There aren’t a lot of films that choose seminaries as their setting. We get those one every two years, if that. Even then, viewers have a lot of expectations when it comes to such films. But in writing that, Daniel Sandu’s One Step Behind the Seraphim justifies all the expectations that he subverts. Instead of a bunch of young nerds, he populates his film with characters just like himself and the people he went to the seminary with. These characters are young men taking advantage of the seminary’s secret rooms to participate in antisocial behaviour.
A film rife with betrayal, Sandu’s protagonist and stand in is Maris Gabriel (Stefan Iancu), a malleable freshman prone to cynicism and disillusionment. One of the deviant seniors (Toto Dimitrescu) takes a shine to him. He takes Maris out to skip class and hang out in poolhalls with women his age. One Step successfully sells his viewers a few layers into this already wacky premise. One is that Maris is the good guy. The second is the villain is the seminary’s two-faced headmaster (Vlad Ivanov) who tries to catch them in the act and expel them.
The reason why I consider One Step‘s multilayered premise is weird in a good way is that there’s the expectation that these seminarians want to become priests. The should take the Romanian Orthodox Church’s anti-secular propaganda in face value. Instead of that, it shows these young men barley handle their alcohol. And yes, writing those previous sentences puts the film’s worldview in perspective. The film also shows its story within the larger themes of recent Romanian history. That old religion and young secularism vie for control in a country experiencing a power vacuum.
Sandu also shows that Maris’ generation are seeing previous ones contradict its moral values. The headmaster wants his seminarians to be pious and enforces that by all means necessary. Meanwhile, some of the seminary’s board members teach the young men how to take financial advantage of their positions with the church. Eventually, the seminary sends Maris to the village where he shall perform his duties for the rest of his life. And all of the cinematic elements in those scenes as well as the ones after it show how powerless he is. That he can’t change that village for the better.
The kind of Romanian cinema that gets into small release in North America is full of experimentation, leading to recently diminishing returns. One Step, seemingly, is on the opposite side of the spectrum. A lot of the elements feel mainstream. It has a youthful vibrancy and a score that takes viewers back to the film’s 1990s setting. And yet, it fills its 150 minute running time with enough intrigue. This is one of the films where it’s so wrong that it’s right. It also helps that Iancu and Ivanov’s performances have arcs showing us that good and evil is not in what one believes, it’s how one behaves.
Watch One Step Behind the Seraphim on OVID.