Living with Fear

16 September, 2022

It’s terrible to see, in A Higher Law, how Ecaterina Ivanovici (Mălina Manovici) cannot escape the authority of her husband. She does whatever she does precisely because she cannot find a partner for discussions in Dragoş Ivanovici (Alexandru Papadopol). A priest from a provincial town, he has the certainty of one who believes that he is much more educated than those around him, that God is guiding his every step. The truth that he bears is, to him, the sole acceptable one.

And this is where we also have the first error of judgment in the film written and directed by Octav Chelaru, because a credible story shouldn’t work with preconceived notions or with forthright positions. The certainty with which Chelaru sketches his characters isn’t all that bothersome, but it reminds me of the manner which is also practiced by Cristian Mungiu in Graduation, for example, a way of leading the narration that, in the end, turns out to be a sort of slightly condescending moral, through which such authors – pretending to be open, objective, or democratically creative – actually take a pretty clear and tough position on one side of the moral barricade. Without sounding disrespectful, I must say that they want to give us all a life lesson when it might be better if they would just limit themselves to presenting a situation. Because a spectator doesn’t need to be taken by the hand and taught what to believe, but rather, they’re much more enlightened if they infer the moral by themselves, in the sense that everyone is allowed to feel something else, to take a different stance. Or, to paraphrase, to live through the story in their own heads.

Mãlina Manovici in A Higher Law

At times, A Higher Law seems condescending to more than just its audience, but also with its own characters. The dining table discussions between the husband, wife and adolescent son, Florin (Voicu Dumitraş), are meant to better characterize the two adults. But the way in which father Ivanovici positions himself and answers Ecaterina’s questions transforms him into a caricature, in the actual sense that it bears in the dictionary: “a picture, description, or imitation of a person in which certain striking characteristics are exaggerated in order to create a comic or satyrical effect”. Here, the intervention – or, at least, how I see it – is to discredit an entire rypology (the priest) in order to motivate or explain the woman’s ulterior actions: her adulterious relationship with the teen pupil, who has just returned from Germany, where he was unable to adapt culturally or spiritually. 

But this is also where the script falls into a trap. Iuliu (admirably perfromed by the very young and angelic Sergiu Smerea) is portrayed as being way above his new colleague in cognitive and intellectual terms. He suffered the trauma of unsuccessful immigration and saw dozens, if not hundreds of individuals pass through the bed of his mother. His relationship with Ecaterina automatically becomes special and is based precisely on this shared pain: that is, inadaptation?

Sergiu Smerea in A Higher Law

Thinking that she is able to control him – despite being aware of how problematic is was for him it Germanu –, she naively goes all in with their new relationship and allows him (gradually or not) an increasing amount of liberties. It’s but a step from a forced spontaneous kiss to a sexual act. But, unfortunately, we can easily identify a logical fracture here, too, onto which the lion’s share of the film’s intrigue is based upon: Iuliu was admitted to the school (the best in town) without a thorough background check. It seems that the grandmother who is supposedly housing him is not, in fact, his grandmother. This sort of information, exposed towards the very end, cannot but create an issue: the script is based on a handful of plot twists that, again, look down on their spectator, but also on the public education system.

The films has too many cracks like these for it to be able to properly gather traction, but that doesn’t neccesarily cancel out its credibility. Chelaru poses an  apparently extravagant, uncommon problem – where the teacher mingles with the student –, but which can be experienced by anyone, under various shapes. Ecaterina’s drama starts out from this lack of communication, which ends up taking different contours. It might be determined by a wrong understanding of authority, by preconceived notions, by her overconfidence in her beliefs about certain people, who, in general, ar men.

