7th 03 - 2016 | no comment »

One Floor Below (Un etaj mai jos, 2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Radu Muntean

2016 European Union Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The opening scene of master Romanian filmmaker Radu Muntean’s new film, One Floor Below, is deceptively simple. Sandu Patrascu (Teodor Corban) is in a Bucharest park running off some extra pounds and throwing sticks for his dog, Jerry, to retrieve. Their play is interrupted when Sandu hears someone tell another man to put his dog on a leash; the dog is aggressive and could tear another dog apart. Sandu steps over to meet the barking dog and says, “I used to have a pit bull like that,” to which the dog’s master responds, “So you’ve got yourself a teddy bear now.” Sandu replies that “it was a bargain,” but what kind and with whom remain a mystery. In this one brief scene, Muntean has laid out the personality of his central character, a man whose darker instincts and need for self-protection under the repressive Communist regime have abated, but not disappeared.

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Of all of the great filmmakers who formed the Romanian New Wave, Muntean is perhaps my favorite. He has found an understated, seemingly effortless technique for combining the personal and the political in a way that illuminates both. He dramatized in a surprisingly leisurely style the behavior of a small group of soldiers and some ordinary people on the extraordinary day in 1989 when dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu was overthrown in The Paper Will Be Blue (2006) that brought the absurdity and tragedy of those lost years into laser focus. His portrayal of a disintegrating marriage in Tuesday, After Christmas (2010) offered a probing look at the emotional violence that simmered under the surface of the newly free country. With One Floor Below, we gain insight into the effects of the police state on the Romanian people and the still-yawning gulf of misunderstanding that lingers.

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Sandu, his wife Olga (Oxana Moravec), and their son Matei (Ionut Bora) are a modern happy family. Sandu and Olga run a business together helping people cut through the red tape of vehicle registration and licensing and share parental concern and responsibilities for their precocious 12-year-old son, who, of course, spends most of his time playing video games and posting online. They host a small family gathering to celebrate the birthday of Sandu’s mother (Tatiana Iekel), and Sandu gathers regularly with his buddies to watch sports on TV—one night, when they seem distracted, Olga threatens to change the channel to “Romania’s Got Talent.”

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Sadly for Sandu, he has the misfortune to return to his apartment building while his unseen first-floor neighbor, Laura (Maria Popistasu), is arguing with a man inside her apartment about a trip she is taking with her sister to Italy. Instead of going straight up the stairs to his home on the third floor, he listens at the door. Just then, the man emerges; it is his married second-floor neighbor, Valentin Dima (Iulian Postelnico). Sandu hurries away. The next day, Laura is found dead in her apartment. When the police come by to investigate, Sandu mentions nothing of the argument.

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It’s not hard to sympathize with Sandu. He has a great life after years of deprivation, and all he wants to do is get on with it. He never asked to be involved in a murder investigation—he only knew Laura to say hello to, after all—but here he is sitting on some explosive information. Worse, Dima seems to be going out of his way to get close to Sandu and his family, asking Sandu to help change the registration on his car, playing video games with Matei, offering Matei and Olga advice on how to upgrade their computer system, even accepting a plate of food from Olga. What’s his game? Why won’t he give Sandu his wish and go away?

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One Floor Below interrogates the secrets and lies that grease the wheels of every society. In the context of a repressive society, it’s not hard to imagine Sandu and people like him listening in on private conversations, if not to inform the secret police, then to ensure they avoid associating with people who could prove dangerous to them. It’s also reasonable to assume that Sandu would be reluctant to share information with the police out of simple conditioning. Corban had me believing in Sandu’s goodness through his carefully built signs of a guilty conscience. Sandu loses his appetite, defends Laura’s honor to his friends who assume she was a slut who got what she deserved based on nothing but their need to gossip and have an answer to her murder, and mumbles painful condolences when he runs into Laura’s sister, also played by Popistasu, trying to get inside Laura’s mailbox.

