Radu Muntean’s “One Floor Below” is a mystery in all senses of the word. Its plot concerns a murder, the perpetrator of which is unknown (though there is a prime suspect), and so it can in some sense be classified as a whodunit. But the deeper mystery—one which, like the murder at the film’s core, remains unresolved—is what exactly Muntean is getting at with this film. Muntean focuses not on the mechanics of the murder but on the rather savorless day-to-day life of Sandu Patrascu (Teodor Corban), a neighbor of the murdered woman who listens in on a quarrel between her and her boyfriend Vali (Iulian Postelnicu) the day before she turns up dead. As Vali leaves the apartment in a huff he catches Sandu eavesdropping. Sandu clearly suspects Vali of killing the woman, and yet when a policeman comes around to ask Sandu some questions about the murder, he reveals nothing of what he’s heard nor anything of his brief interaction with Vali.
Why does Sandu keep quiet? This question is the real dramatic engine of “One Floor Below” and it lends a sense of suspense to even the blandest scenes of Sandu going about his boring job—he owns a small business helping people sort their vehicle registration (a kind of capitalist update to the stereotype of labyrinthine Soviet bureaucracy?). Eventually, Vali starts showing up unannounced at Sandu’s apartment, seeking out Sandu’s help with his own car registration, which creates another mystery: Why is Vali insinuating himself into the life of the man who suspects him of murder?
Neither of these mysteries gets a clear resolution, and yet it is a testament to the precision and psychological realism of Muntean’s approach that “One Floor Below” remains so compelling even in scenes that seem designed to bore and stupefy. This unexpected balance of tedium and suspense has been one of the most intriguing features of the Romanian New Wave, and “One Floor Below” often recalls the the impenetrable psychology of Cristi Puiu’s “Aurora” and the humdrum work scenes in Corneliu Porumboiu’s “Police, Adjective.” Like Porumboiu and Puiu, Muntean is able to generate a surprising amount of drama out of the simple observation of a man going about his daily life. The bland realism of these directors’ work foregrounds a rich and complicated question: “What is this man thinking?” And the refusal to provide a definitive answer presents an equally slippery question: “Can we ever really know what goes on in another person’s head?”
These questions extend to the director himself. Muntean tosses out some thematic threads about the pervasiveness of technology and the peculiar legacy of Romania’s authoritarian past, but it’s not clear where he means these strands to lead. Perhaps this is simply a failure on Muntean’s part. His fondness for oblique mysteries could be dismissed as an arthouse cliche—art directors have been refusing to provide solutions to their own mysteries ever since Lea Massari disappeared from “L’avventura,” never to be seen again—but “One Floor Below”’s incompleteness is too tantalizing to write it off as a simple parlor trick. For Muntean, each question leads not to an answer but to another question.