It seems that Romanian director Cristi Puiu likes to turn his films into singular objects. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, the 2005 Un Certain Regard winner, was a claustrophobic and darkly comic look at Romanian red tape and inefficiency, almost in real time, while his austere and ambitious 2010 title Aurora starred the filmmaker as a man who goes about a normal day, which includes a couple of killings. His first-ever Cannes competition entry, Sieranevada, is another unique film when judged by the title, spelled as it is as one word, with only one “r” and with no tangible connection to either the similar-sounding beer or mountain ranges.
But much of what unspools in Puiu’s latest will be familiar for audiences up to speed on the films of the Romanian New Wave, which the director’s previous efforts have helped define, as the members of an extended family butt heads, laugh, cry and panic over a memorial meal, shot in a cramped apartment and again shown practically in real time. The good news is that it’s still a top-drawer New Wave film, familiar in the best ways while offering fascinating insights into human nature, identity and foibles. Though almost three hours long, committed art house fans are sure to be responsive, with the feature’s undercurrent of black humor as well as Puiu’s reputation very marketable assets.
Almost everyone in the family of sexagenarian Nasu Mirica (Dana Dogaru) is converging in her small apartment to celebrate the 40-day memorial of her late husband, Emil. As viewers, we get to see their son, Lary (Mimi Branescu), a doctor, and his wife, Laura (Catalina Moga) first, as they bicker about a Disney dress that one of their little girls needs for school. It’s a fight that offers direct insight into who these characters are: Laura is super-informed about everything and thinks a lot before she decides and expects everyone else to do the same, while her other half, who relies more on gut feelings and improvisation, is the kind of person who listens to her with a bemused smirk if he disagrees but then still wants to win the argument. The dialogue is lifelike, sharp, funny and full of unexpected twists that are logical yet often turn things on their heads. The result is directly reminiscent of the best writing of fellow New Wave filmmakers such as Corneliu Porumboiu, Radu Jude and Razvan Radulescu (the latter also co-wrote Mr. Lazarescu).
Things grow more complex at Nasu’s home, where her grown children and their children as well as Nasu’s sister (Ana Contea) and her children have gathered for the memorial service, which will be performed by a priest (Valer Dellakeza) and his deacons. They’ve prepared a lot of food, but in one of the film’s lovely, clearly metaphorical touches, the actual meal keeps getting postponed. A philandering husband (Sorin Medelini) shows up but might get his own comeuppance; one of the nieces, Cami (Ilona Brezoianu), brings in a severely drunk Croatian friend (Petra Kurtela) who can barely stand on her feet and might ruin the bathroom, while a suit that will have a symbolic meaning during the memorial turns out to be much too large. Discussed matters are as varied as 9/11 conspiracy theories, which Cami’s brother, Sebi (Marin Grigore), seems to believe, while Lary’s sibling, Sandra (Judith State), gets into a heated argument with a pearl- and fur-wearing relic of an aunt (Tatiana Iekel) who extols the values of Communism over that of the former Romanian monarchy.
With well over a dozen major speaking roles, the film can’t illuminate or develop the (back)stories of everyone, so Puiu wisely uses Lary and Laura as a way into the family gathering. What’s important is that the movie convincingly manages to give the viewers the impression they are actually there, as if they were part of the clan. This is achieved not only by the perfectly synched performances of the cast but especially by having cinematographer Barbu Balasoiu shoot everything at eye level and almost in real time, with the camera darting from one face to another and dipping in and out conversations in the different rooms as if the viewer was one of the individuals present (the smokers all gather in the kitchen with the door closed, while Cami is told to stay with her semi-unconscious acquaintance in the bedroom because “What if she dies?”).
Puiu suggests in the press notes he thus wanted to capture the presence and gaze of the dead man, though in the final film this is neither entirely clear nor convincing, since the story starts not in the deceased’s home but outside with Lary and his wife, and will follow the couple again outside toward the end (and there’s no particular reason — except for storytelling clarity — that Emil would follow them rather than the dealings of 15 others in his own home).
If we only get a glance or two at each character’s own story, the dense screenplay has no problem tackling much bigger topics and offer insights related to individuals, families and even larger groups. It is absolutely fascinating to watch how Puiu X-rays his characters to show how every single person onscreen belongs to several groups or affiliations at once — based on sex, age, family bonds, behavior, moral or religious views, interests, nationality, politics and more — and how every one of them is either willing or forced to compromise parts of who they are to continue belonging to all these groups. It’s not a coincidence that Lary and Laura also literally have to deal with roadblocks outside, as life, Sieranevada seems to suggest, is about constantly navigating obstacles while still finding a way to belong or gain entry into the subsets of humanity that are important to you or expected of you — and that, when all taken together, define who you are.
“Life has highs and lows,” one of the characters is told, “and today’s sort of a low.” The same can’t be said of Sieranevada, which might not be as daringly new as Aurora but which takes the Mr. Lazarescu template and retools it to reveal something about who we all are and how we function as individuals within the groups that make up our identities.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (competing)
Production companies: Mandragora, Produkcija 2006 Sarajevo, Studioul de creatie cinematografica, Sisters & Brother Mitevski, Spiritus Movens, Alcatraz Films, Iadasarecasa, Arte France Cinema
Cast: Mimi Branescu, Judith State, Bogdan Dumitrache, Dana Dogaru, Sorin Medeleni, Ana Ciontea, Rolando Matsangos, Catalina Moga, Marin Grigore, Tatiana Iekel, Marian Ralea, Ioana Craciunescu
Writer-director: Cristi Puiu
Producer: Anca Puiu
Co-producers: Mirsad Purivatra, Sabina Brankovic, Lucian Pintilie, Labina Mitevska, Zdenka Gold, Laurence Clerc, Olivier Thery Lapiney
Director of photography: Barbu Balasoiu
Production designer: Cristina Barbu
Costume designer: Maria Pitea, Doina Raducut
Editors: Letitia Stefanescu, Ciprian Cimpoi, Iulia Muresan
Sales: Elle Driver
Not rated, 173 minutes