Playing like a Romanian Rear Wear, Radu Muntean’s One Floor Below is a slow-burn thriller that offers an intriguing examination of guilt and conscience in post-Ceauşescu society. Though the days of communist rule are over, the lingering fear of authority, and the keep your head down and mouth shut mentality, can still be found in some of the Bucharest citizens. This is especially true for Sandu Patrascu (Teodor Corban), a mild-mannered family man who happens to eavesdrop on a domestic dispute while passing by the apartment downstairs. Unbeknownst to Sandu at the time, what he overhears may actually be a prelude to a murder that occurs that same evening.
Convinced that his best course of action is to remain silent, Sandu goes about his daily routine assuming that things will work themselves out eventually. However, the volatile argument, and his lack of action, slowly begins to eat away at him. This is accelerated further when the possible killer, Vali Dima (Iulian Postelnicu), a neighbor from another apartment, who Sandu saw angrily storming out of the victim’s residence, begins to integrate himself into Sandu’s life.
While many thrillers focus on the protagonist’s quest to prove the killer’s guilt, Muntean has no interest in such conventions. Sure Sandu’s friends question the virtues of the deceased young woman, but that is as traditional as One Floor Below every really gets. Whether or not Vali actually killed the woman is not as important to the narrative as Sandu’s subdued reaction. Muntean deliberately takes a languid approach to the way he shows the guilt slowly eroding Sandu’s conscience. Although the leisurely pacing does take away from the overall impact when things boil to a head between Sandu and Vali, it is hard to deny the captivating allure of the film.
Incorporating the now familiar aesthetics of Romanian New Wave filmmaking, One Floor Below never sensationalizes its subject matter. Sandu is an intriguing, and at times frustrating, character partly because he is portrayed in a realistic and relatable way. Despite the urge of the audience to scream at the screen in hopes that he will hear their cries and finally divulge what he knows to the police, even when Vali practically dares him to, Muntean is acutely aware that life is never so simple. He not only puts the viewer in Sandu’s shoes, but also bets on the fact that there are many who, not just in Romania, would rather pretend nothing has happened rather than take on the responsibilities that comes with getting involved.
Though the pacing will feel like a herculean test of patience for some viewers, One Floor Below has more than enough Hitchcockian suspense to keep audiences hooked to the very end.