”Everyone operates in their own world.“
Radu Muntean is part of the New Wave of Romanian directors whose work was recently showcased at Lincoln Center’s compact yet insightful Romanian Film Festival. Unlike his compatriots who make politically charged allegories—such as Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective (2009), Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), or Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005)—Muntean’s focus has been more on ordinary citizens in the domestic sphere. For example, his 2008 film, Boogie, concerns a man trying to reconnect both with his lost youth and his present-day family; he runs into old friends on holiday and spends an evening carousing, which causes a fight with his wife. Muntean is also probably best known for Tuesday, After Christmas (2011), about an ill-timed love affair. (Aren’t they all.)
With One Floor Below, Muntean continues to explore the fragility of everyday life with a story that hinges on a crucial moment outside of his protagonist’s control. Patrascu (Teodor Corban) eavesdrops on his next-door neighbors Laura (Maria Popistasu) and Vali (Iulian Postelnicu) while they argue. When Vali discovers Patrascu listening it leads to an awkward encounter. But things become even more uncomfortable when Laura dies—possibly murdered. A policeman investigates, but Patrascu does not reveal everything that he knows. The subtle suspense builds as Patrascu and Vali test each other to see who will crack first. One Floor Below is a slow-burn character study that benefits greatly from Muntean’s naturalist style.
Gary M. Kramer What sparked the idea for your new film and why did this particular topic appeal to you?
Radu Muntean Every time I fish for a new idea, old ideas can pop up. It’s been some time since I first had the idea for One Floor Below. I saw something in the newspaper about a guy who witnessed a domestic quarrel, and after the fact he learned of a murder near his apartment. He didn’t do anything, and it puzzled me as to why… I mixed this story with a person I met who works in a car-registration office—doing all the paperwork. I thought it was an interesting way to mix things: a man very much in control who was suddenly not. That was the starting point.
GMK You take a very naturalist approach, which I think helps hook the viewer. How did you develop this style and apply it to domestic stories that deal with moral issues like adultery or crime?
RM It’s always about things that puzzle or intrigue me. I try to show them in a way that will also intrigue the audience, being as discreet as I can be. The audience should feel as if they are making up their own story. I’m just a middleman between the character and the audience. I don’t want to be intrusive or lecture you. I have questions about myself and the world I’m living in. I want to share these questions with you. I don’t have any answers. That’s what is interesting to me. The story is often more effective after you see the film—that is, when you have the time to think about it.
GMK Your characters are eavesdropping on each other while your camera is eavesdropping on the characters. Was it a deliberate decision to have your style mirror the action?
RM I’m involved in the whole process—from the idea through writing the script [with Alexandru Baciu and Razvan Radulescu]. We’re building tension, and I’m trying to shoot it in a style that matches the situation. Within each scene nothing too spectacular ever happens, but the film is building layers, so there is hopefully a burst of tension at the very end.
GMK Many Romanian films have allegorical elements to them, but it seems your work eschews that political tone. Do you imply political messages in your work?
RM I’m not specifically interested in political or social issues. But I’m dealing with people in difficult or puzzling circumstances. I’ve been asked questions about this before—about the social and political inclinations of my stories. I didn’t intend to make a portrait of Romanian society with this film. The moral issue is a private affair between the viewer and their own consciousness. It’s not so much related to the social environment. It’s a Romanian film and reflects society in some way, but it’s not linked to social reality. There is bureaucracy in the film, and the way the head of the family behaves is perhaps different than an American character might, but my purpose was not to put the story in too much of a social context.
The beauty of discussing the film at festivals, or in Romania, is that everyone has their own ideas. It’s interesting to find out what answers people give to the questions I raise. I was troubled when one viewer thought Patrascu was the killer—but that’s an extreme way of interpreting the story. There can be multiple interpretations. I know what my point is, but everyone in the audience finds their own path to get there.
GMK You never resolve what exactly happened to Laura. Was she killed? Was it an accident? That she was found nude is another rumor. Why do you play with ambiguity—and, especially, with Patrascu’s ambiguous reaction to the events?
RM It was important that the audience gets the same information Patrascu does. As a man in control of his professional and personal life, he’s now in trouble, because in this circumstance he is not in control of things. It’s an intimate thing this crime, but he doesn’t have all the info about it. I wanted the audience to be in his shoes. He’s in the center of every shot, and you sometimes hear—or don’t quite hear—what he’s hearing, and a lot of the dialogue is off-screen. It builds a subjective perspective of the main character, which is very different from the traditional point-of-view technique of shooting.
GMK The theme of police/authority/law is very prominent in the film, from the investigation of Laura’s death, to the rules of parenting, and the bureaucracy of Patrascu’s job. Can you talk about these layers and their meaning?
RM I don’t think it’s that different than in other countries. It’s not a film about the Romanian way of dealing with things; that was not intended. It’s just a moral conflict between this guy and his conscience, represented by Vali, who pushes him toward a reaction. That was more important to me than the law. The police, or the justice system, are not involved in this private, intimate circumstance between these two men. It’s the dilemma of Patrascu telling or not telling [the police]—pretending he was not a witness to the unseen quarrel. Again, it’s about controlling things. You must bear in mind, he’s an older man, who became a father after forty, so he’s patronizing with his son and his family. He’s always multi-tasking, and that’s what fascinated me when I met the real-life person.
