Truth and Movies

Malmkrog

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Cristi Puiu

Starring

Agathe Bosch Edith Alibec Vitalie Bichir

Anticipation.

Almost all the reviews from its Berlin premiere contained variations on the word ‘boring’.

Enjoyment.

Entrancing from minute one. Stripped back and, in its own way, completely unique.

In Retrospect.

There’s something nourishing about the film that makes you want to go straight back for more.

Cristi Puiu takes viewers on an intellectual odyssey with this stripped-back period drama set in a Transylvanian mansion.

To encounter Cristi Puiu’s 200-minute, pointedly phlegmatic philosophical conversation piece, Malmkrog, is to embark on a voyage of dizzying intellectual discovery.

Five pompous asses, each of varying ideological persuasions, hole up in a pastel-walled Transylvanian manor house circa 1900 and engage in genteel back-and-forth patter on subjects ranging from the morality of war, the value of culture, the mechanics of colonialism and, finally, the presence of a divine figure who can sweeten the bitter pill of death.

The dialogue is delivered in a calculated monotone, and none of the attendees attempt to wreath their exchanges in high emotion lest it undermine the solemnity of their intent. This tamped-down approach helps to sustain a cut-glass intensity across the runtime, as well as forcing the viewer to mine for tiny inflections or gestures that might uncover any underlying resentments.

Puiu offers a guiding hand via his careful compositions, purposeful edits and elegant blocking of the actors, but he only accompanies us to a point. Some may find all of this pointless, or deathly dull, but if you’re willing to fully engage with what the film is doing – i.e., accept it as more than a delivery system for dialogue – then an entertaining history of modern thought will be your reward. In the background, servants deliver refreshments, and in one amusing interlude, a small child is dragged from the room and back upstairs.

The text is based on a 1915 treatise by Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov called ‘War and Christianity’, though its roots in archaic literature don’t prevent the film from engaging with contemporary mores, specifically its softly-spoken celebration of a mode of discourse which rejects hysteria and violence.

There’s the occasional dig and the odd underhand barb, but in the main its fervent dedication to high seriousness lends it an atmosphere of droll tragedy. If any of the above sets bells ringing, then we can’t recommend this highly enough.

Published 25 Mar 2021

Tags: Cristi Puiu

Anticipation.

Almost all the reviews from its Berlin premiere contained variations on the word ‘boring’.

Enjoyment.

Entrancing from minute one. Stripped back and, in its own way, completely unique.

In Retrospect.

There’s something nourishing about the film that makes you want to go straight back for more.

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