After Aurora and its polemical realism
Leaving aside the experimental Three Exercises of Interpretation from 2013 (produced in an acting workshop), Cristi Puiu’s last feature film before this year’s Sieranevada was Aurora, which premiered back in 2010 in Cannes’s “Un Certain Regard” section. A three-hour long fiction narrated in a manner indebted to the “observational” species of documentary, Aurora follows a man’s comings and goings through Bucharest in the course of some 30 hours, during which the man (played by Puiu himself) commits several murders. For a long stretch of the film’s running time, these comings and goings are kept obscure for the viewer, while some of the characters who interact with the protagonist are not easily identifiable in relation with him. (For example, certain identification of his former father-in-law as his former father-in-law is delayed on purpose.) Even at the end, this obscurity is only partially dispelled: the film leaves us with mysteries both small and larger – unexplained actions, unidentified characters. At a certain point, in the film’s third hour, the protagonist rings at the door of a woman whom we haven’t met yet – a neighbor of his mother’s – in whose apartment he spends a few minutes. The viewer discovers there four other characters (apart from the woman): her family (including a relative who is just visiting). In the little time he gives us with these people, Cristi Puiu doesn’t allow us to develop clear impressions about who they are, what kind of people etc. He leaves us with a general impression of densely realized realism – with the idea that this apartment has been imagined down to the tiniest details of its fictional inhabitants’ lives – combined with an impression of mystery: it is precisely because of their density that those details do not reveal themselves at a mere glance. A character only allows herself to be glimpsed before shutting herself in the bathroom; another character joins her there for some inaudible whispering. A work of polemical realism, designed to denounce (implicitly) the facility of the techniques deployed by Cristian Mungiu and other Romanian filmmakers for a powerful “reality effect” (in emulation of Puiu’s earlier film The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu), Aurora makes the mundane mysterious: dailiness is not instantly comprehensible, five minutes of observation don’t necessarily reveal to us a lot about someone who is a stranger to us.
Puiu’s new film, Sieranevada, keeps us shut inside a similar apartment for almost three hours, in the company of a fictional family comprising this time sixteen (instead of five) members. With the camera personified as a ghostly, invisible witness (the director of photography was Barbu Bălășoiu), Puiu produces again, for portions of the film, an impression of hushed proceedings barely glimpsed through half-open doors. Puiu also proceeds to tease again our need to get to know our bearings in the midst of this clan – to find out who’s whose brother or mother. Puiu’s narration postpones elucidation of such matters.
Despite all this, Sieranevada is a much more accessible piece of realist cinema: its characters are more talkative than those of Aurora, and, in the course of three hours, the viewer gets a satisfactory handle on at least some of them – that young man is into conspiracy theories about 9/11, that woman has an adulterous husband (and she’s not the only one), the woman with the fur hat is a hardcore nostalgic for the socialist era, and so on. The film tends to inspire an unusual affection in that (far from large) Romanian audience which is at all interested in contemporary national cinema, and it is not hard to see why: viewers trained to relate in sophisticated ways to dramatic-narrative works of fiction can very well come out of the cinema, in this case, discussing Puiu’s characters as though they were acquaintances, arbitrating their quarrells etc. A moment very early in the film, with the protagonist (Mimi Brănescu) quietly driving while his wife (Cătălina Moga), sitting next to him in the car, reprimands him at length for not buying their daughter the correct Disney heroine costume for a school play, can serve as an example of the way in which Puiu implicates the viewer in the frictions among his characters. Odds are that the first impression is one of a shrewish wife nagging her patient husband: her diatribe is really strident, and the class contempt with which she refers to one of their daughter’s classmates (“a stupid peasant whose parents couldn’t think of anything better to do than to go strawberry-picking in Spain”) is guaranteed to prick the viewer’s social sensitivity. But the wife goes on talking: she reproaches the husband that he never listens to their daughter, that his mind is always elsewhere; and, as she talks, it becomes possible for the viewer to see the husband through her eyes, to see him as a man whose amiably phlegmatic air is really just indifference, absenteism, a strategy of incessant avoidance which justifies the wife’s exasperation, her impulse to shake him up.
