By Amir Ganjavie.
Radu Muntean’ s new, critically acclaimed Romanian film One Floor Below recently won a Special Citation by the National Society of Film Critics, USA. It is a story of family man who decides to stay quiet after seeing the prelude to a murder. It’s difficult to explain this brilliant, slow-burning thriller, which plays with ambiguity and is keen to create moments of personal reflection for the audience, while transcending rationality and psychological interpretation. On the surface, One Floor Below is a story of moral consciousness, moral voices and choices set in Romania. But upon deeper reflection, we could say that this film’s story goes beyond any particularity, encouraging us to think deeply about human relations and how interaction with others can transform us.
I interviewed the director after his film screened at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Did you have a source of inspiration for the main character?
Yes, it’s a guy I know who is my connection in the car registration business. He was the model for this character because he’s a very organized multitasking kind of guy. I was really amazed by his ability to control his own life so it was intriguing for me to put someone like that into an uncontrollable situation. The story is not real, the plot is not real, but I wanted to put this kind of character in a situation that he’s no longer in control.
Professional actors bring with them ideas about their characters and their anticipated meanings. However, you were clearly more interested in creating ambiguity in this work. Do you see a conflict between these two approaches?
I tend to work very precisely because when you’re using really long takes you need to be very precise; I need someone who can provide this one scene and that can respond very quickly and professionally to my demands. You cannot make this very complicated thing with the camera if you cannot rely on the actors so I rehearsed a lot with them and did not leave much to chance. This did not leave a lot of room for improvisation; in fact, there was almost none.
According to your director’s statement, the movie shows that you are a very minimalist filmmaker. In what sense do you define yourself as a minimalist?
To be honest, it’s the way that some critics refer to my approach to cinema and it’s probably due to the way that I tend to be very discreet as a filmmaker. I don’t want to be a middleman between the character and the audience but instead to put the viewers to work a little bit. The audience is supposed to try making their own story and putting together the pieces of the puzzle. For me, the best compliment that I have received was from a critic who said, “I really like your movie but I didn’t understand what you were doing at the shooting.” It’s not important to show off as a filmmaker but rather to make a story which insinuates itself into the mind of the viewer.
How did wanting to create an ambiguous story impact your style? Did it make you choose a particular style for this work?
It’s ambiguous in a way, maybe because the audience has all of the same information that Patrascu has so the viewers probably connect better with him and can understand what he’s thinking. That was the idea from the start – to give the viewer only the information that the characters have and to be with the character all the time. So this may be the source of the ambiguity that you are talking about. You don’t exactly understand the other guy, the neighbour.
If I’m going to contrast the plot of this movie with similar films then I can think of such examples as Rashomon (1950), a story about moral consciousness. Kurosawa tried to show the story from different perspectives, to say that none of this could be true. Have you ever thought of that movie or others that could be related to your work?
To be honest, I didn’t think of Rashomon while making this particular film, though I do like it very much. However, for this one it wasn’t my source of inspiration. I just wanted to find a situation that intrigues me and to present this dilemma to the audience. Society knows exactly how you should react to a situation like this but it’s not so easy to judge in some situations. Of course, it’s only natural to have a lot of influences. For example, I really like a film by Lucrecia Martell, the headless woman. It’s really interesting and is also about having a conscience in a very intriguing and difficult situation. The film has a puzzle-like construction and you only get bits of information towards the end. The difference is that in that particular film the main character knew more than the viewer while here in my film the audience walks side-by-side with the character towards the end.
How do you think about the character of Vali?
Vali is constantly pressing Patrascu and Patrascu obviously misjudges him and interprets his actions as a threat. Maybe he imagines that Vali doesn’t want Patrascu to talk about what he saw but it’s actually the complete opposite and you can understand this towards the end of the film. You may have the same frustration that Patrascu has just before the fight scene.
What is the function of the fight scene in the story?
Vali is a source of mystery for the audience until the end of the film. From my point of view, he is just a guy who was in love with a girl, had a very intense relationship with her, and became very jealous and possessive. She was perhaps the person that he loved the most and then he accidentally killed her so you can imagine that he’s living inside a nightmare. Maybe he’s thinking – and I think you can understand these words at the end of the film – that the easiest solution is for Patrascu to report it to the police. Maybe he’s too weak to go by himself to the police and tell the truth so he really needs a reaction from the only guy to witness the very dramatic outcome of this situation in his life. Patrascu is the only guy who witnessed this and he decided not to talk. I think that Valui is really puzzled and frustrated because of this, constantly trying to push Patrascu into a reaction. If Patrascu was the only witness but won’t say anything then it’s like the thing never happened even though it did happen. It is really painful and really dramatic, which frustrates Vali, and in my opinion it is why he’s constantly pushing Patrascu and Patrascu is the source of the misunderstanding between them. Patrascu thinks that maybe Vali doesn’t want him to tell the police but it’s completely the opposite. He wants him to have a reaction, which is why he’s asking him “Why didn’t you go to the police?”
