To say that Romanian cinema isn’t celebrated for its comedies is accurate on one level: few sane viewers of Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d'Or-winning abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) would hail it as a barrel of laughs. Then again, ask someone Romanian, and you might hear The Death of Mr Lăzărescu (2005), Cristi Puiu’s epic broadside against his country’s health service, identified as deeply funny – just more in a clamp-your-hand-to-your-mouth- in-horror way then a belly-laugh sort of way.
These are the two directors whose new films are competing in Cannes this year, and it’s Puiu who has delivered Sieranevada, a comedy that looks like a drama, sounds like a drama, and remains dead serious, and politically searching, through three full hours of actually twisting your leg. There’s not a second of the film that doesn’t feel minutely convincing, as an ensemble portrait of a squabbling family gathering for the wake of a recently deceased patriarch, and falling back into old patterns of dispute and recrimination.
Puiu is too thoughtful a filmmaker to push for laughs by twisting anyone’s behaviour in parodically obvious ways – it’s a comedy, in fact, containing barely one moment of comic exaggeration. As such, it earns respect and a cumulative awe in its intently amused vision of reality: it’s a commanding and intellectually gratifying piece of work.
Fully two and a half hours are spent here in the poky Bucharest flat of widow Nusa (Dana Dogaru), whose neurologist son Lary (Brănescu Mimi) and his wife Laura (Cătălina Moga) are latecomers to the party, if you can really call it that: Nusa’s whole family have assembled, with a priest expected to bless the passing of her late husband Emil, while various dishes including a Bulgarian bean soup called chorba are prepared by Lary’s cousins in the kitchen. Puiu doesn’t crowbar in phony introductions, in the way that a Woody Allen would do, to make any of the relationships clear: in a cast of over a dozen, you’ll spend a long time trying to figure out who exactly is who’s brother, whether the aunts are related by blood, and how the venerable Eva (Tatiana Iekel), a former radical with stern lessons for the younger generation, fits in with the rest of the clan.
Try to imagine something like the all-Corleones dinner scene from The Godfather, stretched over the entire length of The Godfather in real time, but with parity for male and female characters – some of whom stumble in unannounced, or rudely depart for a whole 90 minutes, like Laura, whose desperation to get to the supermarket goes hand in hand with having no desire to hang out with her husband’s family. After spending a bit of time with them, you’re not necessarily surprised. Lary’s cousine Sebi (Marin Grigore) is a beardily intense conspiracy theorist who thinks Bush engineered 9/11, while his aunt Ofelia (Ana Ciontea) is a blubbing depressive, cheated on by her husband, with a vague resemblance to Mia Farrow.
The film is set directly after the Charlie Hebdo attack, which lets Sebi get back on an old horse, maddening to the family’s more conservative members, about “official versions” of events being impossible to trust. The question Puiu poses, without hammering it home too crassly, is whether families forge their own kind of widely-swallowed fictions and distortions to survive.
As a corollary to all the talk about Bush, it’s pointed and amusing when Ofelia’s husband’s peccadilloes result in the question, “Is a blowjob adultery or not?”, without any overt mention of Bill Clinton. There’s a lot more bubbling under the surface of these relationships, and tracing all the underlying links and loyalties becomes an addictive game: I devoted a lot of notepad space to several attempts at getting the family tree right, before giving up and just enjoying the vivid energies and animosities being flashed across the screen by the entire, impeccable cast.
Puiu works in very long takes here, and they’re frequently astounding, in terms of realistic choreography of people entering and exiting a dining room, bustling credibly about, and getting in each other’s way: the blocking and camera movements have a master’s grasp of precision and timing. It’s also a film with a mordant sense of humour about its own length (“But brevity is the soul of wit,” announces the droning priest on his way out the door) and one with offhand moments of oddly joyous bleakness – the doorbell ringing to admit yet another guest, right in the middle of a candlelit valediction. As he analyses the stories that families tell, and governments tell, to face up to their most corrosive crises, Puiu rubs the two together with a stony glee that can’t help but grab you. There’s nothing easy about his cinema, but it’s a good, bracing kind of hard.