The fact that, after spending three hours with these characters – who have gathered one January afternoon for a memorial service –, viewers are so filled with them, with their mannerisms and idées fixes and metaphorical warts, testifies to the quality of Puiu’s realism – the density of its details etc. Sieranevada is a film in which, for example, siblings feel like siblings, parents and children look like parents and children – their common history makes itself felt continuously in their interactions. On the other hand, such virtues are merely those of a rather modest realism: if that’s all there is about Sieranevada – the creation of a convincing fictional clan, vividly and amusingly exemplifying the Tolstoyan adage that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own unique way – then aren’t the numerous critical superlatives bestowed upon this film (“masterpiece”, “greatness”, “the best”) somewhat out of proportion?
Trudging through the afternoon towards an epiphany
It is clear that the film has larger ambitions; its claims to importance are evident. The title, with its defiant arbitrariness, is like a proclamation of the right of authorial idiosyncrasy. Through its sheer duration, through the national and international scope of (some of) the characters’ obsessions (the history of communism, the 9/11 attacks), through the strong contrast between the solemnity demanded by the occasion (a death in the family) and most of the characters’ preoccupations, which are either selfishly puny or absurdly grandiose, the film aspires to monumentality. It is also heavy with highbrow cultural echoes. The sitting around and waiting for a priest who’s late is a situation over which the ghost of Beckett almost unavoidably hovers. Just as Buñuel’s characters from The Exterminating Angel cannot leave a reception and return to their homes, because an invisible force keeps them stuck in place, Puiu’s characters are forever preparing to eat and never getting around to do it: the table is laid and then unlaid again and again. And, somewhat like the male protagonist of Joyce’s short story The Dead, who attends a festive reunion, the character played by Mimi Brănescu in Puiu’s film shares in the end an epiphany with his wife – or, if not an epiphany, then at least a moment of relative grace, raising him temporarily above the surrounding triviality, and above his own smallness.
What has become abundantly clear before that moment of grace is the fact that this memorial service, held in a Bucharest flat at the beginning of 2015 and commemorating the death of a medical orderly, is not at all treated by the departed’s family as an occasion for introspection or for intimations of a mortality still endowed with an element of sacred mystery. All elements of the mysterious and the sacred seem to have been evacuated. What’s left is an occasion for prickliness, sterile quarreling, accidents and complications, which, seen from the outside, have about them an air of farce. The priest won’t arrive. Hunger makes nerves bristle. According to a custom, a nephew (Marin Grigore) of the dead man must wear one of the latter’s suits, but the suit is too large and he looks like a clown wearing it. A niece (Ilona Brezoianu) of the dead man has just brought into the apartment a friend of hers, a student from Croatia who has had so many drinks and/or taken so many drugs that now she’s sick. Because the character played by Mimi Brănescu (who’s an ex-doctor and the dead man’s son) has bought the wrong Disney dress for their daughter, his wife is already irritated when they arrive at the flat. His sister (Judith State) is also mad at her husband (Rolando Matsangos), about whom we gather at a certain point that he’s unfaithful to her; in this state, she picks a quarrel with an aged woman (Tatiana Iekel), whom she tearfully takes to task for her communist nostalgias. The reunion gets deepest into triviality, and farthest away from any idea of honoring the departed, of staying in contact with memories of him, with the appearance of his brother-in-law, Toni (Sorin Medeleni), who is preceded by rumors of scandal – of his having beaten up a neighbor. Toni is verbally abusive with his own family to an utterly revolting degree, and, at the same time, he’s abjectly humble with everyone else. The exchanges he has with his wife (Ana Ciontea), in front of everybody, reveal very quickly that he’s been having an affair with the wife of the neighbor whom he has recently beaten up. And not only with her. Toni’s confrontation with his own wife draws out excruciatingly, in a welter of sordidly exposed intimacies – anatomical details, frustrated fantasies, sexual dysfunctions and inhibitions. This is the note – comical, sad, trivial, scabrous – on which Brănescu’s character leaves temporarily to help his wife, who went out earlier for some shopping. He finds her with the car parked on somebody else’s place, and a row starts at once with two men who live in the neighborhood (Andi Vasluianu and Iulian Puiu), a shouting match which is aggravated by the wife’s irascibility and from which the husband (who mostly keeps his self-control and a conciliatory attitude) emerges physically tousled somewhat, and definitely humiliated. Immediately after that comes the epiphany: husband and wife in their (stationary) car, he telling her a funny story about his