GMK What can you say about the various favors exchanged in the film? For the characters it seems to be a way for them to bond. Is this barter typical of Romanians or something meant to enhance the drama?
RM That is actually something that comes from the Communist times, when every Romanian had “connections.” Everyone knew someone with something illegally on the market. So it’s not a tradition of going against the law, but of avoiding technicalities and making your own law. Patrascu is avoiding the law with his knowledge of the crime, but he is still a very reliable guy. The real guy is the same. He will come to you with everything you need, and I wanted this same quality for the character. It’s very much an important part of Romanian society—knowing someone. It’s specific to Romanians and different from Western society.
GMK Are you asking the audience what they would do in the same situation?
RM I’m raising questions. We take for granted this notion of integrity, responsibility, and moral issues. You know how you are expected to act in situations, but I wanted audiences to put themselves concretely in the position of this character. It’s not an easy thing. Patrascu knows Vali, and he also knows that he’s not a psychopath. And from what he hears, it probably was an accident, or it got too violent at a certain point, so these things are in Patrascu’s head. They are not easy. I wanted the audience in his position, even if they don’t understand or agree with what he does. The simple fact that they raise the same questions, and take them seriously—that’s what I wanted. I tried not to judge or defend or accuse the character. I present the difficult choice he has.
GMK There is a fragment of dialogue, “Life is made of this stuff also,” which suggests we have to take the bad with the good. Can you comment on that?
RM In a way, it’s about the fact that people take life for granted. Life is made from all these things. You have to accept it without thinking too much of the consequences or responsibilities. In a way, Patrascu’s conscience is chasing him. It’s a superficial way of dealing with things.
GMK I like the way the characters know more about Laura from social media than they do from any expressed interactions with her. Is your film a commentary on that lack of interpersonal interaction?
RM I don’t think that applies only to Romanian society. It’s probable that you know your friends on Facebook better than you know your own neighbors. That’s true everywhere. We are living inside these bubbles. Patrascu has to protect his family, and that’s why he doesn’t tell his wife. It’s also why he will go to the police if his neighbor’s threat becomes more aggressive. I think we are moving more to these mini-societies. Everyone operates in their own world.
GMK There is a very key observational sequence when Patrascu is lost in his world. He is at the dog show and trying to find his son. Can you talk about the importance of that sequence and what it tells us about his character?
RM It’s important because it occurs immediately after the crime scene—and he meets his neighbor again. So when Patrascu can’t find his son for ten minutes it makes him panic. After the previous scene, he’s losing control for the first time, and he’s trying to protect his family. He’s sees signs of a threat. It becomes subjective. You can feel his panic. It’s also about putting things in context. For example, there are two scenes in the park—in the first, everything is in control and quiet and peaceful—and then later, the dogs are fighting and the control is gone. It’s a subtle change, but you can still feel it. There are also two car-registration scenes. In the first, everything is under control because it’s before he knew about the girl’s death. In the second, everything is out of place. It’s all about context. In Tuesday, After Christmas there is a dental office scene. If you don’t know the context—that the characters are in a love triangle—it would be a scene about orthodontic explanations. But if you know the context, it becomes more interesting and powerful, and you can feel the tension between the characters. The same is true in the final scene in the car-registration office .
GMK One of the most extraordinary scenes in the film has Patrascu and Vali in the car, mostly silent, but looking at each other, as if each was waiting for the other to crack. How did you work with the actors to build the tension in that scene?
RM It’s almost like a duel in a Sergio Leone film! It was interesting that when we shot the scene and Vali says, “Why didn’t you go to the police?” Teodor [Corban, the actor] was blushing. It was an organic reaction. Inside that particular shot the tension was very real. I don’t have a special recipe for doing that sort of thing. I just rehearse a lot before shooting and talk with the actors so that they understand the meaning of the words, the motivation of their characters, and the context. We build slowly toward the moment of shooting. It becomes very intense when the camera rolls. In these kinds of films, you have the feeling while shooting that every detail is important, so you have to be careful. Any small gesture or inappropriate smile can throw the film in the wrong direction. It’s like walking a tightrope.
GMK As Romanian cinema continues to increase in popularity and distribution, how do you see your role in this New Wave?
RM You probably know the answer better than me because you live outside of Romania. It’s not my job to put my work in the context of the Wave. Romanian films are becoming more and more different. I don’t know about their popularity; it’s still a niche. These are all small releases on the art-house circuit. What is truly sad is that in Romanian audiences have little interest in these films. They prefer blockbusters, rather than films that show them additional problems on top of their own. I’m not very optimistic about the future of these films, but it’s the only way I can function as a filmmaker.
GMK Last question: Do you have a dog?
RM (laughter) I am a dog person. I had a pit bull like Patrascu. That’s my life. I have a stray at the moment. I found it in the forest near where I live.
Gary M. Kramer is a freelance film critic and the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.