A torrid encounter between a troubled youth and the wife of the village priest is at the center of Octav Chelaru’s “A Higher Law,” which bowed at the Thessaloniki Film Festival last fall and will have its domestic premiere in the main competition at the Transilvania Film Festival.
Inspired by true events, the film is a powerful exploration of religious dogma that raises larger questions about the nature of freedom and faith. The feature debut of Chelaru, a self-taught director whose previous short films, “Black Clothes” and “The Parallel State,” premiered in the Leopards of Tomorrow competition at the Locarno Film Festival, it’s produced by Radu Stancu of Bucharest-based deFilm Production, in co-production with 42film and EED Productions.
“A Higher Law” stars Mălina Manovici as Ecaterina, a religion teacher at the local high school and the frustrated wife of the village priest (Alexandru Papadopol). Hemmed in by her obligations to her family and the community, she suddenly finds her world upended by the arrival of 16-year-old Iuliu (Sergiu Smerea), a new arrival in town with a troubled but mysterious past. Before long Ecaterina’s life is spinning out of control, as Iuliu’s increasingly dangerous infatuation tests her faith and threatens to pull her family apart.
Born in a small town close to Romania’s border with Moldova, Chelaru was “brought up in a conservative place with set beliefs,” where the teachings of the Eastern Orthodox church loomed large. That influence would become a recurring theme across his filmography: along with “A Higher Law,” two of the director’s five short films have priests as central characters.
The real-life story on which the film is based packed even more plot twists than Chelaru could fit into his 123-minute drama; in the end, he said, the events served more as “an inspiration for me to fictionalize and construct a story that allows me to question, to challenge these set beliefs that we are born with.
“Maybe they are not completely right for us. There are times when we must challenge them. Is it good? Is it bad? I don’t know. Everybody must say for themselves.”
In “A Higher Law,” that challenge arrives in the form of Iuliu, a self-assured, teenage provocateur and religious skeptic who seems determined to poke holes in Ecaterina’s belief system. Chelaru said he did not have to look far to find inspiration for his teen protagonist; as a student he himself was drawn to existential texts such as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Notes from the Underground,” and the writings of Albert Camus, Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche (a poster of whom looms conspicuously in the background of a scene set in Iuliu’s apartment).
Like the director, Iuliu finds it impossible to resist the appeal of such free-spirited thinkers – “For a young pupil’s mind, [such texts] can create an explosion of thoughts – especially if you find the pleasure in nihilism,” said Chelaru – while the destructive force of those thoughts arrives like a stick of dynamite in Ecaterina’s quiet, well-ordered life.
Married young, the priest’s wife never had time for sexual adventures or youthful indiscretions; frequently shamed for a single drunken episode 20 years in the past, she has spent her adult life being subsumed by the demands and expectations placed on her: as a mother, a wife, a teacher, a pillar of the local community.
Iuliu’s pursuit awakens something inside her. “She feels observed. She feels looked at,” said Chelaru. “She hasn’t been looked at as a woman in 15, 20 years.” But their brief affair rattles her to the core, and Ecaterina finds herself losing control. Both her faith and her free will are put to the test. “What if our choices aren’t ours? What if we didn’t have the ability to choose at given moments? What if we don’t live our life [fully] when we should, and later there are opportunities to relive them?” asked Chelaru.
The director’s first feature explores what happens when a woman who feels suffocated by her present reality seizes that chance. For the first time in her life, Ecaterina is free to explore her sexuality – but then she is compelled, too, to live with the consequences.
“We are the sum of every moment that we have gone through, either good or bad or stupid or smart or successful,” said Chelaru. “When you build something and there is a missing floor in the building, everything starts to shake.” In “A Higher Law,” that unsound foundation creates a rupture, leaving a broken woman struggling to pick up the pieces.
The Transilvania Film Festival runs June 17 – 26.