The moral tug-of-war between reporting a homicide and remaining silent lies at the core of Radu Muntean’s lean, absorbing anti-thriller “One Floor Below.” Like a pot set to bubble only every few seconds, the drama is tightly measured to ensure a controlled level of tension that remains discreetly constant, nicely melding with Muntean’s skilled construction of three-dimensional bourgeois life. The helmer’s affinity for young, middle-class relationship stories is expanded here, and the confidence he gives his actors, as always, serves him well. While understated, “One Floor Below” non-judgmentally homes in on a weighty theme and deserves a high place on the fest circuit.
The camera almost never leaves Sandu Patrascu (Teodor Corban), but it’s not quite accurate to say audiences see the action through his eyes — rather, the character’s steady presence forces us to question his motivation without condemning him. He’s a perfectly “normal” guy, sharing a business with his wife, Olga (Oxana Moravec), as car-registration expediters, lavishing attention on his golden Lab, Jerry, and being a decent dad to his son, Matei (Ionut Bora). While going home, he hears a violent argument in a first-floor apartment between Laura (Maria Popistasu) and her horny, married neighbor on the second floor, Vali (Iulian Postelnicu). Lingering a little longer than he should in the hall, Sandu encounters Vali exiting.
Later that day, Sandu gets word that Laura is dead, possibly murdered. The police come to question the building’s occupants, and Sandu stays mum, not even telling Olga about the argument, although there’s little doubt in either his mind or the viewer’s that Vali murdered Laura. But maybe, just maybe, if Sandu doesn’t say a word, it will all blow over.
Muntean and co-scripters Alexandru Baciu and Razvan Radulescu are never explicit about what Sandu is thinking (this wouldn’t be a Romanian film if they were): Is he protecting his family? Himself? An undercurrent of so much of new Romanian cinema has been the need to strip bare how people treat each other as fellow human beings, a theme that “One Floor Below” subtly examines not via the murder, but through Sandu’s lack of a sense of the common good: Keep your head down, don’t get involved — a message hardly limited to one Balkan nation.
But Vali lives in the same building, and he’s not going away. He hangs around, a figure of quiet menace with a s–t-eating grin that’s designed to make Sandu uneasy. Then he asks Sandu to help with his car registration, and ingratiates himself in the family by connecting Matei’s Xbox and offering computer advice. Vali is wondering why Sandu didn’t turn him in, Sandu is wondering whether Vali is a threat to his family, and tension is building on all sides.
A good life, an average life, is severely shaken, and Sandu’s quandary — to tell or not to tell — channels directly into his conscience. What works so well in “One Floor Below” is how Muntean sets this dilemma off against the Patrascus’ daily existence: They have friends and family, Olga helps Matei with his math homework, Sandu enters Jerry in a canine contest. At the registration office the people know and like him; he has a sense of humor — his private phone ring is a recording of Ceaucescu’s voice. Is a sense of societal responsibility a necessary component of a decent fellow?
The script’s ability to keep all these ideas in play while maintaining a satisfyingly low-key approach speaks to its strengths, reinforced by the way the camera constantly privileges Sandu with frequent shallow focus and lighting. Corban, still best known for “12:08 East of Bucharest,” warrants the camera’s attention, delivering a performance in which the interior struggles exist just under the skin. He’s a fully developed character, and his near-omnipresence, within a limited span of time, increases the sense of pressures doggedly wearing at his soul. Postelnicu’s chilling aura, steeped in menacing smugness, lingers even when he’s offscreen.
Muntean again works with his usual tech collaborators (d.p. Tudor Lucaciu and editor Alexandru Radu), achieving a degree of minimalism that never feels empty or trying. His characters are the focus, and through them, a regular life becomes weighted with a moral dilemma of quasi-Dostoevskian proportions.