The subject of guilt is one that cinema often returns to for its potential to be expressed in inventive and thought-provoking ways. In Radu Muntean’s pared-down and naturalistic One Floor Below (2015), he and co-screenwriters Alexandru Baciu and Razvan Radulescu choose to take a similar route to Michael Haneke’s highly-regarded Hidden (2005) by giving corporeal form to the externalised spectre of remorse. “We need to lose some weight,” says Sandu Patrascu (Teodor Corban) to his equally paunch dog Jerry as they jog around a park. His conscience is soon a far greater burden, however, in this absorbing investigation into the culpability of inaction.
Returning home with Jerry, Patrascu happens upon two of his neighbours in a heated argument but carries on up to the apartment he shares with his wife Olga (Oxana Moravec) and son Matei (Ionut Bora). The next day, the young woman from downstairs, Laura, is found dead, and when questioned by the police, Patrascu neglects to mention that Vali (Iulian Postelnicu) from the flat below his own is a potential suspect. It is a decision that Corban wears in his furrowed brow through his performance, struggling with the knowledge of what he has not done and equally perturbed by Vali’s sudden interest in him: “You’re a tough man to get hold of,” he concedes.
Vali acts as a gaunt reflection of Patrascu’s own shame – on several occasions he is blurred through thick glass, creating the effect of this faceless spirit. To suggest that One Floor Below operates at a simmer would be to exaggerate the level of heat being applied to the pot. This is one that Muntean is happy to let bubble intermittently, cranking the tension around on a scarcely-moving winch. As much as possible, he and cinematographer Tudor Lucaciu keep the camera trained on Patrascu, as if the audience’s unflinching gaze is being used to apply additional moral pressure. It’s hardly as though he needs it, as the quandary visibly gnaws away at him, even without unannounced visits to his home by Vali which carry a real sense of almost imperceptible underlying threat. “Don’t get me involved in any more of your shit,” Patrascu seethes at him at one point, but in another scene he cannot stay quiet while other male neighbours cast aspersions about the honour of the deceased. While Muntean is careful not to condemn Patrascu’s silence as much as question it, he manages to weave in a clear disdain for endemic misogyny. Laura is described post-mortem as probably being a “slut” or a “whore”, while the basis of the original argument seemed to have been over her unwillingness to relent to Vali’s expectations of sex. This adds another dimension to an already refined drama that refuses to vilify Patrascu, but in his own recriminations holds a mirror up to the vast distance between knowing what is right and being able to do it.
The Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 10-20 September 2015. For more coverage, follow this link.