Loosely based on an actual 2002 event that transpired in Romania, Tudor Giurgiu’s engaging film “Of Snails and Men” shifts the action back to 1992, when the country was still naively unsure of what would follow the fall of communism. Threatened with the closure of their small-town factory, workers decide to sell their sperm at $50 a pop so they can buy the plant and keep their jobs. Resembling “The Full Monty” but more downbeat, too lite for the arthouse yet too melancholy for escapist uplift, tasty “Snails” may prove to be as challenged a traveler as its titular gastropod.
The fat, corrupt manager (Dorel Visan) of the local car factory secretly strikes a deal to transfer ownership to a French businessman (Jean-Francois Stevenin) who will close the plant and sell the stock and fixtures. (Apparently, in the turmoil that followed the overthrow of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, many state factories were bought by Westerners for peanuts, and the deconstructed parts made fortunes for their new owners.) The manager lies to his employees, claiming the French will repurpose the factory as a snail-packing plant and hire back part of the workforce, thus hoping to create competition between workers for these nonexistent jobs.
When union organizer Gica (the excellent Andi Vasluianu) sees an ad offering money for sperm, it seems like the only answer to economic catastrophe. But things aren’t that easy. After years of putting up with Gica’s philandering, his wife (Andreea Bibiri) threatens to leave if he pursues his seminal entrepreneurship. And Romanian workers, who held an at least nominally exalted position in the communist hierarchy, possess little value in the capitalist marketplace, their seed judged inferior to that of strapping, blond, educated Danes.
While collective destiny propels the film’s throughline, its dynamic energy comes from the interlocking stories. Gica’s lunchtime rooftop trysts with the manager’s curvaceous secretary, Manuela (Monica Barladeanu, in a deftly nuanced sexpot role), are merely food for a genuine friendship. Given that her loyalties are divided among her boss; her co-workers; her sometime-b.f. Gica; and the new love of her life, Olivier, the son and reluctant helpmate of the Frenchman buying the factory (Jean-Francois Stevenin’s real-life son Robinson fills the role), Manuela must deftly navigate perilous ethical shoals.
Helmer Giurgiu easily balances individual and collective action, his visual style facilitating his characters’ often comic juggling of private and social responsibilities.