Having failed to cut it in the city, mild-mannered Romanian cop Ilie takes a lower-pressure job as a police chief in a rural village near the Moldovan border. Expecting a quieter, easier life of mostly benign duties, he instead encounters even more violence and moral rot than he did before. That he’s surprised suggests Ilie (played by Iulian Postelnicu with a permanent woebegone grimace) hasn’t spent much time watching his own country’s cinema. An exceedingly mordant comedy that gradually bleeds out to tragedy, Paul Negoescu’s “Men of Deeds” is another Romanian exercise in finding personal and institutional corruption under every upturned stone, behind every unlocked small-town door, in every heavily conditional handshake. Audiences won’t be nearly as startled, but it’s bleakly compelling all the same.
Back in 2016, Negoescu scored a major homegrown hit in Romania with his jaunty, shambolic crowdpleaser “Two Lottery Tickets,” a buddy comedy built on a familiar premise — luckless men buy and lose a ticket to millions — that could have been spun more glumly. That film may have taken nearly five years to reach screens in the U.S., but nonetheless proved the broader appeal of Negoescu’s filmmaking relative to many of his more festival-laureled compatriots, alleviating New Wave austerity with more knockabout-style humor. After his 2018 romcom “The Story of a Summer Lover” failed to have the same impact domestically or abroad, Negoescu’s latest returns him to the comic territory of men adrift in a system stacked against them, though its harsher, ultimately feel-bad sensibility might make this Sarajevo competition premiere a tougher sell.
In the film’s opening shot, a single chicken escapes its crate on a pickup truck bound for the slaughterhouse; flapping free and unnoticed, it crosses the road and make its way into the wilderness. Negoescu will sporadically return to this intrepid bird in passing shots, not overly forcing a symbolic meaning onto its dundering quest for independence — though should you compare its trajectory to that of Ilie, a gentle idiot who flew the coop to pursue his own kind of countryside autonomy, it’s hard not to conclude the chicken has done a better job of it. We first encounter him in the city, waiting anxiously outside the crummy apartment he once shared with his domineering ex-wife Mona (Oana Tudor), a fellow police department drone whose personal and professional fortunes appear to have soared since their divorce — seemingly by playing along with corrupt procedures — where his have dwindled.
“You fucked up your career once by playing the knight,” she chides him, alluding to a moral backbone that Ilie has apparently let slide and slump since taking the village beat. Aside from enforcing fishing restrictions at a local lake, he isn’t inclined to do much policing at all, instead daydreaming about buying a small orchard where he can live modestly off the land. He wants to sell the urban apartment in pursuit of this ideal; Christina is loath to give up the income they share from renting it out. Unexpectedly, the village mayor Constantin (an excellent Vasile Muraru, bloodless beneath a bluff exterior) offers him a generous solution, with the understanding that Ilie will turn a blind eye to various acts of wheeling, dealing and cigarette-smuggling.
As ineffectual as he is indifferent, Ilie goes with the flow, even if a new, clean-scrubbed junior officer Vali (Anghel Damian) is less accepting, and starts riling locals by asking unwelcome questions. When a villager turns up murdered, Ilie begins to suspect that his “some things are better left as they are” approach isn’t quite appropriate, though it still takes more than that to turn him back towards crime-fighting — with escalatingly bloody consequences. Working from a wry, dry script by first-time feature writers Radu Romaniuc and Oana Tudor, Negoescu paces proceedings like a foxtrot, gradually charting this small community’s descent from smiling, winking civility to open distrust, before letting the chaos flood in fast: a climactic, joltingly gruesome shootout between multiple key players is staged as breathless, near-absurd farce, hilariously soundtracked by Ilie’s agonized groans and cries in response to each fresh act of brutality.
Indeed, it’s largely thanks to Postelnicu’s tricky performance — equal parts pathetic and sympathetic, with a genuine, soulful sadness beneath the amusing tics of his wheezing vocal delivery and gurning body language — that “Men of Deeds” pulls off its odd, queasily tragicomic tonal shuffle as well as it does, building on the already unflattering boys-in-blue portrait painted by “Two Lottery Tickets.” Ilie isn’t banally portrayed as a good man in a bad system, nor even as anything so glamorous as a villain. (At best or worst, scenes playing on the hoary good-cop-bad-cop dynamic he shares with Vali suggest what “Training Day” might have been like as remade by Bruno Dumont.) Rather, he’s a victim and a grotesque, so gnarled by a culture of corruption that it’s hard to tell where his own impulses and principles begin and end. It takes a Romanian film to make that funny.