The opening of “One Step Behind the Seraphim” offers that instant satisfaction of knowing you’re watching a talented novice director and cinematographer who’ve learned their craft and understand what to do with it. Although that sensation doesn’t fade throughout the overlong running time, it’s tempered by the equally clear realization that trimming about half an hour would make this autobiographical story set in a Romanian Orthodox seminary both better and significantly more marketable. What’s more, the extra fat isn’t exactly hidden, so making cuts wouldn’t have been so difficult. Still, Daniel Sandu proves he’s a director to watch, and the film swept Romania’s Gopo Awards last year. At this point, chances for international exposure are slight, but as a calling card for future productions, “Seraphim” should open doors.
In interviews, Sandu has said the script is more than 80% real, despite condensing his five years’ experience within a similar seminary into two terms — that’s a significantly damning statement since the film’s a caustic portrait of abuse that calls to mind a number of boarding-school-set movies where oppression and brutality are commonplace. The religious overlay adds a further dimension, but not to be minimized is Romania’s troubled past with mass deployment of informants for the dictatorship’s secret police, the Securitate, which hangs heavily over everyone’s actions.
In a beautifully orchestrated setup, Gabriel (Ştefan Iancu) arrives at the seminary where he has been accepted thanks to some string-pulling by his parents. The freshman class is greeted by Form Master Father Ivan (Vlad Ivanov), whose effusive warmth and glowing smile appear designed to put everyone at ease, and Gabriel’s hesitant yet wondrous expression sees a sort of apotheosis when he goes behind the iconostasis as if he’s entering the wardrobe that leads to Narnia. His naïveté doesn’t last long as he and other newcomers learn there’s a pecking order at school, and are routinely bullied by the cocky seniors. Also clear is that Father Vlad fosters an atmosphere of fear where the students are blackmailed into snitching on one another.
Gabriel is taken under wing by Olah (Ilie Dumitrescu Jr.), the leader of the seniors who shows him how to avoid the more tiresome requirements of seminary life, explaining “lying is a survival skill.” Pretty soon the boys are illicitly hanging out at the local pool hall and flirting with girls such as sexually experienced Bianca (Iulia Alexandra Dinu), to whom Gabriel loses his virginity (Romanian Orthodox priests aren’t celibate, though they’re meant to complete their novitiate first). Such moments of freedom within the restrictive atmosphere of the seminary come to an end when Father Vlad steps up his campaign of offering fake promises to coax students into ratting on each other, leading to Olah and others getting expelled. When the priest is also made headmaster, the oppression gets worse.
Sandu includes scene after scene of this back-and-forth between snatched freedom and calculated manipulation, spending too much time going over the same ground when certain plot points remain unclear. What’s the real reason that Gabriel’s friend Aid (Ali Amir) sneaks out of the seminary and goes to Germany for a few days? Why does Father Vlad and his amanuensis Father Pedagogue (Marian Popescu) not notice so many absences, and where are the other teachers in the building? Also unclear is just why a scheme of exchanging explicit letters with girls via personal ads becomes the watershed peccadillo that leads to an only mildly satisfactory conclusion (the scheme was real, with old video during the final credits showing Sandu’s fellow students reveling in the mass of envelopes).
Religion plays very little part here as it’s been smothered by the organized Church, and Sandu is clearly bitter at an institution that corrupts those with genuine faith and a sense of their calling. Young Iancu has the perfect freshness for embodying Gabriel’s green beginnings, and even after he attains a post-coital maturity he still preserves an angelic quality that suits the role. As always, Ivanov is superb at personifying a two-faced character whose beatific aura disguises a man of despotic cruelty; if there’s any exaggeration here, it’s in the script and not the performance. George Dăscălescu’s mature camerawork offers some compensation for the untenable length.