Umbre (Shadows), a Romanian drama on HBO, is a stripped-down show about laconic cab-driver Relu Oncescu (Serban Pavlu), a family man who lives a double life as a low-level mob enforcer. When his boss, known only as The Captain (Doru Ana), asks Relu to mentor his artsy son in order to toughen him up, Relu’s carefully constructed ruse starts to fall apart.

Welcome to the Small Time

It’s clear that the gangsters in Umbre (Shadows) are small-time, for now anyway. Relu makes his rounds to various dirt bags that owe The Captain money, mostly from gambling debts, and then goes home to his family. His family doesn’t know about his real job and The Captain and his crew don’t know about his family. The only exception is “Pop” Ruiu (Stefan Velniciuc), an old friend and former enforcer who lives in Relu’s garage and is a surrogate grandfather to his children. In Relu’s mind, he has it all worked out-collections are simply a side hustle, and he has no ambition to climb the ladder within the organization. But when Relu accidently kills a mouthy charge, the boss takes an interest in him. The Captain asks him to toughen up his effete son Teddy (Gabriel Huian) by taking him on his collections, and Relu grudgingly agrees. Teddy follows Relu home one evening, and when Relu’s cute teenaged daughter Magda (Madalina Craiu) answers the door, sparks fly. Soon they are in a forbidden relationship, despite Relu’s express orders against it.

 Things Fall Apart

Alas, Relu’s carefully planned worlds begin to fall apart. He’s a bit of a softy, and sometimes gets in trouble for giving guys a few more days to pay. But no good deed goes unpunished, and soon Relu is having to clean up some messes that he wants nothing to do with. When his wife Gina (Maria Obretin) finds out what Relu does, she kicks him out of the house. Pop Puiu is sympathetic, but when he tries to help, he actually makes things worse. Meanwhile, The Captain, who seemed pretty genial, reveals his cruel side, and Relu wants out. But does one really leave the mob?  There are only a few ways to do it, and Relu makes his choice.

Our Review of Umbre

Umbre (Shadows) has already completed 3 seasons, but because HBO tends to bury their international programming, (Beforeigners, anyone?) almost nobody has seen it in the U.S. However, it was very popular in Romania, and is touted as one of the first series with “Peak TV” quality from that country.  I like the somewhat lo-fi feel of the show, and part of that is because we are watching low rent gangsters who live in shabby neighborhoods, but also Bucharest hasn’t quite escaped the grubbiness of its Soviet past. The first episode is tough, because Relu is so quiet as to seem sullen, but he grows on you as the beleaguered husband, father and friend who is trying to keep his family and pals out of hot water. My only real beef is that the last two episodes are a little confusing. I’m not sure if it’s a translation issue or simply convolution of plot, but it was frustrating. Other than that, I enjoyed Umbre (Shadows), and I will watch season 2.  

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