A Film By Cristi Puiu
Genre: Drama • Year: 2016 • Country: Romania • Running Time: 173 minutes • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 • Image: Colour • Language: Romanian
Having been catapulted to international recognition following the success of the near universally acclaimed 2005 black comedy The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu, followed by 2010’s alternative crime drama Aurora (the second instalment in his planned suite ‘Six Stories from the Outskirts of Bucharest’ series), director and screenwriter Cristi Puiu has firmly established himself as one of the most influential and celebrated figures in Romanian cinema.
Clocking in at an impressive two hours and fifty three minutes, Puiu’s stuffy and often suffocating chamber drama is far from the easiest piece of cinema you are likely to sit through this year, however those willing to stick with the slow-burning, darkly comic study of dysfunctional family life can be sure to find rewards aplenty in what proves a surprisingly compelling, brutally honest and fully relatable ensemble drama.
In keeping with the majority of his previous works, Puiu once again gives the viewer quite a bit of work to do whilst the drama unfolds, cryptically hinting at what is happening (and why) and never officially confirming the relationships between the numerous characters.
With its emphasis on lengthy single takes and careful attention to detail, Sieranevada proves an expertly composed and extraordinarily choreographed portrait of real time and real life. Though in contrast to his equally lengthy other works, this is much more reliant on dialogue and rhythm, rarely giving us the sense of contemplation and stillness evoked in the likes of Aurora and Lăzărescu.
Ultimately centring around a memorial gathering for the recently deceased Emil, a respected family patriarch, the film primarily unfolds within the cramped and increasingly claustrophobic confines of a small Bucharest apartment, serving as the meeting point for the memorial lunch. Soon full to bursting, the narrow rooms of the apartment become the stages for a variety of rituals and conversations, as numerous close and extended family members gather to share memories and discuss a wealth of diverse topics.
Through discussions on domestic dramas, social concerns, political troubles, philosophical concepts and even government conspiracy theories, the film brilliantly highlights the various alliances and tensions that arise within large family groups. Set just a few days after the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks, the film also offers an intriguing view of the politics and religion of contemporary society juxtaposing that of Romania’s Communist past.
At the heart of the piece we have middle-aged neurologist Larry (who serves as the principal point of view character) and through him Puiu manages to convey a mutual feeling of exhaustion and exasperation at the constant arguing and repeated postponement of the service due to unexpected arrivals and no-show guests. Eventually forced to confront his past demons and add truth to the stories that have been dug up during the reunion, Larry slowly begins to question his significance and position within the family unit.
Director of Photography Barbu Bălăşoiu deserves special credit for his marvellous cinematography, which in all honesty serves as an extra voyeuristic, unseen guest. Gently panning from room to room, peering round corners, glancing through doorways and nervously eavesdropping like a nosy neighbour hovering over the garden fence, he manages to create such an intimate and intense atmosphere that it comes as a genuine breath of fresh air when we finally move away from the apartment and step into the cool autumnal outdoors.
Absorbing, deliberately unshowy and surprisingly affecting, Puiu has crafted a challenging yet wholly rewarding piece of cinematic realism.
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