Adrian Popovici’s human trafficking drama is Moldova’s first Foreign Oscar submission. The bilingual film, mostly in Romanian (Moldova and Romania have a common language) and English, is a melodramatic look at human trafficking of women and children for sexual purposes.
The screenplay by Valeriu Turcanu and Pascal Ilie Virgil centers on Irina (Ina Surdu -“Playing the Moldavans at Tennis”), a young Moldavian mother returning to Moldavia to locate her 8-year old son Pavalas. In Italy, she was forced into prostitution by slick pimp Bruno (Paolo Seganti (TV series “One Life to Live “) to whom she owes 30,00 Euros for “expenses”. Bruno’s about to be released after a two-year stretch, and she has to hustle.
She alerts village friend Feghea (Anatol Durbal-“Playing the Moldovans at Tennis”) and takes a road trip with best friend Russian dancer Tatiana (Rodica Oanta).
Lying around one night Irina reveals her lame plan to sell Pavalas for money, pay off Bruno and use her cut to start a brothel business (“I know all about it”) in Romania then buy Pavalas back with her earnings, Tatiana, and the audience, is appalled, but she goes along, hoping to convince Irina to change her mind.a
Adrian Popovici handles her scenes with a documentary feel, resisting judgment, leaving
Ina Surdu, an affecting actress who looks like a young a, gets under our skin. We are shocked and fascinated by the blithe, clueless girl’s apparent moral vacuum. Rodica Oantsa as Tatiana really registers in all her small but pivotal moments.
The two, who’ve survived Bruno’s prostitution ring leave town without permission from their pimp, to locate Pavalas. In Irina’s hometown of Tighina, shady Feghea (a strong performance from Anatol Durbala) admits he’s given up the boy entrusted to his care, under pressure from his family and friends, sending him to an orphanage/ school in Chisinau, Moldova’s capitol.
(Teghina or Bender, in the buffer zone established at the end of the 1992 War of Transnistria, is under the control of the unrecognized, Soviet separatist Transnistria Republic (PMR). The municipality is separate from Transnistria proper hence the border crossings.)
The women take off. Even their trip across borders is fraught with sexual threats as they fend off corrupt border guards. While traveling Tatiana turns a trick with a wanted Army deserter, who shoots himself in the head after sex. The local Army arrests them and they languish in jail for two days,
Deadly Bruno, just sprung from jail in Italy, is driving around town looking for Irina to exact his money. Irina and Tatiana’s jail cell puts his “bitches” temporarily out of sight.
Meanwhile back in Chisinau, trusting young Pavalas’s gone on walkabout from the orphanage. Carrying a valuable snapshot of his beloved mother, he naively shows it to anyone he meets. ” Have you seen my mother?” the boy asks. She can do no wrong in his eyes.
Knowing what we know about Irina, his trust is painful to watch, but young Emergian Cazac, who plays the bright earnest boy, charms in every scene he’s in, giving the audience a modicum of hope.
One woman takes his question to heart. Alina (Alina Turcanu) a Moldavan living in Canada, recently lost her son and she bonds with Pavalas. Her husband Peter Jackson (played in an uncharacteristic piece of casting by Michael Ironside, who usually plays villains (“The Machinist”, ” Total Recall”) thrilled to see his wife smile again, begins to think about adopting him.
They drive him back to the Orphanage. Chased into the grounds by the gatekeeper, he’s beaten by the sadistic School Director (Mihaela Strambeanu).
His best friend Gicu (Ion Beregoi) comes to his defense to no avail.
The next day, Peter and Alina take the two boys to the park. It’s a joyous excursion, bumper cars and treats. The couple wants to sound out “Pavel” about adoption.
Persistent Peter offers the reluctant director a bribe and some time to think.
“His mother hasn’t signed any abandonment declaration yet. Couldn’t I interest you in another child? She can come back any day”, explains the frustrated woman, knowing she’ll end up taking his money.
Catching up with his “bitchs”, who’ve been sold out by a friendly bartender, Bruno beats Irina before buying into her plan. “Lets say I believe your story, the numbers are wrong… restaurants, hotels, a babysitter for the creature, you owe me 50,000. I’ll hold him till you find a buyer; three days or I’ll sell him, but not for adoption.”
Desperate Irina blackmails the school director into giving her Pavalas. He’s overjoyed to be reunited. She promises him a life together in Italy.
Sequestered by Bruno they spend rare, loving moments together. ‘We’ll go to Italy, and we’ll never be apart again?” he asks. “Yes”, she assures him, crestfallen. “My teacher explained you didn’t mean to… adults have money problems.” “Yes that’s right.” “We’d be better off without money”, he explains as our hearts sink.
Adrian Popovici wastes some of the audience goodwill he built up in the realistic first two thirds of the movie with an overly action-oriented last reel. There’s a double dealing bartender (Jhoni Alici), an Interpol agent (Brit actor Vas Blackwood-“Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”) and a series of harrowing kidnappings, escapes and chase scenes, before a melodramatic scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a depression era film from Warner Bros. And as in that genre, the acting gets you.
UNESCO statistics put trafficking numbers at between 700,000 and 4,000,000 annually, in what has become a billion dollar multinational organized crime racket. Children are often kidnapped for organ transplants.
“Estimates vary but the UN and other experts put the total market value of illicit human trafficking at around $32 billion dollars, $10 billion of which is derived from the ‘sale’ of trafficked victims. The rest is profit from the goods and services produced by the victims. The US State Department estimates 600,000 – 820,000 people per annum are trafficked across national borders. 80% of victims are thought to be women and girls and 50% minors.”