By Mónica Delgado

Some years ago, Romanian filmmaker Cristi Puiu gave an acting workshop at Les Chantiers Nomades center in Toulouse, where the actors and actresses had to work based in the book Three Dialogues and the Tale of the Antichrist, from the philosopher, theologian and Russian writer Vladimir Soloviev. A particular film came from this work, the marvelous Three Exercises of Interpretation (Romania, France, 2013) who had a reduced exhibition in festivals and showcases, maybe because it’s duration, over three hours, or maybe because for the filmmaker this was just a tool to portray the results of this workshop.

The film, located in Toulouse, is divided into three episodes, where a group of characters talk about different topics like love, death, religion or politics, all under a very Rohmerian spirit of misé en scene. And very much like Puiu, there are some episodes of black humor, event mentioning in some scene the filmmaker of the moment, a certain “Achipatong”.

Beyond this production tale of Three Exercises of Interpretation, in this film we see the seed of what would become his style of camera theater patented by Sieranevada (Rumania, 2016), now with precise and very carefully composed elements: potent dialogues, development of the situations in a same space, family or friendship cores stripped naked and a necessity for the context to be a primordial element (a Bucarest post Caucescu). Thus, to watch the inclusion of the huge Malmkrog in Berlinale, allows us to associate it to this two previous works (there’s even actors from Three Exercises… who play in this new film) as urgent and vital steps in the universe of the transcendental dialog trademarked by Puiu.

Malmkrog resumes with more risk and cunning the text Three Dialogs and the Tale of the Antichrist, since it adds characters (especially women) to the conversations inspired by the forms of Plato, and reorders the way in which the Russian philosopher conceived these fragments. Puiu keeps some passages of the book almost literally, meaning that the Russian context of mid XIX century is maintained, and focuses some episodes of the film (six in total) according to the great topics that mobilized the reflections of the thinker/writer: war, the existence of god and Russian identity as ethical universes that confront the characters. Puiu also adds unseen elements: all the cast speaks in French, the house of this elite is located in Transilvania, and specially, there’s a presence of a breed of servants, butlers and home maids that configure –several times of camera- a social class about to explode.

The film is composed of six episodes which take the name of the characters of this aristocracy, but also of the butlers. If it’s true that Puiu concentrates all his film in the ramblings and reflections of the rich characters, according to Soloviev’s philosophy, through several days in daily rites of meals, he also shows this behind the camera of the quotidian, embodied in the working class which supports the mansion. This is why Malmkrog escapes the simple adaptation, since Puiu makes it more complex, makes it dialogue with todays’ Europe, gives it a modernity halo embodied in time jumps (or dreams) that allow us to think about the last days of this oligarchy.

A series of fixed shots work as canvases, since Puiu generates subtle tableaux vivants in this film. He is interested in getting all the details of this staging under control, where the role of the sounds of the house, or the music which peeks as an anachronistic rupture, contribute to give the idea of a whole space and time in deep connection. And in this staging (which could seem as theatrical, since everything happens inside a mansion) is where Puiu shines, transmitting this fascination for building characters which are completely autonomous in their way of thinking, even though they seem to be built to defend a thesis of a worldview. And where servitude acquires a fundamental role as a counterpart, which the filmmaker works in a very delicate way: sounds of their labor out of shot, or actions that are seen in corners of subtle camera movements. Because beyond being an extension of the universe conceived by Soloviev, what Puiu is portraying is a social distention in the preludes to the fall of Tsarism. Winds of change slowly peek. And the filmmaker achieves to materialize this nausea, this disgust against privilege, in his own way, without revolutions or chants.

The beginning of Malmkrog describes a bucolic day of snow where some privileged women walk near the mansion. The camera makes a small panning after some minutes, and it’s there where we watch how a shepherd and his flock of sheep burst in scene. Is this not a perfect social allegory for what’s to come? Because this new feature by Puiu which opened the new created Encounters section under Carlo Chatrian’s direction (who presented the film alongside the filmmaker) is, before anything, a splendid scan of socio political nature about today’s Europe, in its lockdown and conservativeness, with a thesis about religion as a starting point (even as a Dovstovieskian answer), Catholicism or the idea of evil. A point way too high in this 2020 edition of Berlinale, and the confirmation, once more, that Cristi Puiu is one of the essential names of current cinema.

Director: Cristi Puiu
Script: Cristi Puiu (according to Vladimir Soloviev’s texts)
Cinematography: Tudor Vladimir Panduru
Cast: Agathe Bosch, Ugo Broussot, Marina Palii, Diana Sakalauskaité, Frédéric Schulz-Richard, István Teglas
Production Company: Mandragora Movies / SENSE Production
Romania, Serbia, Switzerland, Sweden, Bosnia and Herzegovina-Macedonia, 2020
200 mins