Eastern Europe and its sensibilities for the grim and gloomy will make another one-night only appearance in South Florida, thanks to the Miami Beach Cinematheque. Prepare for Aurora, a film by Romanian director Cristi Puiu, the director of the Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). That film arrived on the scene in 2005, a full two years before 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon) really kicked off the buzz about the Romanian New Wave. In the mid, 2000s, the scene was bursting with directors who won critical if not commercial acclaim in the US art house scene (do not forget Corneliu Porumboiu, director of both Police Adjective and 12:08 East of Bucharest and the fact that 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days was first released on DVD in the US as a Borders exclusive, many months ahead of a wider release as a marketing gimmick for the store).
Despite their acclaim, these films were never known for their perkiness and happy endings. Hence, none had the true crossover, mainstream appeal of say a Zhang Yimou film. Aurora will do nothing to perk things up, as it follows a psychopath as he commits what seem random murders until he surrenders to police and confesses. It is no giveaway to say the main character, Viorel (played by the director), is the killer. The kicker arrives as Viorel offers his reasoning for the murders, revealing their connections and offering the final piece of the puzzle. The trailer does a nice job of setting up the film:
Knowing that this man is preparing for a spree of murder in fact livens up the first hour of this three-hour movie, as for the first hour, what you mostly see is a morose guy going about his day, doing mundane things. A distant, stationery, almost voyeuristic camera presents shots of Viorel doing nothing that seems out-of-the-ordinary, much less acting psychotic. Do not expect to see Buffalo Bill, from Silence of the Lambs, smearing lipstick on his face, dancing naked to “Goodbye Horses,” as he waits for his victim’s skin to soften up with lotion so he can skin her. Instead, you will see Viorel showering in all his flabby paleness making sure he has scrubbed well down there. Peeking around corners, the camera finds him simply waiting. The distance of the camera does not allow for any sort of sentimentality, as there are no closeups to allow for subtlety, much less a glimpse at the soul or thoughts of the character. This is not a man deep in thought or emotional turmoil. This is a man waiting. He waits to get somewhere in a car, he waits for someone to pick up the line on the other end of a phone, he waits for the elevator to arrive. The industrial equipment that offers much of the backdrop or the ruin of his apartment, which he tells relatives and neighbors is under renovation, only enhances the gloom.
Adding to the humdrum proceedings is the director’s choice not to use any extra-diagetic music or sounds. If there is any noise or music, it comes from the props in the scene. Even without close-ups, the characters do nothing to draw you in. They all seem to have faces frozen in frowns. When you do see something that might offer some levity to the proceedings, it only appears incidentally, on odd props denoting the everyday, like the rows of bright red, little hearts that ring a white broom stick handle in the corner of a room or the Tom and Jerry cartoon character stickers on the dashboard of Viorel’s car, slightly blurry, in the corner of a frame.
But, indeed this is all leading to something. By the time Viorel is handling the giant double-barrel shotgun that will become his murder weapon, putting it together in his bedroom, surrounded by stacks of books and CDs and rows of LPs and DVDs, not to mention a shelf dedicated to a miniature car collection, it makes your skin crawl to see how he nonchalantly turns the weapon at his chest and then under his chin, unable to reach the trigger, only an inch or so away from the reach of his outstretched arm.
Puiu has done an ingenious trick. By offering repetitive shots of the everyday as a set-up, he has reminded the audience of the banality of life, enhancing the shock when the shotgun finally goes off without showing the gruesome side-effects of the result. When Viorel first fires the weapon, it is inside his own house at some furniture. But it does not come with any immediacy, as the film— though long— unfolds with the efficiency of very few edits. The camera lingers as Viorel stands up, points the gun at some cushions, positions himself in a stance, snuggling the rifle’s butt into his shoulder. He decides to turn off the light. There’s a delay in the shadowy image and time again for him to find the right stance. The waiting again. Boom! Bright yellow lights up the dark. With very deliberate patience, it all seems to lead to that gun blast that comes with a shock. When Viorel finally goes out to use it on someone, you never know who these people are until the very end. The distance of the camera enhances the mystery. The shots never come fast enough, as Viorel spends some decent time bracing and positioning himself before firing the weapon. When the first fatal scream penetrates Puiu’s coldly directed film, the ghost of it seems to echo throughout the rest of Viorel’s ho-hum day.
In the end, Puiu makes distance, be it physical, emotional or social, the most creepy aspect of Aurora. Viorel is not always alone in the movie. He interacts with co-workers, neighbors, relatives and even loved ones, which include one of his 7-year-old daughters, almost never giving off a hint of edginess, until the killings begin, then he seems to loosen up, growing bolder with his mouth, most of all. Then the film truly starts to roll, as the presence of Viorel seems threatening to everything around him, including his own child. Halfway through the movie, all of a sudden the tone and the drama has been heightened, and everything Viorel does is tinged with a bit of edgy tension that culminates with him finally turning himself over to the police, where he admits to the killings and shares the connection and reason behind the murders, which is the real mystery that loads the movie.
The film is an odd experience and a true test of audience expectations, offering something beyond what one would expect in a suspense thriller, where the killer is often cloaked in darkness. Indeed, by shining a light on a lonely man, barely ever putting him outside of the frame (except one scene, where the camera seems to hesitate in following Viorel, as he commits one of his atrocities), Puiu flips the psycho-killer movie on its head, but maintains a creeping sense of dread, nonetheless.
Aurora is Unrated and will make its Florida theatrical debut at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which provided a screener for the purpose of this review, for one night only: Wednesday, Oct. 12 at 8 p.m.