In the obtuse husband’s view – are all forty-something-year-old priests like this? –, such a relationship is a cardinal sin. But, even with all of the intelligence that he proves himself capable of, he is a self-sufficient individual (“Florin, it seems we have a parishioner that harbors some great theological concerns, let’s see, what do you say to her?” – a sample of the three-way dinnertable dialogue; who talks like that?!). In her view, however, it’s a one night stand – which she feels like she doesn’t want to reprise, and why should she, after all, but Iuliu insists to the point of obsession –, and well, this tryst is nothing but an outlet, an escape that Ecaterina needs in a moment of absolute frailty. She isn’t like this and fights to demonstrate this not just to herself, but especially to her mother-in-law, to prove to her that she is wrong when, in her sole appearance in the entire film, she insinuates that she’s a harlot, then attacks her as directly as possible, digging up the past in the process of doing so. At her high school prom (two decades ago) she was supposedly caught in the boys’ room, which is a capital sin in a backward society, as the screenplay characterizes it over and over again.

Mãlina Manovici in A Higher Law

In this case, the truth depends on the one who is telling the story. I won’t enter into even more details, but it’s quite clear that Ecaterina is troubled by the issues in her past.

These problems are credible, at least in principle, but the way in which Chelaru banks on them is sometimes forced, not that these were the most fail-safe narrative solutions, but rather for the purpose of finalizing his demonstration that we live in a world that is still patriarchal, where the male partner, no matter his level of education, cannot let go of this harsh, cold attitude that shows little understanding towards women. And given that here the man is of the church, this fault is (automatically?!) multoplied. Dragoş Ivanovici comes from a world that presumably communicates in way that is vague, or retrogressive, or even both.

To justify his story, Chelaru says that the film is based on a real event, which he witnessed during his time as a student in Piatra Neamţ. Could this be a solid argument in favor of constructing the like this? Did he have his religion classes – as he does here – in the biology lab, where, ironically, a plastic model of a human body dominates the room, together with all the contrast that it entails? It might well have been so, the story might have unfolded exactly – or almost exactly – as he tells it in A Higher Law. But that doesn’t excuse a certain surface-level perspective on the people in this parable, even if for the simple fact that not every traumatic event can be transformed into a plausible and convincing script, at least not without major changes and rewrites.

A Higher Law contains the tell-tale signs of a potentially talented filmmaker, and the film flows quite easily and is well-edited, it’s consequent in its visual planning and it is also discreetly accompanied by a powerful sountrack, which is dosed in the appropriate quantities. It’s just a shame that the erotic tension fails to deliver the spark that the film desperately needed, and so, inevitably, it quickly eflates. In this sense, the director doesn’t seem like he wanted to insist more, and there’s various possible reasons for this. Ever since the New Wave, Romanian cinema contains some arguably taboo sequences, but they are rare, and are never driven to the extreme. There’s a certain homegrown modesty that probably prevents directors from going all-in. It’s just that here, given how the story is constructed, it could have been the key, the element that would have made all the difference. It’s a pity that, having built this erotic context well, Chelaru doesn’t insist and doesn’t go all the way, like Adina Pintilie did (of course, in a totally different key) in Touch Me Not.

From my double stance as a critic and director, I have often noticed a certain fear that some filmmakers have: they don’t want to take the responsibility of a groundbreaking product, but rather, they prefer to play it safe. I am unable to point out a single, unifying reason for this, but I do believe that it can be the grounds for reflection, this mental barrier that we are unwilling to cross, unlike some who do so successfully, like Yorgos Lanthimos, Xavier Dolan or Jessica Hausner, to mention but a few names that Romanian fillmakers cite at times, with much affection and appreciation.

All in all, A Higher Law has a correct narrative structure, it’s just that, upon closer inspection, one can find forced conflicts all around, ones that are constructed all too brutally, which don’t escalate in a manner that is convincing enough in order to support themselves at the heights that they reach almost instantaneously. The film deserves to be seen on the basis of the debate it wishes to open up, but it’s a true shame that it wasn’t made with more courage.


Director/ Screenwriter





Ion Indolean has a degree in film studies and a PhD in history. He teaches at the Faculty of Theatre and Film, UBB. He contributes to Observator cultural, PressOne, LiterNet and is active in the organization of TIFF festival. He directed the features Toni & Friends (2020), premiered in Warsaw, and Discordia (2016), awarded for debut at TIFF. He enjoys watching any "bad" commercial film. He has seen, like any self-respecting millennial, Bloodsport with van Damme about 30 times. In high school, he left White Ribbon in horror, only for Haneke to become one of his favorite directors.