VIFF review: One Floor Below

At first glance, the latest from Romanian New Wave filmmaker Radu Muntean (Tuesday, After Christmas; Boogie) looks to be a conventional thriller. The scenario of One Floor Below is straightforward. Sandu (Teodor Corban), a middle-aged family man, overhears his downstairs neighbour, Laura, engaged in a heated argument. While he attempts to eavesdrop further, he encounters Vali (Iulian Postelnicu), another downstairs neighbor as he exits Laura’s apartment. The next day, Laura is found dead. The implications are clear — Sandu knows that Vali killed Laura and Vali knows that he does. But when the police show up to investigate, Sandu chooses not to mention the encounter.

Shot in a minimalist style, One Floor Below keeps the camera almost exclusively trained on Sandu whose comfortable existence becomes ruptured by the fallout of his decision. The main threat comes from Vali who subsequently inserts himself into both Sandu’s work and family. Sandu attempts to keep Vali away which ironically involves helping him with a request. Throughout the film, it’s never clear precisely what either Sandu’s or Vali’s intentions are — often maddeningly so. However, the ambiguity Muntean favors pays off in other ways chiefly by sustaining the inherent tension of the setup.

Ostensibly banal scenes become layered with the constant threat of violence. The film’s visual approach favors static shots and shallow focus which only heightens the effect. Because the film’s primary interests seem to lie elsewhere, those expecting a uniformly taut thriller may be disappointed.

The films of the Romanian New Wave have been concerned with state bureaucracy on some level. One Floor Below extends this tradition in a slightly different guise. It explores the tension between societal responsibility and well-meaning self-interest with the dilemma of looking out for one’s neighbour or simply caring for one’s own. Taken in this context, ostensibly minor details such as Sandu’s work facility gain greater significance. When he calls in a favor, cuts a line or bends a rule for a client, the action resonates far beyond the procedural minutiae.

Muntean’s low-key, naturalistic approach ensures that these ideas emerge subtly and linger just beneath the film’s conventional surfaces. If anything, the film suffers from feeling overly familiar. While notions of individual and state aren’t exactly groundbreaking, there’s still pleasure in seeing these ideas unfold in a completely different milieu. It’s an individual quandary, but it's one that never compromises its essential specificity.

One Floor Below screens in the “Cinema of Our Time” series of the Vancouver International Film Festival.