What matters more? Getting things done or getting them done the right way?
That’s the question at the heart of Paul Negoescu’s Men of Deeds (Oameni de treabă), screening in select NYC theaters beginning August 4th and in L.A. at the Laemmle Royal Theater starting August 11th, 2023.
Ilie, played by Iulian Postelnicu (One Floor Below, Arest) is a divorced country cop who still co-owns a flat with his ex-wife back in the city. It’s been 10 years since his marriage and career fell apart and he wants to sell the old flat so he can finally lay the foundation for a new life.
He works in a small village, one of the few in Romania to weather the recent economic hardships and keep its citizens from emigrating elsewhere for work. The cause of this success is Mayor Constantion, played brilliantly by Vasile Muraru (Napoleon’s Final Battle, The Happiest Girl in the World), who makes sure everyone in town gets their fair share.
Amidst the rebuilding efforts after a river flooding, Constantion takes an interest in Ilie’s dream of buying an orchard and settling down. They put together some leads on some land, a new Police Academy student is joining Ilie in town to train, and the days move along. Things are looking up.
And then someone’s murdered.
Now, Ilie is presented with a question, if you’re a cop, what is your job? If it’s to keep the peace, what does that best? A messy investigation or maintaining the town’s status quo?
Men of Deed is a gorgeously shot crime drama that has a lot to say, but instead of shouting it from the rooftops, it whispers, forcing you to lean in to hear it. Iulian Postelnicu delivers an incredible, breathtaking, yet often inscrutable performance as a put-upon layabout cop. At once totally expressive and also a cipher, Postelnicu leaves the viewer with the thought “Is this man an idiot, or is he turning a blind eye?,” and the drama of the film derives from that thought, as the character seems to ponder it of himself.
A naturalist work, the lack of pretense of didacticism permeates every corner of production. Dialogue is plain and realistic, the citizens of Men of Deeds almost always reacting and speaking as if real people, and when they don’t, they walk the path of surreality, not of theatricality. The film is shot digitally by Ana Draghici (Two Lottery Tickets, Mia Misses Her Revenge), but in the best way. The image isn’t so sharp it cuts your eyes, but is modern and sensible. When the camera enters a room, it does so without announcement. The audio and score are mixed well, the latter clearly afraid of overwhelming the former. The story, as it is, is really a character study of Ilie, a stand-in for both the police as establishment and establishment in general. As he is not given to dramatic statements, neither is the film. Instead, like the naturalist school whose class ring it wears with pride, Men of Deeds is focused on “how things are” in relation to government corruption in Romania. “This is how things are,” says the film, and so they are.
It is what it is, and so it goes with the film’s shortcomings. Shot on a seemingly lower budget, it does occasionally show the warts of its circumstance, with performances like Anghel Damian (Ana, My Love) as Vali, the young officer in training, who fails to match the performance heights of Postelnicu and Muraru, or of the film itself. Other members of the extended cast, as well as a location or two, feel like they belong in the student film version of this movie, and not the major work Men of Deeds comes up just short of being. None of these choices are the wrong one, the money and the talent were spent as well as they could be, you just wish they’d had access to more of each.
It’s truly inspiring what Paul Negoescu pulled off here: a thrilling, heart-wrenching watch, made even greater by a commanding lead performance.
In New York City August 4th, 2023.
In Los Angeles August 11th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Dekanalog Men of Deeds webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.