When Bogdan George Apetri is thinking about a movie he’s going to make, he always looks at things from a number of different sides.
“Maybe it’s the American [in me] because I studied at Columbia [University] where I teach [now] as well, so I’m both a product and a professor there, and the American experience definitely influenced me more than other directors from Romania in that everything I do — I write a line, I shape a scene — I always double up,” says Apetri. “I’m the director and I put myself [in the mind of a viewer, thinking] what will they understand here?”
This ability to see outside a single perspective has served Apetri well, whether in terms of being an artist looking at engaging an audience or traveling back and forth between Romania where he grew up and America where he currently resides, and it actively shapes his latest drama “Miracle,” a searing investigation into the tragic plight of a 19-year-old novice named Cristina (Ioana Bugarin) in the Romanian Orthodox Church. While the film begins in the hallowed halls of a monastery, little seems sacred as Cristina is asked to get into a cab and given a cell phone, knowing where she’s headed as a doctor joins her, but not fully aware of where she’ll end up. Apetri doesn’t leave this as a mystery to the viewer, but he he does shift the film’s point of view halfway through to Marius (Emanuel Parvu), the police investigator tasked with looking into her disappearance after she doesn’t make it back to the monastery, increasingly unsettled by what he discovers.
Unfolding in long, engrossing takes accentuated by gentle circular camera pans where one becomes more and more conscious of the environment the characters are operating in, “Miracle” revolves around truths that can’t be spoken aloud yet dictate the way society functions even in this quiet countryside as Cristina may be forced to leave the convent yet she experiences its reach into every part of her life as she tries to set about a new course while Marius runs up against their power as well in trying to get answers, pushing him to use his own bestowed by his badge in uncomfortable ways. Keeping in line with seeing things in tandem, “Miracle” is actually one of two films from Apetri that is arriving stateside this week, accompanied by its companion “Unidentified,” centered on a fellow officer in Marius’ department whose latest case comes to reveal more about himself than the mystery at hand.
With both opening at Film Forum in New York before rolling out across the country in both theaters and VOD, Apetri graciously spoke about mounting two productions at once and cracking the immersive bifurcated structure of “Miracle,” as well as leaving certain elements of the process open to the unexpected and the film’s distinctive visual style.
How did this come about?
This is part of a larger trilogy I’m making in Romania, and the first installment of the trilogy is called “Unidentified” and while I was rewriting the project, I remembered an old idea I had in my head to do a trilogy in my small town. [It could be] any small town, but obviously it’s easier to do it in the small town where you grew up because you know every corner, the way people talk and open doors, the way people joke and things like that. So I realized, hey, this is going to be the first installment of that trilogy I keep thinking about for many years and I actively started to think about a second and a third idea. I came up with the idea of “Miracle” all of a sudden, almost fully formed. I always joke that it came to me in an airport while drinking a coffee at six a.m., and just came from nowhere with this structure – one half about a nun, one half about a policeman — I put it down on a napkin at the end of August 2018. The process from then on was incredibly fast.
It took me maybe one month to write the first draft, one month to write a second and third draft, and casting was eight months, but by 2019, I was shooting the movie already because we shot “Unidentified” and “Miracle” not back-to-back, but actually intertwined, so literally two days of “Unidentified” and then we switched to “Miracle” for three days and back to “Unidentified” for four days. It was the same cast of characters, the same locations, same crew, so it made total sense to do it like this. While “Unidentified” took three or four years to really pull off, “Miracle” was very, very fast because we piggybacked [off “Unidentified”]. So that’s how it came about, actively looking for an idea and it’s like all ideas. You don’t know where it came from, so that’s how it came about.
How did you find your leads?
First of all, actors in Romania are really good. They have a great discipline, a theater discipline [because] there are almost no actors in Romania that are just film actors. Almost all of them are [from the] theater and especially for a movie like “Miracle” where I have long takes – eight minutes, 10 minutes, 16 minutes sometimes, the theater discipline comes in handy. It’s really getting into the truth of the moment, so there was a huge advantage and [casting is] always scary and exciting at the same time, trying to find actors who at least a part of them I believe that the character is in them. Maybe I’ll grow up and think otherwise, but I don’t think an actor can do zero to one hundred. I think they have to start at 30 or 40 percent and something tells me that part of that character is in them, so I’m looking for the right actors for the part, more so than even the best actor.
Second, I view the filmmaking process as [having] layer after layer, so I don’t finish a character when I write and I’m trying to find an actor to match the image I have, so I always leave it a little bit unfinished [where] I’m going to finish it in editing. Same with casting, so in casting I discover who the character is. The nun Cristina, I didn’t picture exactly like that. It was going back to the last two or three finalists — and Ioana Bugarin was one of them, — that I realized I understand now the character. Same with the police inspector and the other minor parts as well, so it was a combination of having a great pool of actors in Romania to choose from, and leaving the casting process open in my mind, so nobody fits an image and with them, I’m building the character, so the character truly is as much my creation as it’s their creation.
With the camera style in the film where there are these slow, circular pivots, did it free up the actors or was it difficult to pull off when you’ll have things going on in the background that you have to account for?
Part of it is instinct and part of it is liberating as well. When I was a film student, everything was logical. I have this scene, I’m doing the storyboard, I’m doing the shotlist and my first film “Outbound” was very shotlisted, so I had a plan in my mind, but these second and third films were liberating in the way that I opened the world up to the film, so I said I’m going to go there and I’m not exactly sure how am I going to shoot it. Let’s rehearse, let’s block and again, going back to the casting phase of leaving it open, you’re realizing, “Ah, I understand. This is what the scene is about” [only when you’re actually on set]. And sometimes it’s a larger question, when for example the motif of the reflection came up during the film — in the middle of filming, we shot the two beginnings of the two chapters with the washing bowl, and I said, “Hey, there’s something wrong in the reflection, let’s find again the [circular pivots] because we discovered the [camera] pans earlier — we discovered some other camera move, going around the police station, so [it was a process of] opening up to what the film is telling you. You’re making a movie not just with your heart, but with your head and the heart tells you something and then the brain comes in to structure, not the other way around, so for me, it’s very much a question of instinct.
