Cristi Puiu is the film-maker who spearheaded Romanian new wave 15 years ago with his brilliant The Death of Mr Lazarescu, and then five years later with his dauntingly opaque existential drama Aurora, and after that the strange and more verbose Sieranevada – the intimate study of a family gathered to honour the death of a father. These realist dramas, considered together, were intelligibly the product of one film-maker in a recognisable – if difficult – style. Ten years ago, in fact, Puiu was talking about a projected “suite” of six such tales, and these appeared to be the first three.
His new feature, however, could not be more different. It is an almost impossibly stark, austere, cerebral and wordy film, running at three hours and 20 minutes, populated by the leisured classes of a distant age. Almost a sequence of theatrical tableaux, it is set in a grand country house in Transylvania at the end of the 19th century and inspired by – rather than conventionally adapted from – the Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov’s 1915 text War and Christianity: Three Conversations. This is a film of formidable and almost intimidating seriousness, which is admirable and refreshing in its way, but it does not make many concessions to anything as vulgar as entertainment or even drama (as that might be vulgarly conceived).
The guests include a decorated general, a nobleman, a politician and various aristocratic ladies; these people, in their faultless period clothing, address each other with studied formality, but often with a kind of controlled, eloquent passion. In the opening act, as they prepare for luncheon, the talk is of God and man, about humanity’s destiny, about science and progress, about how warfare – once the key practice of patriotism and nobility – is evil. The concept of a Christian warrior is fiercely condemned and defended, as is the concept of Christian forgiveness in the face of violence. The general has sent the hostess a horrifying letter about how ecstatically justified he felt in slaughtering the godless Ottomans during the Russo-Turkish War, because they had been guilty of barbarities on the field of battle.
After lunch they debate the realpolitik of retreating from Russian pride and exceptionalism, the merits of reaching an accommodation with the English and subsuming their Russianness into a European identity, or conceding that they are European with an “Asian” sediment and might even undertake to spread this “Europeanness” all over the world. The burden of empire leads the company to consider the British and their African conquests, and there is a defence of culture as an unashamedly elitist treasure. At dinner, one of the ladies restates her radical Tolstoyan conviction that the church has eroded the real values of faith, that the Resurrection is a myth, and that the spirit of the Gospels must reside in combating evil with non-violence. She is countered by the high-born gentleman, who has a copy of the New Testament to hand, which he expounds with a tiny thread of antisemitism.
Beneath all this talk, there are strange hints of illness and below-stairs discontent, and at one stage the high-flown talk is interrupted by the sound of what appears to be jazz on a gramophone from another room. Then there is a deeply strange seismic eruption. It seems as if all this talk could be a big Buñuelian joke, or a satiric comment on the cosseted arrogance of the ruling class. All the guests had, after all, been contemplating catastrophe, sombrely contemplating the horror of abolishing God – perhaps like Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s novel, taunted by Satan for his intellectual braggadocio in saying that all is permitted if God does not exist, and then spiritually stricken when his father is murdered.
Weirdly, the moment passes, though it is followed by an ambiguous silent sequence in the snow outside, perhaps representing a funeral or commemorative ceremony, and when the group discussion resumes it is so calm that you might think it takes place at some sort of reunion months or years later. Is it supposed to be a dream?
I’m not sure. For all that this film has something exasperatingly opaque and inert about it, it has an uncompromising insistence that ideas matter. These people’s thoughts, although debatable, are not simply presented as absurd. Malmkrog is a long, demanding experience – a real festival event. But that bizarre dreamlike eruption lives on in the mind.