garrulous, guileless, beer-bellied Alberto (Vasile Pavel-Digudai), who went from a rough upbringing to a long prison stint. After a couple years of homelessness, he’s living with a wealthy crime-boss cousin as a glorified servant. Ostensibly heterosexual, he’s half-hustler, half-suitor in his dealings with Adi, who it turns out isn’t averse to a little same-sex nookie, either.
The relationship develops from there, though it seems on the verge of imploding at any minute. With a child’s impulsiveness and no sense of adult responsibility, Alberto, who has a gambling problem, constantly taxes Adi’s limited finances. Word of their liaison soon gets around, with a feared cousin threatening to “break all their legs” over the disgrace if he sees them. Naturally, Adi’s hopes of gaining access to the general community and its musicians go up in smoke. But the two men are equally attracted and indecisive enough to keep this awkward match going on for a while.
When it finally all falls apart, Mladenovic finds no drama in the breakup, but then she doesn’t find much anywhere else, either. “Soldiers” is a shaggy non-story whose digressive nature is of a piece with its protagonists’ drifting, noncommittal lives. The depth of bemused Adi’s attachment is anyone’s guess, whereas Alberto — while occasionally full of macho bluster — is as slobberingly affectionate and loyal as a sheepdog, albeit with a shorter attention span. Their love may be doomed, but in a way, they’re just right for each other.
The unvarnished feel of Mladenovic’s location shooting is apparent in the frank, curious stares passers-by give her camera and actors. (This works well enough to suggest the characters as topics of gossipy scorn.) There’s a raffish charm to it all, as well as a sense of raw reality, even if the Bucharest outskirts glimpsed here might well scare off prospective tourists. Still, while never exactly tiresome, the slack narrative does somewhat frustrate, particularly at its shrug-inducing close. “Soldiers” is one of those films that could easily shed a half-hour or more without losing anything essential.
The actors, most of them presumably non-pros (Pavel-Digudai is a security guard who was “discovered” by accident) are nothing if not engagingly natural. There’s an apt vérité quality to Luchian Ciobanu’s lensing and other aspects of the competent if scrappy tech/design package. Those looking to learn much about Roma music and society won’t be greatly rewarded by this rambling tale, which — like Adi’s thesis project — goes off on an attractive tangent and never quite returns.