Eleftherios Makedonas interviews Mălina Manovici, the protagonist of Romanian director’s Octav Chelaru movie Balaur [A Higher Law] (2021), which was shown during the 62nd Thessaloniki (Greece) International Film Festival (04-14.11.2021).
Initially published in Greek by the online magazine ‘Anagnostis’, on 19.11.2021:
Eleftherios Makedonas: Dear Mălina, I am really glad to be talking with you. Actually, the main inspiration for this conversation is the intense impact your acting in the movie Balaur [A Higher Law] (2021) – and the movie itself – have had on me when I watched it a few days ago at the 62nd Thessaloniki International Festival. First of all, congratulations for such a powerful and emotive performance!
Mălina Manovici: Thank you very much for your appreciation, it means a lot to me to see that others take notice of the work I do and even praise it. It is the best thing that can happen after working so hard and passionately for a project. Of course, I owe all of this to Octav Chelaru who trusted me, gave me this role, saw Ecaterina in me and was a tremendous support throughout the whole process. I think it is very important to feel safe and encouraged during shooting.
EM: Initially, I was thrilled with the point I thought the movie was trying to make: the psychological dead-end a young married woman is facing with regard to her femininity and personal freedom, due to the asphyxiating pressures which the contemporary society imposes on her. It is probably the feminine sexuality that is most brutally repressed in nowadays’ societies, and this fact comes in sharp contrast with the way we would all like to imagine a typical contemporary western society.
MM: I think you are absolutely right. Repressed femininity and sexuality is one of the themes of the movie. Yes, the narrative of the film is about a woman who finds herself slipping into a pit of unhappiness in almost all areas of her life, now that her son has grown and doesn’t really need her anymore, the relationship with her husband is completely unsatisfactory at all levels, her work as a religion teacher at the high school is disregarded by colleagues and students and her family – the family of her husband – barely tolerates her, taking every opportunity to shame her for an incident that happened years ago. It’s not a great life. She finds herself in a sort of a time loop where every day repeats itself endlessly. I think it is enough to make anyone unhappy.
EM: If this is so, where do you think such a repression stems from? Ekaterina, the main heroine of the movie, obviously asphyxiates under the jokes of her family, – her husband being a conservative priest, – professional role, – she teaches Orthodox Christian Religion at the town’s school, – and the local provincial and equally conservative society. It is obvious that, gradually, she is getting deeper and deeper into a psychological mire whose core seems to be the sexual aetiology. Slowly, she is drying up both physically and sentimentally. It is her sexuality that has stagnated.
MM: Yes, you are right in everything you said about her. Sexuality is a tabu in the conservative religious community where Ecaterina lives. Even more when those involved belong to the church as priests or their wives. Maybe their wives are subjected to even bigger pressure from the community, especially in small towns. They are under the scrutiny of everybody, the whole community. There is also a great tendency to gossip and to be malicious. This type of society is conservative and mean, tedious, dull and maybe even plain stupid. I don’t think that living in such an environment is easy for anyone who is in any way different. You can feel this energy. Her sexuality, I think it had always been repressed. There’s no clue that her life with her husband had ever been any different from what it is now. And he is the only man she had known. She had never had the chance to explore and understand her own sexuality. She lives in a world where the roles of men and women are clearly established and where she doesn’t have a voice. She is the priest’s wife and nothing more.
EM: If this reading is correct, there seems to be a negative relation between any formal and dogmatic religion and the human sexuality and happiness.
MM: Absolutely, there is a connection between formal religion, about the restrictions it imposes on the human beings and their happiness, sexual or of any other nature, because it poses limitations and stops one from asking questions about life and from exploring. It is a very rigid system to live in, there’s no room for flexibility. Things cannot be discussed , there’s no doubts, there is only black and white, no grey. With this type of mentality the sexual fulfillment of a woman is a tabu. But at the same time there are lot of people who are happy to live like that, without asking any questions about anything, who inherit this way of living and carry it on without ever doubting it. Some people, like Ecaterina’s husband or his family, her mother in law and her father in law, are perfectly happy with the way they are. Their lives are fixed, like a straight path that goes on and on, I don’t know where, to heaven maybe.
EM: Why do you think religion, in almost all of its manifestations around the globe today, and throughout the human history overall, has so consequently tried to contain human sexuality, especially the feminine one? It sounds absurd. All the historical facts we know – from the so-called ‘witches’ of the Middle Ages to the severe suppression of the women in the Muslim world today – invariably confirm a strong inverse relationship between the so-called ‘religion’ and the free expression of human sexuality.
