Exchange (Schimb Valutar) played tonight as part of the Rumanian film festival at the Curzon cinema in Mayfair. It is an important film- retelling the same Tolstoy story that L'Argent shows- but telling it in a very different way. The film is about a working class Rumanian who is fired from his factory job and so decides to go to Bucharest with money to get a visa for the western world- for Australia though the destination is not what matters so much as the opportunity. Unfortunately when he arrives he is quickly robbed of his money: a fraudulent exchange dealer takes his Rumanian money and gives him fake dollars. Emil is thrown on his own resources, he contemplates suicide, but eventually takes up with a prostitute, Lili, and becomes involved both in trying to find the man who robbed him and in attempting to find the money to get to Australia. The plot is dark but full of humour- there are moments of sweetness and moments of kindness- but the underlying tone is of sadness and regret, folly and mistakes.
The two main characters exemplify this. Both Emile and Lili are where they are because they have made mistakes. Lili followed her boyfriend to Bucharest- the boy vanished and the law student became a whore. Emile lost all his money to a crook and they find each other- as two lost souls amidst the detritus of the post Communist era. They find each other- and they enjoy each other's companies and predictably each other's bodies too. Lili is a force of life- caring naught for her condition and more interested in enjoying life. She finds solace in the joys of life: in the bottle at worst for alcohol she tells Emile will wipe out woe till the morning. Emile on the other hand evolves from brooding about his misfortunes, to finding an unethical way of coping with them- he evolves from sadness into sin whereas Lili never partakes of the first, and retains her fundamental human dignity. In that sense this is a drama about how to deal with misfortune and betrayel- the contrast between the two protagonists is the contrast between the way to deal with misfortune, confidently and 'looking on the bright side' or gloomily looking for a way to 'get even' with the world.
The relationship between the two characters is fascinating and is what the film turns upon. Emile looks up to Lili- her knowledge of the law is something he refers to as gospel truth, she can protect him or can seem to protect him at key moments- she knows the city in a way that he does not. What I found most touching about it is the way that he consults her: to take an example, they both come to the decision that it is kinder to lie to their relatives about what they are doing in Bucharest but whereas Lili makes up her lies herself, Emile has to check his with her to make sure that they make sense. There are several moments where you can see the genuine friendship between these two misfortunates come through- whether its drinking vodka and dancing in a bar, or sitting in Lili's little room joking about Emile's son and what he would be doing at that moment. Do not be deceived though for when they joke they do so in a world that is tawdry and sad- Lili's room is battered and bruised (as battered and bruised as both her and Emile's experience of the world).
This film is exciting and interesting- the characters drive it forward- but it is also a piece for its time. It is definitely a film that is post-communist. All sorts of touches are there which remind you subtly of the political situation of south eastern Europe at the moment- whether it is the fact that Emile's generation have to cope with the departure of the certainties of communism and desire to emmigrate to do so, or its Lili- one of the many thousand girls that have been exported across the frontiers of the old Soviet Union in the last few years to prostitution and worse in Europe and America- or its the surface gleam and greyer seam of Bucharest which could stand for so many capitals in that- the indications of the early twenty first century are there. They are not obtrusive but this is a film of its times- and definitely captures something of them, whilst using a source written by a 19th Century Russian and rendered into the language of cinema by a 20th Century Frenchman.
Communism and character and the way that social structures, morality and destiny interplay are all at the heart of this film. Like the Bresson film it is the relationship between the social and the single person is the centre of the film: exchnage is a fitting name for the film as in a sense it is all about exchange- the criminal exchanges on the streets of Bucharest and the more concrete exchanges in the houses off them. What I think is best about the film is despite the concentration on the central characters- the victims both of Emile's anger and his currency fraud- are clearly shown. In one touching scene, after he has taken his revenge on the poor sap who defrauded him, we suddenly realise that fraudster is probably as poor and desperate as Emile- and furthermore we see that even though he is a criminal, he is still loved and whether he deserves death, his family might not deserve to lose him. Emile's victims are also seen: he defrauds two old pensioners and you watch them just stand there on the pavement as the realisation comes that their life savings have just turned into nothing.
This is not a simple film: in some senses it is a film about the dangers of the delusion that crime pays, in some senses it is a film about coping with misfortune. The interest of the film is that it combines both- and in a sense- the way that they combine gives the film its absorbing power. This is a great and interesting piece of cinematic craft- and a testament to the health of Rumanian cinema. Like the Bresson film, it explores themes which are so profound that they touch the deepest cores of human nature, like the Bresson film it explores the nature of corruption and like the Bresson film there is a strong sense of doom about the end. That despite moments of glee the wages of sin is death.