'One Floor Below' ('Un Etaj Mai Jos'): Cannes Review

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A distinctly Romanian New Wave take on crime and punishment

Radu Muntean’s new drama revolves around Teodor Corban as a man who withholds key evidence when his downstairs neighbor is found dead.

Appreciation may vary when it comes to particular examples of the Romanian New Wave, but you've got to give these filmmakers their due: they’re great at titles. From the starkly apt The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and the quantitatively resonant 4 months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days to the irony-laden Child’s Pose, so many of the major recent Romanian films have monikers that wring heady significance from a seemingly innocuous detail. It’s all about finding austere poetry in the messy stuff of everyday life, on every level.

And that compliment holds true for One Floor Below (Un Etaj Mai Jos), the latest pithy, oblique drama from Radu Muntean (director of The Paper Will Be Blue and Tuesday, After Christmas — also terrific titles), a very fine if not exactly groundbreaking film about, as the title hints, perspective and distance. Built around an insistently restrained central turn by New Wave-stalwart Teodor Corban (4 Months, 12:08 East of Bucharest) as a man who withholds what might be key evidence in a murder inquiry, the film takes a character who would be merely incidental in a more conventional film and uses him to construct a poignant meditation on responsibility, guilt and community in an age where people learn more about their neighbors from looking at Facebook than through conversation. Film festivals will certainly open doors for One Floor, while sales prospects offshore will be on a niche par with other Romanian films.

Like several other protagonists in Muntean’s films, Sandu Patrascu (Corban) is a middle-aged, middle-class average Joe, but more honest and grounded that the philandering heroes of Christmas and Boogie. A professional fixer who navigates the intricacies of Romanian bureaucracy for people with vehicle-registration problems, he’s well-liked by clients and colleagues, loving towards his wife Olga (Oxana Moravec) and geeky pubescent son Matei (Ionut Bora), and positively doting towards his Golden Retriever Jerry, whose poop he always bags responsibly.  

One day, just as he and Jerry arrive back at their building from a walk, Patrascu passes an apartment one floor below his own and hears a heated argument kicking off between student Laura (voiced by Maria Popistasu, who also plays Laura’s sister later) and her next-door neighbor, Vali Dama (Iulian Postelnicu). It’s obvious that the two have been having an affair, and that the married Vali is possessive and possibly a bit violent. When Vali suddenly bursts through the door and sees Patrascu on the stairwell, no more than a curt hello is exchanged between them. However, it’s clear that in that instant Vali now knows that Patrascu knows about the affair, and this glancing, two-second exchange will have far reaching repercussions for both of them.

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Some time passes as Patrascu has dinner with his family, and goes back to work, but when he comes home that evening, the building is in a quiet uproar. Laura has been found dead. Maybe it was an accident, maybe not: the neighbors aren’t really sure. But when Vali starts hovering about the building entrance, making excessively friendly overtures towards Matei and trying to read Patrascu’s poker face, it’s clear he’s worried that Sandu might reveal what he knows, especially when a policeman (Muntean-regular Adrian Vancica) starts making door-to-door enquiries.

Even when compared to the minimalist stylings of his compatriots, Muntean has always stood out as a particularly laconic storyteller, withholding information and keeping the drama on a low, seething simmer, but he pushes that aesthetic to interesting extremes here. (He co-wrote the script with his usual collaborators Alexandru Baciu and Razvan Radulescu, of Lazarescu and 4 Months fame.) It’s never explained why Patrascu doesn’t tell anyone about the argument he overheard, but to an extent Corban fills that knowledge gap with a series of minutely modulated facial expressions, suggesting that it could be some strange mix of masculine solidarity (it’s telling that he calls all dogs “he” regardless of their gender), disinclination to get involved and perhaps fear of reprisal.

At the same time, there’s a touching scene where he defends Laura’s honor when the subject of her murder comes up when he’s having a beer with his buddies. The other men, on no evidence whatsoever, basically say that she must have been a slut who got what was coming for her, evidence of a deep-seated sexism that lingers on in a society that otherwise looks so affluent based on the evidence seen here, what with all the fancy foreign cars and high tech computer equipment on display. There’s the merest whisper of a hint that perhaps Patrascu may might have had the hots for Laura (whose name echoes the titular murdered girl in Otto Preminger’s 1944 film), or might even dallied with her himself. Apart from the fact that he’s just a little older, fairer and stouter than Vali, is he really all that different from the IT consultant who lives one floor below him?

The script plants hints about Patrascu’s motivations like a trail of tiny breadcrumbs, which make this something of thriller in its very low-key, hyper-realistic way, filmed with unfussy clarity by Tudor Lucaciu. A vast swathe of the running time is taken up with observing Patrascu going about his business as the DMV-like vehicle-registration center, interludes which almost become drolly amusing in their monotony. And then suddenly there’s a thunderbolt of violence, and all the masks of civility slip.

Production companies: A Multi Media Est production in co-production with Les Films de l’Apres-Midi, NeueMediopolisFilmproduktion, Bleck Film & TV AB
Cast: Teodor Corban, Iulian Postelnicu, Oxana Moravec, Ionut Bora, Adrian Vancica, Maria Popistasu
Director: Radu Muntean
Screenwriters: Alexandru Baciu, Radu Muntean, Razvan Radulescu
Producer: Dragos Vilcu
Delegate producer: Oana Kelemen
Directors of photography: Tudor Lucaciu
Editor: Alexandru Radu
Production designer: Sorin Dima
Costume designer: Eliza Frone
Composer: Electric Brother
Sales: Films Boutique
No rating, 93 minutes