Radu Muntean has spent the last 13 years making films that examine the stranger undercurrents in Romanian society, particularly the way in which ordinary people react in extraordinary situations. He’s regarded as having been one of the leading lights of the Romanian New Wave although he’d probably grit his teeth at any mention of that.
His latest film, One Floor Below (2015), screened in this year’s Cannes Un Certain Regard sidebar as well as Toronto. The story follows an average middle-class Romanian dad named Patrascu (played by New Wave heavyweight Teodor Corban) who must grapple with his own moral passivity when he overhears a domestic quarrel in a neighbour’s apartment. The woman is found dead. He fails to act. The murderer becomes his tormentor.
Rory O’Connor: How did the idea for One Floor Below first come to you?
Radu Muntean: The starting point was actually something I read in a newspaper a long time ago about a neighbour who heard something, a quarrel from a door, and didn’t do anything. And I was wondering if that guy would make a noise then it would stop that thing from happening. Then I met this Patrascu guy. A real life character dealing with this car registration stuff, and I thought it would be interesting to put this type of character, an in-control guy, multitasking, juggling two or three clients, in a difficult situation.
RO: You chose Teodor Corban for that difficult situation.
RM: I always like to work with intelligent actors, and I want them to understand how they feel about this or that from the first day of casting. And if you’re shooting chronologically you start to understand exactly where the characters are. So in these long shots when he is thinking you can feel the texture on his face and in his eyes. You can understand then what’s inside him. It’s very transparent.
RO: Do you ponder what you might do in Patrascu’s situation?
RM: This is actually what I wanted. I’m not judging Patrascu and I don’t want people to judge him, I just want people to question themselves and their judgement in a similar situation. Because we all know what society wants from us. To be there, to be correct, to tell the police everything we know. But I don’t know. I am questioning myself and for me this is the most important thing. To not take for granted these notions that are becoming very abstract for us: morality, conscience.
RO: When Patrascu’s son is sleepwalking, we hear his subconscious. Is it Patrascu’s conscience speaking out?
RM: I think throughout the film there’s a lot of personification of Patrascu’s conscience and the most powerful one is the killer actually. He’s acting like his conscience. He never leaves him. And one is the kid at the end of the film. And he says “Patrascu, Patrascu, Patrascu”, which is also his family name.
RO: The climactic scene plays out in a car registration office. Was this to contrast the drama?
RM: He constantly feels the pressure of the other guy, making his life miserable. And he wants to solve his little problem with the car registration and go over it. But he continues to make his life harder and harder. He misunderstands him. At one point you think he’s pressuring him not to go to the police and he becomes really frustrated.
RO: It sounds like you enjoyed writing it. And yet you haven’t let that slip onto the screen at all.
RM: I want to be as invisible as I can be. I just want to be the middleman between the viewer and the character. I want the people to live in the same time with the character and that’s why I shoot in long takes. I don’t want to cut. I don’t want to be present. I want people to work a little bit. I want people to put the story together, the pieces of the puzzle.
RO: Can you tell us about what you’re working on next?
RM: It’s a film about a family who adopt a girl, who think that they cannot have their own kids. But by accident they manage to make their own kid and then there are some problems. It’s mostly about how you react when you’re not happy about the way your kid is growing.
The Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 10-20 September 2015. For more coverage, follow this link.
Rory O’Connor | @Roryseanoc