Octav Chelaru • Director of A Higher Law
“I was interested in the struggle between freedom and our own inner voice”
- The promising Romanian newcomer shares his views on religion and the law of desire in his first, audience-orientated feature
Octav Chelaru’s work was initially discovered by the Locarno Film Festival, where both of the shorts Black Clothes (2017) and The Parallel State (2020) premiered in the Pardi di Domani section. His feature-length directorial debut, A Higher Law [+see also:
interview: Octav Chelaru
film profile], celebrated its world premiere at the 62nd Thessaloniki International Film Festival and is now competing in the Romanian Days sidebar of the Transilvania International Film Festival. We talked to Chelaru about his interest in the religious topic that is central to the film, what inspired him when developing the plot, and his work with the actors.
Cineuropa: This is your debut feature, but you already have five shorts under your belt, two of which tackle a religious theme. What prompted your interest in the topic?
Octav Chelaru: Religion plays a big part in our society, and in the last few years, it has started to take a front-row seat in all of the controversial debates that take place. I think religious beliefs and, moreover, people who relate to them make for some very interesting subject matter for cinema. It has the ability to convey some kind of truth to the audience by peeling off layers of prejudice from the characters in a movie. When I work with characters who have some degree of religious belief, this peeling process reveals meaning, which can differ from one viewer to another. We can easily see the speck of sawdust in another person’s eye.
When I was 16, I started happily attending the classes of a literature teacher, also a Christian, where he was lecturing freely on the connection between the Bible and modern fiction, including cinema. After school, we gathered to discuss our future. None of us pupils really knew what careers we would try to pursue. One day, a girl who was getting very good results in Chemistry and Physics said that she wanted to become a doctor. The literature teacher got very angry and told her that becoming a doctor was a very bad idea, as all the maladies and sicknesses start in our souls when we lose our faith. Very soon after, I stopped attending those classes, feeling that this piece of advice went completely against the very freedom of choice I always thought he had been praising.
The film criticises this religious conservatism, and also hypocrisy. However, one assumes that contemporary Romanian society is predominantly secular, so what inspired you to develop such a plot?
Romanian society is indeed mostly secular, but it’s also very divided in the sense that secular people and the ones with predetermined beliefs are becoming more convinced and entrenched in their positions. The inspiration for this plot is a real story that happened in my home town, where this teacher, a priest’s wife, fell in love with a pupil of hers. I was interested in the struggle between freedom and our inner voice on the one hand and, on the other, in those patterns that are often imposed by society and culture, and which can end up influencing our judgements and actions, to the extent that we don’t question them at all.
In my childhood, I was surrounded by people who had strong convictions about what was right and wrong, and prejudice played a big part in my upbringing. Always being in close proximity to faith, and being personally interested in and affected by this subject, I’ve also witnessed how religion often ended up being a tool that was misused by many people in the way that it influenced education.
One possible interpretation of the title is that desire could stand higher than the law of God. Nevertheless, the tragic ending demonstrates its destructive power. What is your take on the subject?
I’m not a theologian, so my take is very subjective. I think God’s law is love. And desire is just a part of love – pseudo-love or pre-love, if you will. As desire consumes two people, it has to transform into something else and reach the next level. If there’s anything else besides attraction, desire can turn into attachment, sacrifice, or even love. But if not, the opposite is equally possible – it can turn into disillusionment, remorse, or even hate.
You also wrote the script by yourself, and you incorporated thriller elements. What brought about that decision?
I simply love thrillers – as well as the thrill of cinema. That’s the short answer. The long one is a little more complicated and involves a bit of history. Romanian cinema died in the year 2000, in which zero films were released. The very next year, Cristi Puiu was selected for Cannes with his debut film, Stuff and Dough, and afterwards, Cristian Mungiu was selected for the same festival with his debut film, Occident. Twenty years later, because of these two talented filmmakers who resurrected Romanian cinema, we have one of the most prestigious national film industries in the world. The negative outcome of this boom is that everybody only wanted the festival glory, so nobody thought about the audience any more. I, on the other hand, wanted to make a film that the audience could relate to, both on an emotional and a dramaturgical level.
Alexandru Papadopol and Mălina Manovici are experienced thesps who perfectly fit their roles, but how did you find the young actors?
I had never worked with any of the main actors before. Mălina Manovici had one of the hardest jobs on set because the movie totally sits on her shoulders. Alexandru Papadopol had to support Mălina, which was hard, since his character is not very supportive by nature. With Voicu Dumitraș, I tried to use his human innocence for the portrayal of Florin by not giving him any more pieces of information than his character knew. He only got his scenes, and I made sure that nobody from the cast or crew disclosed anything. Sergiu Smerea was the hardest one to find. On paper, the character of Iuliu was very contradictory, dark but appealing, introverted but audacious, self-contained but aggressive. The job of finding such an actor seemed impossible. But thanks to casting director Domnica Cîrciumaru, we did find Sergiu, and he makes a very good debut here.
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