MM: Yes, it does sound absurd, and I am surprised with how long the power of the church has lasted and also at how people can still be so submissive. For some it is even a choice, but I can’t comment on that. However, it is very interesting how something that initially had a social function, that of bringing people together, creating a community, turned into something so devoid of a sense of reality. Of any utility or benefit. If it benefits anyone it is those who are in control, and religion is a form of control. Although thinking freely is always a very hard thing to do.
Everybody should be free to make their own choices. Anyway, I think that it is connected to knowledge, free thinking and also to control.
EM: Then Iuliu appears – a 16-year old student who comes from Germany under mysterious circumstances to enroll at the local school – and all of Ekaterina’s suppressed feelings burst out precipitously, but now in an uncontrolled manner. That she will soon have sex with an underage boy, who additionally happens to be her student, is indicative of her inner impasse and it offers, I think, sufficient evidence that all the psychological pressure she has been gathering inside is in fact the pure unsatisfied sexual energy, which has been repressed for a long time. Personally, I found many allusions to the theories of Wilhelm Reich in the movie.
MM: I wouldn’t say that what makes Ecaterina have sex with Iuliu is just suppressed sexuality. That is a part of it, of course, but I think that they also have something else in common that draws her to him. I think that it is equally important they share a status of outsiders in the community they live in and that they both know how it feels not to be loved, understood and supported by their mothers. I think that is a very important link between them.
EM: During the second hour of the film I was anxiously hoping that this conjecture was right. However, I sensed something like an ethical relapse back to conservatism, an invitation that we finally conform to the old established social values, to the ungraceful, utterly boring precepts and norms of the (Christian) religion and all the concomitant social institutions: family, work, community… After all, this old, worn out story may not be the ideal option for us, but at least it has been thoroughly tested through the ages and it certainly yields some tangible results. My suspicion was further strengthened when I realised that the main focal point of the movie changed from the inner psychological situation of Ekaterina to the bizarre, anti-social behaviour of a problematic child like Iuliu and the dangers that the social media mean for our lives today. Is that so?
MM: Yes, it could be. For sure, Iuliu turns from an attraction into a menace to Ecaterina. I think that she is just not able or ready to act firmly against religious precepts and norms which certainly have sunk deeply into her mind and personality in spite of her inquisitive nature. Their relationship is an impossible one. I also think that she never thought about leaving her husband and her family, that her night with Iuliu was an impulse fueled by all her suppressed feelings. If all that could be read as conformity to the conservative established values of the religious community, then yes, you are right. But it also equals death of Ecaterina. That is how I translate the ending sequence with all the doors closing her in, like in a coffin.
EM: I also wasn’t quite happy with the interference of the pictures of Nietzsche on the walls of the room of Iuliu at some point in the movie. I think it would be rather dangerous if one ended up associating the violent, nihilistic, misanthropic behaviour of a confused teenager who cannot come to terms with his overflowing sexual energy, with the sacred figure of one of the greatest spirits in the recent history of the Occident. Is the extremely aggressive and irrational behaviour of Iuliu connected at a philosophical level to Nietzsche’s thought in the movie? What is exactly the role Nietzsche plays in it?
MM: Yes, I see what you mean, but how can we know how somebody will understand a book, or feel or see the world after reading it? Books are such a big influence on our lives, and we react to them according to our own level of understanding, according to the stage we are in. We all know that reading the same book at different ages results in different experiences. So how could one predict how a young man like Iuliu here could react to the revolutionary ideas of Nietzsche? He is at an age when rushed and immediate actions are so easy to take. In this I can see a similarity with Ecaterina and with her own reaction and decision to go to bed with him as an act of rebellion against everything her world is.
EM: Can we think of Balaur as a cinematographic metaphor of Nietzsche’s masterpiece Antichrist?
MM: I never thought about that before. But it is so interesting that you have seen that in our film, that it made you think of that. This is one of the most important roles of cinema, isn’t it? To make us think, make associations. Any film is filled with references to other works of art, to literature.
