“Philosophy bewilders the mind,” rightly states Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaité) early in the nearly three-and-half hour running time of “Malmkrog,” Romanian director Cristi Puiu’s dense ideological debate involving five aristocrats at the end of the 19th century.
With that declaration, she ushers in the only indisputable truth their reasoning will ultimately yield. This elegant diatribe of a movie, based on a text by Russian theologian and poet Vladimir Solovyov, occurs within an intellectual bubble: an opulent and fully staffed manor house in the middle of a snowy Transylvanian landscape.
From the scarce information provided about the cultured participants in this cerebral shindig, each emerges as an archetype defending a clear position or as is the case of Madeline (Agathe Bosch), playing devil’s advocate. There’s a fervent Christian, a believer in the notion of a unified European identity and Russia’s place within it, one who sees war as a holy endeavor, and a scholar of the moral gray area between good and evil.
Leading with conviction in their delivery, the ensemble cast enthralls as much as possible considering the extent of the convoluted spiritual and historical dissertations. Even if some segments are invigoratingly thought-provoking in the same manner that a young student feels engaging with classical thinkers for the first time, the format’s lack of stimuli beyond cutting between speakers soon turns tedious. In scenes conceived as static frames, Puiu plays with depth of field for slightly more visually layered results.
The bulk of the spirited talking is in French, which unassumingly reinforces the notion of Eastern Europeans trying to fit into the standards of sophistication that their Western counterparts have nurtured. Behind closed doors, other languages are spoken.
As the opinionated bourgeoisie rambles on, we discern a parallel universe, that of the silent help that wander the property as nearly imperceptible ghosts. That some of the concepts disputed over fancy wine, such as the justification of violence or how leaders abuse their powers, leave the hypothetical for the practical under their privileged noses, stands as the film’s most compelling observation. István (István Téglás), the servants’ leader concerned with pleasing his masters, exemplifies this as he becomes a tyrant to his subordinates.
Two hours into “Malmkrog,” a major event shifts the structure and filters the remaining topics through a fatalistic lens. In the end, this duel of arguments on philosophical abstractions demonstrates that we continue without irrefutable answers on God and the human condition but the modes of discussion have morphed. Now the spaces for discourse are more democratized, immediate and toxic than a pompous dinner.
In French, Russian and Romanian with English subtitles
Running time: 3 hours, 21 minutes
Playing: Available on Mubi