If you’re talking about the circular move in the [central] scene of the film, it was very important [because] the whole movie for me is like a book opening in half. The second half is a carbon copy of the first, so it’s almost a mathematical structure. Every scene has a sister scene in the second half because they’re mirroring each other, so if we started the movie in the monastery room, we started the second part in the monastery room, [Cristina] goes in the courtyard, [Marius] goes into the courtyard, she goes into the car, he goes into the car. So the crime in the forest, [there’s] a sister sequence is him deciding what to do with the taxi driver at the end and if that’s 360 in time at the end, the first one is a 360 in space, so it has some correlation. It’s not the same, but if you put them together, it’s like the two halves. Everything has a correspondence, so it’s logic, it’s structure, but it’s instinctual at the same time.
That [central] scene in particular in the forest, there is more than one reason why it goes around. It goes around because maybe you want to dilate the time when something horrible happens to you [and] two minutes seem like 10 minutes, 10 minutes seem like an hour, so [there’s] that slow, slow pan and when we come back, it’s still going. I really wanted the audience to feel that. You’re hoping that it ends, and then you go back after six minutes and it’s still going. Second, I wanted the movie to be called “Miracle” and the miracle should happen in that scene, but it doesn’t, so where do we want as the audience the miracle to happen? I wanted to show that the world is not moving a finger. Nothing happens. The leaves, the rain, cars, traffic [all continue] while this horrible tragedy is happening, the world looks at it in a cold way. It doesn’t do anything. That’s why we need a miracle and it doesn’t happen.
Did knowing the geography actually inform the structure?
A hundred percent. That location is my family’s land, believe it or not. Of course during communism, nobody was allowed to have property, so I grew up going fishing exactly where I shot that scene, knowing that in the ‘40s, it belonged to my family, but the communist government came, stole all lands and luckily after 1989, we got all the land back, so that’s still the land of my family and I knew that land inside and out. I wrote the scene at this desk in New York, so it helped knowing locations and another reason why I set up the movies in and around my town, because I knew it inside and out and I could write scenes and do a mental location scouting from New York. Sometimes it changed and sometimes you go on a location scout and things change and you find a better option. You have to keep yourself open to that as well and not just stick with your plan, and I did spend two or three weeks looking for locations, just in case there’s one better, but in this particular case, I couldn’t find a better one.
One of the things that’s so great about this is how you’re able to tell an entire story of a society through these two characters, a lot of which is accomplished through being able to feel that larger outside world. What was it like to bring that in in subtle ways?
I’m happy you said it because a lot of people said this movie is a critique about Romanian society or the church and I never started it like that. That result is inevitable because you’re not making the movie in a vacuum. You’re making it in 2022, and if the movie’s truthful, it’s impossible not to comment on how things are. But I don’t think the process should start like that, otherwise it’s like a PH.d thesis, so I started with characters and put them in interesting situations and let them navigate that. I’m interested in going deep, not wide into Cristina the nun, and [the police investigator] Marius, and into the colleague who keeps talking about the taxi driver or the doctor — part of me is in every character. Part of me is the doctor, who is upset that people don’t vaccinate in Romania and go to prayer. Part of me is the nun who says, “No, no, no, we’re not talking about the same thing.” So I start with characters and I trust them. and I never think about the social commentary, knowing that it will seep through. I think about the skeleton and the muscles and the capillaries follow that, so every movie for me is a character movie and I hope deep into my heart, that if you change the location, that movie will still work in any country.
Your films are rooted in realism, but because of the structure and some of the narrative leaps you’re asking the audience to make, is that intimidating when you’re actually working through this to take such a step creatively?
Not intimidating at all. On the contrary, it’s liberating and I think life is like this. For example, we just met. I don’t know anything about you. I suppose it’s like a movie and the scene starts. I wouldn’t place any force on our first scene in a movie. Oh I have to tell something about you or I have to tell this, so the audience understands. No, I let it seep through because if we became friends, tomorrow I’ll find out something else about you or two days later I’ll find out something else. There’s not actually narrative gaps, but it’s the way the world works and every movie is the audience finding out about something about characters and situations and I tried to mimic the natural process of it. I’m not trying to make a genre movie where it’s like oh, it’s a detective movie where I’m not giving you this [information until the end]. I’m starting out actually from what life is so drip by drip, you find out more and more and more. That’s the realistic part of it as far as I’m concerned.
The long takes, the danger of it I thought was because it’s a Romanian film and New Romanian films put a lot of emphasis on long takes and an Andre Bazin kind of realism. That’s not why I did the long takes [because] I wanted time to be a character in the film. I wanted you to feel the weight of time like a river moving slowly, so if it took somebody eight minutes to finish a conversation in a car, I wanted that. It’s still a movie, not a slice of life as far as I’m concerned, but that’s the reason I did the long takes. But other than that, I’m never afraid with any movie because if it flops, it flops. You’re going to make another one, so I never feel fear. I’m so invested in the characters that I let them pull me forward.
“Miracle” opens on June 3rd in New York at Film Forum and on Los Angeles on June 10th, expanding throughout the country in the weeks ahead. A full list of theaters and dates is here. “Unidentified” will be available on VOD on June 3rd and shown theatrically at a special screening in New York at Film Forum on June 9th at 8 pm.