EM: If indeed we can, one possible objection here would be the following: Nietzsche’s Antichrist, as well as the totality of his philosophy, are in essence life-affirmative and not the contrary as it has been misinterpreted. If he decried bluntly the ethics of Christianism, he did so because he saw in it the main factor in the humans’ lives that aims at denying him any joy life might give him, because it repressed anything that was biologically and mentally sane and real in human life, first and foremost the sex, which is in fact the basic mode of reproduction and biological subsistence for any living organism.
MM: Yes, absolutely. But I don’t think that the reference to Nietzsche takes on another meaning apart the one that you mentioned, life-affirmative. If someone dies or if someone suffers or makes another person suffer – this is part of life as well. The most important thing is to act according to your own will and decisions, not to hurt anyone, but very often life proves us wrong in the sense that causing suffering and pain cannot be avoided. Christianity is inhibitory and restrictive and trying to enjoy the real life is the act of defiance, of affirmation of one’s will but you can’t know what all of this will trigger around you.
EM: ‘Balaur’ is a kind of a monster in Romanian tradition, a dragon with many snake heads instead of a single one. What exactly does it stand for in the movie? Is Iuliu an incarnation of balaur? Is balaur a symbol of the sex? Or the extra-marital sexual relations any married woman maintains? Must we dismiss balaur from our lives or should we rather embrace it, recognize that if it exists at all, it is not as monstruous as the organized religion has tried to make us believe; on the contrary, what they have evangelized so far as the good, might well prove to be the true balaur of which we should protect ourselves?
MM: In our fairy tales balaur is a dragon that the hero fights and defeats, very similar with the story of how Saint George killed the dragon in the Bible, and it represents a challenge which the hero must overcome in his way towards reaching his goal. It is an act of proving his manhood, which makes him stronger; a step towards maturity. So it’s the old story, good prevailing over the evil. I don’t know if that’s the case here. If we follow this chain of thoughts, I think that in our story, unfortunately, it is the opposite, the Balaur wins. But I am not sure if , like you said, Balaur is the bad guy here. In regard to what the Balaur represents, I guess you are right again, it could be all of those things. Is it a monster of organised religion, morality against another monster of sex, raw instincts, the natural being? It depends on what meaning we attach to the Balaur. I think that Balaur is a challenge that comes up in our lives and then we need to make a decision about how to act.
EM: I notice that many films coming from the Balkan and the broader South-Eastern Europe region deal with the problem of the social media domination over the younger generations, especially in their relationship to the issue of sexual harassment, exploitation or defamation. I remember the marvelous Serbian film Klip (2012) by Maja Miloš. In the 62nd Thessaloniki International Film Festival, there are also movies coming from this region dealing with the same issue, e.g., Sisterhood (2021) by Dina Duma. Balaur, in our case, mentions it as well. I am also aware of another recent Romanian movie, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (2021) by Radu Jude. Is this phenomenon just a temporary trend, is it a global problem or is it more intense in the less developed countries like the ones in this specific region?
MM: I don’t know if it is a trend but for sure it is a fact. We can’t deny the huge influence that social media have on our lives, it feels like everything has moved online. It’s like we live two parallel lives, the real one side by side with the virtual one. Everybody is on the social media, and everything happens there as well, and you can’t ignore that. It is a big part of many lives. They are tools with a lot of potential for good but also for bad. It’s a global phenomenon but it also holds that in this part of the world, South-Eastern Europe, this theme hasn’t been exploited or used very much in the film industry. Maybe now is the time to do that.
EM: Radu Jude – along with all the other important directors of the Romanian New Wave – has acquainted us with a grim post-communist Romanian society, marked by corruption, ethical decadence, extreme nationalism, and sexism. Is this image correct? How would you evaluate the situation of the Romanian woman today?
MM: I think so, yes. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to paint a good image of our country when there’s so many things going wrong. Yes, there’s a lot of corruption, ethical decadence and extreme nationalism and sexism. But those exist everywhere, more or less. People have been fighting these issues, for a very long time and change is difficult to bring about. Certain parts of the world seem to be changing really slowly, in other parts change is not welcome at all. Old mentalities are hard to replace at least in certain communities or social classes. It takes generations. I think this is another layer of our film.
EM: Would you please tell us a few things about your career so far, about any ongoing projects and imminent plans? I think you have some strong ties with the field of the theater as well.
MM: What I can tell you is that I am passionate about my work and grateful for the opportunities that I have had so far and hopeful for more in the future.
EM: Thank you very much for your time! I wish much success in anything you do henceforth!
MM: Thank you for your interest and for watching and appreciating our work.