In his latest exploration of Romanian society, writer-director Cristi Puiu offers an intimate examination at a family and its internal dysfunctions. The dynamics in Sieranevada serve as a microcosm for action. The fifth full-length film by Puiu features long sequences mostly inside of a crammed apartment, transmitting a little of claustrophobia and perhaps also a sense to escape. Puiu, of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) and Aurora (2010) (‘Aurora’ offers banal glimpse into psychopath’s killing routine) fame, also continues to explore the pathos of his homeland. This is a less focused effort than his previous films, yet Puiu creates a free-flowing narrative that expects patience and rewards with lived experiences.
The film focuses on a family in mourning over the loss of a patriarch. However, you would not know that this is the case because the entire tension is about a meal they are about to share. First, we meet a couple who are en route to the family gathering. Lary (Mimi Brănescu) and his wife Laura (Cătălina Moga) argue about how long it will take and all the other errands they have to fit in, but they are already running late. The closeups of the couple in the car already give the sense of an oppressive, stifling sort of intimacy. The tight focus of the camera during these conversations readies the audience for the next installment of the film where we enter this apartment, and the camera stands outside of the action most of the time, pointing at different rooms within the apartment. It is as if the audience is also crammed in there, trying to get a peek of the action.
Inside the apartment a family prepares for a meal. There is a lot of cooking and everyone seems hungry, but they are all waiting for a priest to show up. He is running behind. In the meantime, there is drinking and plenty of vignettes of family drama in between the rooms of this apartment. There are several stories interwoven, as much as there are several family characters; each of them revealing different preoccupations in society.
Some of the scenes take place in the kitchen, where the women are prepping food, which sees plenty of traffic and even smoking. In between this hectic scenario, an older woman, a guest of the family, strikes up an argument with the younger daughter. The older woman is extolling the virtues of communism, while the younger woman breaks down into tears. It is hard to tell why the exchange is so damning until we learn the person they are mourning is the young woman’s father, and he had reluctantly joined the communist party as a survival strategy.
Outside of the kitchen, a recurring theme is videos on the Sept. 11 attacks. There are conversations about conspiracy theories, and some of the family members gather to watch YouTube videos and google all kinds of information that “doesn’t fit.” Here, Puiu seems to be saying that there are still preoccupations with truth, hidden truths and official versions versus underground versions. No doubt this is one of the remnants of state-controlled information during the Soviet regime.
Puiu seems to play with this underlying concern and at times makes it funny, but there is also a very serious tone as discussions turn to the human ability to question facts and not simply accept freely given information. The same dynamics take place within the family. There is an “official narrative” as they all gather, revealing themes that are OK to talk about, but behind closed doors, smaller groups discuss more serious issues. During the height of the film, Lary confesses to his wife the troubled relationship with his father. They are inside their car and the emotional unraveling also contains elements of truth and appearances lived in Lary’s younger life.
Long-time readers of Independent Ethos will know I’m a big fan of the Romanian New Wave (Romanian New Wave – 5 top films). Puiu is one of the best exponents of this film movement, and now has changed the narrative, exposing the continuities in politics within Romanian society. With Sieranevada, he also comments on the role of tradition and ceremonies in our lives. The obstinate mother that will not allow the family to eat together until absolutely everything is right is not only a form of honoring her late husband but a ritual experience wherein she is helping herself and the family move on. By extension so must Romania.
Sieranevada runs 173 minutes long, is in Romanian with English subtitles and is not rated. It has no U.S. distributor. It is the official submission of Romania for the Best Foreign Language Film category of the 89th Academy Awards in 2017. I caught the film at the AFI Silver during the AFI European Union Film Showcase.