A coming-of-age story set in an Orthodox theological school is hardly the stuff of Hollywood tentpoles. But after cleaning up at March’s Gopo Awards – Romania’s equivalent of the Oscars – director Daniel Sandu realized he’d struck a chord with local audiences with his unexpected crowd-pleaser, “One Step Behind the Seraphim.”
“It gave us a signal that what we are trying to do for the industry is a good thing,” he says.
Sandu’s break-out debut was based on his own experiences as a teenage boy who enrolled in a seminary. At the time, he says, he thought it would be “something like [the] Harry Potter school,” though his five years at St. George Orthodox Theological Seminary would be a far cry from Hogwarts-in-the-Carpathians.
What he discovered there was a Machiavellian world of dizzying intrigues and double-crosses, where favor from the seminary’s corrupt priests could be bought and bartered for, and where the privations of life in Romania, which was just emerging from the shadow of Communism, could lead even the most well-meaning student down a path of uneasy moral compromise.
Two decades later, those hard lessons found their way into the script of “Seraphim,” in which even the personal triumph of Sandu’s fictional stand-in, Gabriel, comes “at the price of corrupting his values.”
It was a higher calling that brought Sandu to the seminary. “I thought that I would learn how to connect people with God,” he admits. But his years at St. George would eventually start him down a path toward a very different calling.
Friday nights found him watching movies by himself at the local cinema, an experience he says ignited his love for film. As a small-time hustler in the seminary dorms, he began herding classmates to the struggling theater, where he’d cut a deal with the owner to split the box-office receipts.
He got his first experience behind the camera, too, directing classmates in low-rent VHS productions he filmed on his father’s camcorder. “Back then, I did not know that it would lead to this point,” he says. Some of that real-life footage appears before the closing credits of “Seraphim.” “I filmed that, not knowing that 20 years later…I would actually use those images.”
The fictional seminary is a cold, calculating place, where rivals jockey for the smallest advantages, snitching on each other in an eerie parallel to the informant system that flourished under the repressive Soviet regime. But while Gabriel and his classmates are at times unwitting victims of the world around them, Sandu says the film points to “the right, and also the obligation,” of young people “to fight back [against] any…abusive system.”
Looking at how Romanians in recent years have taken to the streets in popular protests against the “last dinosaurs” of the Communist regime, Sandu calls “Seraphim” “our contribution to this fight.”
The film’s clean sweep at the Gopos, where it won eight awards, including best film, best director, and best actor (Vlad Ivanov), as well as a strong showing at the box office, was a validation for Sandu that “we need an alternative for the Romanian New Wave.”
“Romanian audiences for decades are complaining about the fact that Romanian filmmakers are not making films for the Romanian audience anymore,” he says. “We have so many films which are awarded…in film festivals, and you see it once, and you don’t feel the need to watch it again.”
That’s not to knock the success of his predecessors, he adds, noting how they helped to put Romanian cinema on the map. And even the old guard might be changing with the times: no less venerable a figure than Cristian Mungiu – one of the leading auteurs of the New Wave – is producing Sandu’s next feature.
“What I’m trying to do, and I’m not the only one…is to find some stories in the intersection between the audience of the festivals and the commercial audience,” says Sandu. Ultimately, he adds, people “want to feel good watching a film.”