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But he is also timid, a man who could lose the confidence of his neighbors and the clients on whom he relies for his living if he “turns informer” to tell the truth of what he heard. Muntean is careful to show the extent of the bureaucracy that envelops even something as benign as the department of motor vehicles. Romania may not be a dictatorship anymore, and secret police may not be around every dark corner, but the mechanics of that society are still in place. Nobody of a certain age—certainly not Sandu—has forgotten, and it is the silence that results from living in such conditions that intrigues Dima, a young man who would have been a mere child when Ceauşescu’s regime fell.

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Of course, it’s hard to forget that this kind of conspiracy of silence is exactly what allowed the atrocities of Ceauşescu, Stalin, Hitler, and many others to begin and continue. Despite our sympathy for Sandu, we can’t forget that self-interest is to blame for so much injustice in the world. Perhaps justice for one woman isn’t worth misery for an entire family. Perhaps the police will find the killer anyway. The brief catharsis that Sandu experiences feels good for him and for us, but the ultimate price may prove to be too high. As Romania continues to build as a nation, Muntean offers its people thought-provoking scenarios through which to build their social conscience as well.

One Floor Below screens Sunday, March 20 at 5:30 p.m. and Thursday, March 24 at 6 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

Previous coverage

Latin Lover: Director/coscreenwriter Cristina Comencini pays tribute to the glories of matinee idol worship in this hilarious tale of an Italian screen star who has slept his way across Europe and the United States and the jealousies and camaraderie of the lovers and children he’s left in his wake. (Italy)

How to Stop a Wedding: A smart script and committed acting elevate a simple story of two jilted lovers sharing a train compartment who find out they are both planning to stop the same wedding. (Sweden)

Anton Chekhov 1890: The final directorial effort of René Féret surveys six years in the life of Russian writer Anton Chekhov in the naturalist style Chekhov helped introduce to the modern world. (France)

Home Care: A home health nurse finds out she needs care every bit as much as her patients in this rueful look at small-town life and middle-age regret. (Czech Republic)

Forbidden Films: Free speech is debated in this somewhat crude documentary look at Nazi-era films that have been banned from public viewing. (Germany)


27th 06 - 2008 | 1 comment »

The Paper Will Be Blue (Hîrtia va fi albastrã, 2006)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Radu Muntean

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

December 16, 1989, was the beginning of the end of the reign of horror Nicolae Ceauşescu began and intensified over the 25 years he was the Communist dictator of Romania. On that day, the citizens in the town of Timişoara rose up against their abusive government. So severe were the deprivations to which Ceauşescu subjected Romanians, so outrageous the handling of dissent, that Ceauşescu would be the only ruler in the crumbling Communist bloc in Eastern Europe to suffer violent overthrow and execution.

Current Romanian cinema has focused a good deal of attention on the Ceauşescu regime and its downfall. From 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days, to 12:08 East of Bucharest, to The Way I Spent the End of the World, Romania’s filmmakers have looked at various facets of this seminal time in their country’s history. Now we have The Paper Will Be Blue, an intriguing, accomplished film that takes us to ground zero of the revolution, recounting a fictionalized version of a true, widely publicized incident that occurred on December 22, after violent protests that finally shook Bucharest began.

Without an understanding of what happened, The Paper Will Be Blue can be quite confusing. Therefore, here’s a capsule summary I put together with the help of Wikipedia:

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The morning of December 21, Ceauşescu addressed approximately 110,000 disgruntled Romanians from the balcony of the Central Committee building. He condemned the December 16 uprising in Timişoara. During the speech, sudden movement came from the outskirts of the crowd. Explosive sounds also could be heard. Bullhorns were used to spread the news that a “revolution” was unfolding, persuading the people to join in protest. They soon rioted.

The speech was broadcast live, with an estimated 76 percent of the nation watching. Although censors attempted to cut the live video feed, parts of the riots had already been seen. More people took to the streets. Soon the protesters were confronted by soldiers, tanks, and other security forces, though the army was split between those who were loyal to the Ceauşescu regime and those who wanted its overthrow. Through the night, forces considered to be loyal to the old regime (spontaneously nicknamed “terrorists”) opened fire on the crowd and attacked vital points of sociopolitical life, including the television station.

