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by Rose Finlay

Cristi Puiu, Romania/Serbia/Switzerland/Sweden/Bosnia and Herzegovina/Republic of North Macedonia

Nikolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard), an aristocratic landowner in Transylvania at the turn of the 20th century, has hand-picked four guests to join him during the Christmas holidays. They are intelligent and quick to let their opinions be known as they work their way through a variety of topics. As the conversations grow and expand throughout the day, cultural differences become starkly apparent and tensions rise. Director/screenwriter Cristi Puiu lets the words speak for themselves as it is slowly revealed that the text has a lot to reveal about the mindsets that led to many of the great and tragic events of the not-so-distant past, and maybe even our present and future.

Sometimes you come across a film that is just not a good personal fit, and MALMKROG unfortunately was a struggle for me. Three and half hours, in my opinion, is already a bit too long for any film other than some great historic or fantasy epic, but when you add to that the simple staging of a drawing room drama (with long, stationary shots) where a handful of characters partake in drawn-out philosophical debates about religion, good and evil, Europe, nationalism and other subjects using antiquated verbiage, it is going to be a challenging film for most casual observers. The cherry on top was having to read rapid subtitling as the complicated dialogue zoomed along in French… and that’s about where I reached my limit. That’s not to say that the debates are not interesting or topical, they are surprisingly so considering that they are based on a 19th century text by Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, but trying to keep up with them constantly for hours on end is a chore.

MALMKROG is a perfect example of how each individual part of a film can be highly accomplished and yet there is still no guarantee that the whole will come together in the end. Perhaps it is just that the text is better served by serious, slow study and contemplation rather than flung at the audience by European aristocrats with quick repartee. Or maybe, if the audience comes into the film fluently understanding formal French it could be better absorbed. Regardless, it is so highly intellectual that it becomes inaccessible and so only seems to serve in educating intellectuals on topics in which they are already well-versed. So while MALMKROG is an interesting experiment insofar as trying to put such a dense philosophical text to screen, it wasn’t particularly successful in going to the heights to which it tried to reach.