The Romanian New Wave ain’t so new anymore, being roughly as old as the current century. Its key directors, like Cristi Puiu, Cristian Mungiu and Corneliu Porumboiu have become established figures on the festival and arthouse circuit and between them have largely cleaved to the movement’s distinctive principles and aesthetic: an unadorned, unromantic, realist sensibility applied to stories of social relevance and critique. Radu Muntean is one of that vanguard, with his last film “Tuesday After Christmas,” which describes in minute domestic detail the quandary of a family man engaged in an affair, achieving probably his highest level of international acclaim and nabbing a slot in the 2010 Un Certain Regard selection. ‘Tuesday’ was a very fine film, playing to the strengths of the New Wave approach by delivering a simple, but immediate version of a familiar love triangle story as lived in banal detail by ordinary people. His follow up, “One Floor Below” externally promises perhaps a more dramatic experience, detailing a man’s response to a death in his apartment building that may have been murder, and whose perpetrator he may suspect he knows. But here Muntean willfully, almost perversely, only scuffs against that story, while relating every other minor incident in the man’s life in numbing detail. And lacking Porumboiu’s skewed black humor (the film is spectacularly dour), or Mungiu’s humanism, the result is a movie that pushes the New Wave experiment to the limit of bearability, and then goes right past it.
One morning, coming home from a run in the park with the dog, stocky, married, middle-aged Patrascu (Teodor Corban, an unlikely Romanian arthouse superstar having appeared in “Child’s Pose,” “12.08 East of Bucharest” and recent Berlin winner “Aferim!“) climbs the stairs past the apartment below his and overhears a vicious lover’s argument happening inside. As he loiters, pretending to fix his dog’s collar in order to eavesdrop some more, a man, whom Patrascu recognizes as a neighbor from another apartment, Vali Dima (Iulian Postelnicu), storms out angrily. They recognize one another and hurry off, embarrassed. There the story should (and almost does, as far as actual drama is concerned) end. But soon after, the woman from that apartment is discovered dead in suspicious, but not definitively murderous circumstances. When the police come to interview Patrascu about it, he says nothing about Dima, but then Dima turns up at his apartment, supposedly wanting to change the registration of his car (which is Patrascu’s job) and the two men are forced into uneasy company that slowly comes to a head.
And I mean slowly. Muntean is fascinated, as he was in ‘Tuesday’ with the lived-in business of living, but here he indulges that fascination to the point of exasperation and beyond. In drab shots indifferently composed, we follow Patrascu through seemingly every minute step of his everyday routine, to the point that it feels like most of the film is him driving around grey streets in an ugly compact car, monosyllabically answering his cellphone, trying to find a parking spot, going to an office, bringing in some forms, trading tired cliches with old acquaintances, and on and on and on.
Of course this is entirely the point. We are supposed to watch incident, encounter and conscience work upon him incrementally, until he’s pushed towards a moment of crisis, but Patrascu as a character is so frustratingly passive that when a final confrontation does occur, it is too little drama, too late on and we still have no real idea if he has undergone any actual arc of change. Dima too is a mystery to us, his motives for involving himself threateningly with Patrascu and not simply thanking his lucky stars he didn’t talk, are muddy. And Patrascu’s wife and son are ciphers, merely there to be hovering presences on the fringes of the man’s banal daily life.
Buried somewhere in here is a thoughtful commentary on post-Ceaucescu distrust/fear of authority, and an examination of the results of that craven “keep your head down, don’t get involved” instinct that might lead any of us to do the wrong thing. And Patrascu’s conscience does trouble him, as we see when he grumpily defends the dead woman’s reputation when a couple of friends casually suggest the “slut” deserved it. But little else suggests he’s concerned with her death or his duty to her and the community, and Muntean is so careful to avoid any whisper of contrivance or manipulation that he doesn’t even land on any particular conclusion or moral. The only real surprise of the film is that it feels unending, yet lasts only 93 minutes, as if to engage the viewer in any way would be to betray the film’s dogged, punishing adherence to real life. And so it’s a movie that gives you very little that you didn’t have before — no new wisdom, no new emotion, no further understanding of the world, although fans of the Romanian auto taxation and vehicle registration bureaucracy may have just found their “Star Wars.” [C]
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