The Paper Will Be Blue takes us to this point in time. An armored car is stopped on a street, facing a tank and some soldiers milling around behind a roadblock. Two men emerge from the back of the armored car to stretch and have a smoke. Suddenly, gunfire explodes. One of the men from the armored car drops in place, another is blasted out of the car through a side window, and the third, wearing a civilian’s jacket attempts to escape and is hit. Yells of, “Whose firing? Who started firing?” are heard, probably from the soldiers behind the roadblock. Several come over to inspect the perhaps accidental damage.

The next scene shows the same armored car and its small complement of ordinary militiamen patrolling a Bucharest neighborhood. As evening falls, they spend their time smoking and checking the IDs of motorists who come through their checkpoint. One of the men makes a date with a woman he has stopped for the next evening. Word of the attack on the TV station reaches the unit. The commander of the unit, Lt. Neagu (Adi Carauleanu) is trying to get through to his section leader, Lt. Voinescu (Alexandru Georgescu), on his close-circuit radio, to find out what, if anything, his unit should do.

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One of Neagu’s charges, Costi (Paul Ipate), the son of a connected surgeon who has been placed in the militia to keep him farther out of harm’s way, becomes fired with patriotic fervor. He wants to join the protesters who are trying to defend the TV station, he insists on it. Neagu, a fatherly leader, tries to stop him, but eventually lets him have his way. Forcing Costi to turn in his weapons, Neagu turns him loose, half expecting that Costi will change his mind. When he doesn’t, Neagu pulls his gun out to try to stop him. But Neagu’s a sweet marshmallow of a man, and lets Costi go. Nonetheless, worried about Costi’s safety and about getting in trouble for letting one of his men run off, Neagu and the rest of his unit search for him, driving to the TV station and then to Costi’s house.

The rest of the film toggles back and forth between Costi’s experiences as an instant revolutionary and Neagu’s mission to bring back one of his lambs gone astray. Both parts of the story are laden with miscommunications and cases of mistaken identity that convey both the chaos and confusion that comprise the beginnings of revolution and the level to which Ceauşescu has fallen out of touch with the Romanian people.

Communications devices work faultily or not at all throughout the film. Neagu can’t hear Voinescu, eventually having to drive to the Triumphal Arch where he thinks Voinescu is stationed to get his orders. He’s given a new password, “The paper will be blue,” that later will fail to be acknowledged by an Army unit (“It won’t work,” says Neagu, “they have their own.”). Telephone dial tones must be waited for patiently, but at least they eventually sound.

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Costi, stripping off his uniform jacket for a street coat, also inadvertently discards his identification. When he and another freedom fighter named Georgescu (Gabriel Spahiu) go to a house captured by the revolting Army, they are recruited to take out a sniper firing on the house from the street. Then they are accused of being terrorists for the other side because Costi, spying the Army uniform of a man they injured, says the men they are firing on are on the side of the revolutionaries. Because Costi can’t produce his ID, he and Georgescu are taken to the basement and tied up. Georgescu is accused of being an Arab, though he is actually a Gypsy. Both men are repeatedly asked how they came to speak Romanian so well; the pair sit silently, exasperated.

In another scene, Neagu and Bogdan (Tudor Istodor), one of the unit’s men and a personal friend of Costi’s, go to Costi’s home to see if he has turned up there. They are greeted by Costi’s mother (Mirela Oprisor) and his girlfriend Angela (Ana Ularu) and invited in for something to eat. Dorina apologizes for having little to offer them. “If only Ceauşescu had fed them, this wouldn’t be happening,” she says of the rioting, implying the stupidity that caused the conditions for revolution.

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The film, shot in 16mm, has a grainy, realistic feel. The film enfolds the audience in the dead of night during which most of the film takes place, adding a slightly surrealistic element to the absurdity of the actions. But the daylight that eventually ends the film does not increase comprehension in this riot-torn city. If anything, it makes human actions seem more senseless than ever.

Throughout the film, characters talk about the coming New Year. Neagu promises his men they will have leave on the New Year. He saves a bottle of wine they have taken with them from Costi’s home. “We’ll open it on New Year’s Day,” he says. Romania has seen a new year and a new day. However, not everyone who was there at the dawn had that chance.


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