To be plunged into a fractious Romanian funeral party for almost three hours won't be everyone's idea of a fun night out. Yet braver filmgoers should find Cristi Puiu
's claustrophobic, quietly absurd, blackly comic family portrait Sieranevada
a deeply involving, curiously mysterious experience.
Anyone who's seen Puiu's The Death of Mr Lazarescu
(the 2005 film which helped to put the new wave of Romanian cinema on the map) or his more austere Aurora
(2010) will know that his dramas offer a particular form of in-the-moment, obscuring realism that asks us to do much of the work. He also offers a line in bleak gallows humour that's present here as a dozen or so relatives and neighbours (and, briefly, a priest) fill a cramped city apartment to mark 40 days since the death of Emil, husband, father, grandfather and uncle to those gathered.
We're thrown unforgivingly into the chaos of family life – you'd be forgiven if you were still trying to figure out the sprawling family tree by the time this ends – and it's long into the film that we realise we're at a death ritual at all. We travel to this party with the deceased's son, Lary (Mimi Branescu), and his wife, Laura (Catalina Amiga), whose trouble with parking at the opening is mirrored later in the film's only other episode set outside. The rest is nearly three hours indoors as Puiu offers a talky masterclass in seemingly effortless choreography, moving between characters and among conversations about Communism; 9/11 conspiracies; the Charlie Hebdo murders (which have taken place three days before); the 'junkie' who someone brings with them; food; one ageing man's infidelities; and more.
Only occasionally mentioned is Emil, the deceased, although there's a distraction involving his nephew and a tradition which means he must wear a suit and act out the man's 'presence' at dinner. Emil is the ghost at the party; absent but increasingly present in our minds. Pointedly, the centrepiece family meal is endlessly delayed.
The film's meaning is opaque. There are so many stories and relationships at play here that, to his credit, you could choose to lean in on any number of versions of Puiu's film. That means we're left a little unsatisfied, with no real sense of clear themes explored and ideas resolved. But the sense of having shared real lives, deeply and meaningfully, is incontestable.