Film Review: One Step behind the Seraphim, by Cezar Gheorghe

One step behind Hollywood

The impulse of Romanian neo-realist films of the early 2000s, inspired by Cristi Puiu’s aesthetic, was, as written by Andrei Gorzo, „a corrective one, haunted by the idea of a hidden totality, that the usual ways of storytelling and representing life amputate, dilute and flatten”. When something happens to us in real life, over the course of an hour spent with a character we only get to know a fragment of a totality that remains hidden, mysterious, partially known. This non-omniscient knowledge of the facts finds its radical expression in films like Aurora, and, less radically, in Sieranevada. Puiu, Mungiu, Muntean, and Porumboiu have all been reproached this lack of capacity for a certain type of „spectacular cinema”, capable of generating box office success.  The most radical critics went even further, reproofing the Romanian directors for their inability to make „Hollywood” films. The mistake (obviously) is to compare such auteur films with films designed for the general audience, and not with other authorial works. None of these so-called reproaches can be held against Daniel Sandu’s first feature film, One Step Behind the Seraphims. Contrariwise, in every scene, the director attentively and unequivocally communicates the action, avoiding moral, psychological, and even factual ambiguity.

One Step Behind the Seraphims dramatizes Daniel Sandu’s personal experience of studying at the theologic seminar – the story being, as he himself confesses, about 80% autobiographical. In this 90s coming-of-age story, we are exploring Gabriel’s formative experience. The story comes at a time when the Romanian Orthodox Church is clearly forcing the limits of the secular, playing an important role in the imposition of a referendum meant to change the Constitution. A film that paints a detailed criticism of the Curch’s abuse is not only welcome, but actually necessary.

The unexpected narrative approach is that this specifically Romanian subject is treated using Hollywood type cinematic conventions. As soon as the protagonist enters the seminar, it’s obvious that the whole school functions on a well-defined power hierarchy. The students learn from their teachers that the priest is the man of most influence in a community. Even the smallest school community is structured this way. There are leaders and those being led, weak students (usually the younger ones, being bullied by the eldest) and strong students. Additionally, the father-pedagog keeps a record of all the students’ deviations and absences from daily prayer sessions (10 a day). However, as in any other closed community, Gabriel soon finds out that the rules can be broken and that there are ways to escape. Together with his fellow schoolmates, he has fun in bars, falsifies medical leaves of absence, sleeps with women, and even finds a way to make money in the context of the seminar. In other words, he behaves like any rebellious teenager from any teenage flick. And, as any mainstream film will show, there must be an anti-hero. Father Ivan, the villain, interpreted by none other than Vlad Ivanov, is the one to make sure that the hierarchical structure of the school remains unscathed. He encourages the students to tattle on each other, stimulating an atmosphere of suspicion; he gathers evidence against those with strongly placed parents, but also against his superior, eventually becoming the school’s principal and imposing his will forcefully.

I find it important to state that the subject chosen by Daniel Sandu is a very rich one. One Step Behind the Seraphim had all the conditions necessary to create a serious discussion about the ills of the Church, having the intuition to go straight to the source of the matter and to describe the very environment in which the priests are instructed and shaped for their future lives as servants of the Church. The narrative situation offers the possibility of constructing a character, whose faith is shaken and whose vocation is questioned. Moreover, Vlad Ivanov’s presence in this film as a villainous character is quite complex and morally ambiguous, having numerous psychological subtleties. Gabriel and the other young men’s revolt is represented through a few well known coming-of-age film tropes: the severe teacher, the torturous principle, the rebellious student, the bully. This austere school could have easily been a United States military school or a Romanian police academy. One of most symptomatic scenes for Daniel’s entire approach happens when the seminar boys are watching some girls, through the school’s fence – Montell Jordan’s song playing in the background, „This is how we do it”. In fact, regarding the film’s music, Daniel Sandu goes the Hollywood way yet again: touching music plays whenever the author wishes to underline the emotional current in a particular scene, dramatic music whenever a confrontation takes place. Regarding character construction, there is a clear-cut difference between negative and positive characters. And, following the method to the very end, even the conflict resolution is done in the style of American audience-addressing movies.

Daniel Sandu’s decisions are conscious and assumed, and it is evident that he is very able in depicting power play between characters, demonstrating a talent for filming precisely choreographed group sequences (abilities seen also by Ionuț Mareș). In his interviews, he has clearly stated that he is not an adept of production means minimalism, and that he does not prefer long-scene based mise en scene in the slightest. The narrative method chosen by Daniel shows an ability to transform reality into a show that, although not necessarily spectacular, is able to generate an „entertainment” factor, sought after by the audience, through tried and true methods formulated by the „Hollywood recipe”. The film’s biggest win is what we call „production value”, and it contradicts the idea that Romanian Cinema is not capable of making entertaining, potentially box office films. One Step Behind the Seraphims is only one step behind Hollywood.

by Cezar Gheorghe
English translation by Maia Petrigenaru Van Kline

Photo: imdb.com & One Step behind the Seraphim

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