Cristi Puiu hones the art of multilayered, deadpan Romanian realism with a physically claustrophobic, emotionally tumultuous interior drama, set at an extended family wake, that’s his most approachable film since The Death of Mr Lazarescu. Regarded by some (this writer included) as the most audacious and influential of the Romanian filmmakers who have made their mark on the international scene in the last decade and a half, Cristi Puiu has an unusually intriguing body of work to his name.
A taut, fast first feature (Stuff and Dough, 2001) preceded a short (Cigarettes and Coffee, 2004) that won a prize in Berlin. On to Cannes where Puiu had two features in the Un Certain Regard strand: the widely admired, prizewinning The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005), followed by Aurora (2010), a very impressive but somewhat challenging foray into highly rigorous realism that left some confounded or alienated by its ellipses and ambiguities. Next, Three Exercises in Interpretation (2012), a relatively playful but typically extended triptych made in France as a workshop experiment, was barely seen; likewise, a very funny short made for the compilation film The Bridges of Sarajevo (2014). Accordingly, few knew what to expect from the eccentrically titled (and deliberately misspelt) Sieranevada, surprisingly Puiu’s first film in Cannes’ main competition.
Undoubtedly, the film fits the perceived Puiu bill in terms of its duration (nearly three hours), its readiness to let viewers work out for themselves not only what is going on and why but also who relates precisely to whom, and its potentially dark subject (like Lazarescu and Aurora it deals in part with death). Notwithstanding, however, the fact that it is set largely within one apartment and is, like Lazarescu, an expertly assembled evocation of ‘real time’, the film is a significantly more audience-friendly work than Aurora. For one thing, it has far more dialogue than that film; for another, Sieranevada, for all its fundamental seriousness of purpose, is frequently gilded with a rich vein of black humour.
After a pre-credits prologue in which we observe, at some distance, a couple’s complicated parking set-up in a busy street before they drive off somewhere, we finally get up close inside their car and hear their argumentative conversation; still, however, it’s left unclear where exactly they’re going or why.
It turns out – and we learn this only gradually, as Puiu drip-feeds bits of information as the narrative proceeds – that they’re going to some sort of memorial service at a rambling apartment where the extended family of the husband – a generally sanguine doctor called Lary – is crowded together. Conversations occur, rituals are performed, memories shared, some amiably, others less so.
It’s a highly persuasive portrait of family life, replete with intimacies, special alliances, tensions, resentments and reconciliations, but also a revealing study of how that may reflect developments in the wider world. One of Lary’s cousins, for example, follows conspiracy theories surrounding the events of 9/11, which makes for much discussion of politics, terrorism (the film is set shortly after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo) and the epistemological world we live in.
Likewise, upsets arise around Romania’s religion and Communist past; inevitably, bitterness ensues. Crucially, no judgements are offered, Puiu deeply aware that it’s best to listen to all points of view.
His expert orchestration of themes, moods and tones is as subtle and resonant as his virtuoso choreography of the many utterly credible characters moving from one room to another or, just now and then, making brief excursions into the world outside. He’s well served by a host of remarkable naturalistic performances and by Barbu Bălășoiu’s camerawork, capturing what’s going on in the apartment’s rooms and hall without once drawing attention to its own virtuoso brilliance. As time passes, Puiu is confirming himself as one of the most truly distinctive (and philosophically fascinating) voices of 21st-century filmmaking; in his singularly thoughtful approach to cinematic realism, he is at once rigorous and quietly radical.