In some of the best Romanian cinema of the last decade—Police, Adjective or Beyond the Hills comes to mind—character motivations are a mystery. We always have a hint of why these people are doing what they’re doing, but the filmmakers behind them often seem to want to leave us wondering about specifics, which allows viewers to draw their own conclusions and, perhaps, identify more closely with these nuanced, opaque individuals.
Director Radu Muntean previously made Tuesday, After Christmas, the story of a seemingly well-intentioned man who just so happened to have a wife and a mistress whom he loved equally. Muntean’s latest, One Floor Below, also favors ambiguity, but it pushes the limit of what this national cinema has done in terms of murky motivations. It’s a story of murder in which there’s no real investigation and no grand moment of revelation about the culprit. Instead, there’s only guilt—and, surprisingly, a queasily growing bond between the killer and the man who believes he heard the crime happen.
Teodor Corban plays Patrascu, a 50-something man with a unique job. He’s a go-between for drivers who need to update their vehicle registration or other matters. (They pay him to deal with the paperwork and government red tape.) Patrascu’s profession turns out to be an oddly perfect metaphor for the man in general: He’s a valuable but invisible cog in the world.
Living a humdrum life with a wife and son, Patrascu becomes intrigued by a couple in his building, especially when he hears them fighting loudly behind closed doors one day. Immediately after the seemingly violent encounter, the 30-something man, Vali (Iulian Postelnicu), steps out of the apartment, and he and Patrascu share a brief, tense, wordless exchange before going their separate ways. Soon after, Patrascu learns that the woman, Laura, has been found dead. Did Patrascu overhear a murder?
Although One Floor Below strongly hints that Laura’s death was no accident—and that Vali was probably guilty—Muntean never reveals any sort of smoking gun to implicate the younger man. Just like us, Patrascu has to stew in his own uncertainty about what he thinks he witnessed. But then something interesting happens: When the cops come to question Patrascu, the older man says nothing, not even expressing his concerns that Vali was the perpetrator. Because Patrascu is a man who keeps his own counsel—his closest companion may very well be his dog—we’re never exactly sure why he stays silent about the possible murderer.
But then again, little that he does afterwards makes much obvious sense. Patrascu begins to find himself more involved in Vali’s life. The younger man needs help with the documentation for his car. He starts palling around with Patrascu’s son. Is Vali aware that Patrascu said nothing to the authorities? Is this his way of thanking Patrascu? Or is there something more ominous going on? And at the same time, why is Patrascu blindly accepting Vali’s business and friendship? Muntean won’t say, and so it’s up to us to unravel this mystery of human behavior, with no clear-cut answers to be found. One Floor Below can be read as a disturbing commentary on all those senseless, violent crimes out there in the world that remain unsolved because eyewitnesses don’t bother stepping forward. Muntean resists humanizing or explaining Patrascu’s behavior, which makes his inactivity increasingly (and intriguingly) maddening.
As portrayed by Corban, Patrascu has a slow-witted, decidedly unheroic demeanor that makes him a fascinating protagonist for a slow-motion anti-whodunit. Rather than rushing to save the day, Patrascu meanders (even spending time on Laura’s Facebook page to get insights into her life). But Patrascu isn’t the only character in One Floor Below who acts in a shady manner. The more time Vali spends around Patrascu’s family, the less concerned he seems about the crime he may have committed. It’s one of the most enthralling possible reasons why Patrascu hangs around his downstairs neighbor: Patrascu knows that he acted cowardly and feels bad about it, but he seems to be hoping Vali will acknowledge his own guilt first—as if that will absolve Patrascu of his own. What’s not said in One Floor Below is tantalizing, producing a drama in which the one thing we wish we could do—read the characters’ minds—will never happen.
Despite its astutely barebones performances and teasing suspense, One Floor Below sometimes lacks the kind of absorbing storytelling that helps elevate Romanian cinema’s deceptively simple tales to the realm of gripping morality plays. For all the mysteries weaved throughout the film, Muntean’s slow pacing doesn’t add a lot of electricity to the proceedings—which is, admittedly, an ironic complaint to be leveled at a movie that’s of a national cinema in which slow rhythms have always been part of a successful blueprint. But like with Tuesday, After Christmas, One Floor Below builds to an emotional catharsis that’s a doozy: intimate, intricate, gloriously messy, wonderfully staged. If this movie is merely a minor entry in the Romanian canon, it’s a testament to how spectacular a hot streak these likeminded filmmakers have been on.
Director: Radu Muntean
Writers: Alexandru Baciu, Radu Muntean, Razvan Radulescu
Starring: Teodor Corban, Iulian Postelnicu, Oxana Moravec
Release Date: Screening in Un Certain Regard at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.