The movie does not provide enough background to know how much that Vali loved the victim.
Perhaps not but you can feel that they are a couple. You can feel that they have a jealous kind of a fight. You have at least this much information.
Okay, because there are some hints in the movie that maybe the girl is a prostitute.
Those were the preconceptions of the other guy and Patrascu. That’s actually the only scene where Patrascu reacts in a way. He reacts to these misconceptions and the stupid things that his friends are telling about this girl that they didn’t even know. He reacts but that’s the only scene where he does this so it’s obviously not the truth. She wasn’t a prostitute. She was just going to visit Italy with her sister. That was the information that his son got from her Facebook page.
At some point I felt that you added the fight scene to release the tension.
No, I didn’t want that. I don’t want to say that this fight solves something. This scene will always be with him on his conscience. You can be sure that even if you’re not judged by society, by the justice system, or by the police that you will be judged by whatever you are yourself with your own conscience. You cannot escape this. The fight is not a release of tension.
Coming back to the questions about characterization, we see Patrascu doing ordinary things. For example, he drinks water two or three times and walks his dogs for a couple of minutes. How do you think this characterization helps the audience to understand the logic behind his actions?
It depends. The interpretation of a scene depends on the context. For example, think of the scene in which Patrascu comes home and finds his neighbour eating cabbage. If you take this scene out of context then it’s just a guy who comes home and finds his neighbour eating cabbage and his wife is very polite with the neighbour and the kid becomes a little bit friendly with the neighbour too. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. It’s not even interesting. But if you take this scene and put it in the context of the film and you know that Patrascu knows that the other guy is probably the killer then this scene is different. He’s invading his private space and pushing him a lot, and this causes a lot of tension. For example, when you see the first scene in the car registration place it is absolutely ordinary but then you have exactly the same thing at the end of the movie with Vali doing almost exactly the same thing that Patrascu did with another client at the beginning of the film, which has a different meaning. It’s about taking scenes that might look or sound ordinary and putting them into the right context in order to build tension in layers.
So you try to bring out mystery from this ordinary life?
It’s not necessarily mystery. It’s putting it in the context of some normal and ordinary aspects of our lives. I did the same with my last film. It’s about a love triangle involving a guy who’s in love with his mistress but who also has a really good intimate relationship with his wife and so he has to make a decision about which one to choose. The mistress is a dentist and he brings his daughter to her clinic for an appointment but his wife shows up unexpectedly. The wife doesn’t know or even suspect anything but the viewer knows the situation because we saw the man and the mistress together in bed. For ten minutes it’s a scene in a dental office with the dentist explaining to the couple what the little girl needs for her teeth. It’s nothing more than that and if you take this scene out of context then it’s very boring but if you know that this guy has to make a decision between those two women then that is very different. The girl is in the middle and she and wife know nothing but the lovers are really tense.
You give the woman a minimal role. Is this because you feel that the story is more about the man?
Yes, if you saw my previous film then you know that I had two very important female characters. It was not my plan to make women the main character in One Floor Below since it is a story about one guy who witnesses a murder and the relationship between him and the killer.
How do this movie and its message relate to Romanian society?
I hear this kind of question a lot and it’s only natural since the film is Romanian, I’m Romanian and I live in this society, which is the only society that I know. However, it is not a social commentary about Romania, though there are probably some particularities of the Romanian male head of the family in the film. I only thought about this after I made the film and was asked this question. That’s probably the reason why he does not tell his wife, for example. The head of a Romanian family is supposed to be flawless without showing any kind of weakness. If he told his wife then he would have tell her that maybe he was listening too much at the door or maybe that he didn’t do anything to save the girl. That’s probably unacceptable for the heads of most Romanian families. These things are in the film but are not part of a social commentary; they are not the purpose of the film.
I realized that the actors playing the main characters here have also performed in Porumboiu’s previous works. Is there a close relationship between directors in Romania?
Cornelio Porumboiu and I are friends. Of course, I show my works to Cornelio, Christian Mungiu, and to other colleagues of mine. They do the same thing when they finish a movie but we’re not in this kind of very close relationship where we are planning things together or making a platform or something like that.
Fascinated by the issue of alternative and utopian space in cinema and architecture, Amir Ganjavie has published widely about cinema, architecture and cultural studies. He has recently co-edited a special volume on alternative Iranian cinema for Film International and edited Humanism of the Other, an essay collection on the Dardenne brothers (in Persian). His most recent contribution is an article on the meaning of space and utopia in cinema by analysing the films of Tsai Ming-Liang.