father and his younger brother (a child at the time of the story), and starting to cry while he’s telling it, then reminiscing about his father’s marital infidelities, and then, suddenly, hinting to his wife that he’s also unfaithful to her sometimes. What exactly could have moved in him, leading to this outburst? Puiu is not at all explicit in this matter: he lets us reconstruct out of our own resources the inner movement which may have led to the protagonist’s confession, the birth and the growth of the need for it, in the course of the preceding minutes and hours, out of a possible sense of emptiness and triviality engendered in him by the surrounding conversations (this is a family reunion meant to honor the memory of a dead patriarch, yet nobody is talking about him), and also, perhaps, out of his having witnessed the sordid outpouring of marital intimacies from Toni and his wife, out of a possible feeling that he and Toni may not be that dissimilar (no matter how tastefully discreet his own adulteries, as opposed to Toni’s vulgarity), and, finally, out of the jolt (and literal kick in the ass) received in the row over the parking place. Out of all this, a need for confession, for coming clean, for a regeneration of the marital bond, for evoking the departed – ultimately a need for sacredness. The wife – who during the last few minutes has lost all shrillness and turned into a grave, thoughtful presence – informs him that she’ll need some time to think about his confession and to decide what she’ll do about it, yet for the moment they hold hands before rejoining the clan. And, once returned to the apartment, with its simultaneously claustrophobic and elastic space, where the bickering among relatives goes on (someone reminisces about having participated in the 1990 protests against Ion Iliescu, the first post-communist President of Romania, and about how evil Iliescu was, but the authenticity of his experience of the protests is immediately challenged by someone else, while Iliescu is praised for having at least rid Romania of predecessor Ceaușescu), the protagonist has a second possible moment of grace – a fit of laughter shared with his brother (Bogdan Dumitrache).
Women and men in a fallen world
What exactly is at stake here? We find ourselves in a world in which conflict seems to constitute the way things normally go (Puiu may even see it as a law of nature). Where there is an official truth (like the official truths of recent American history – 9/11 etc.), it is being copiously fired at from the margins; where such truths are much less firmly established (the case with recent Romanian history – communism etc.), there are only competing subjectivities, competing grids for interpreting reality, grids generally made up of clichés – everyone with the set of clichés that happened to get to her first. That woman in her thirties mostly sees communism in the cliché anti-communist terms of the local neo-conservative intelligentsia, although at a certain point she also lets fly with an elephant-size anti-semitic cliché (she refers to “Marx, Lenin, and other notorious kikes”); while that woman in her seventies only sees – in clichés – the modernizing aspects of communist rule. For someone, Ion Iliescu is evil; for someone else, he is the one who rid us of Ceaușescu, he deserves credit for that. For every position there is an opposed one, with no chance of reconciliation or synthesis. Long-time married women emanate chronic dissatisfaction; their dissatisfaction makes them shrill and vindictive. Their husbands – almost all of them – have extra-marital affairs. Writing about Sieranevada, Cristina Hermeziu has provided a sensitive, elaborate description of how the world depicted by Puiu is organized on gender lines: “Women ensure the basic turning of the world: the kitchen, where the traditional stuffed cabbage rolls are boiling, is a matriarchal axis mundi; laying the table is a female act; sewing a coat is a female act; keeping the custom/order/law is a female act. But if this world, put on its wheels by women, starts turning too fast, or in a vacuum, or gets derailed (by hysterias etc.), it’s the men who are called upon to still it and then contemplate it calmly, to take things in their hands: it’s a male act to discuss world politics and philosophy while the table is being laid; the defense of property – a parking place, a wife – is a male attribute, too; it’s the man who keeps the credit cards in his wallet and hands them to the wife when she needs them; it’s a man thing to endure hunger while waiting for the priest and still not eat, still refrain from breaking matriarchal law.” And always the conflict, of course, the mutual victimization: “Men are victims of women’s immutable gravity, of their seriousness, of their seeing a catastrophe not only in a husband’s adultery, but also in the kind of male superficiality responsible for buying the wrong dress or the wrong milk for the child. Women are also the victims of men – of their lack of seriousness: men successfully slalom among lies – marital lies, professional lies – hence nothing is truly grave for them.”[i] There’s an implicit invocation of universal and eternal human nature here: men will always cheat (there is no suggestion that any of the women we see does it, too, although at least one of Toni’s mentioned mistresses is somebody’s – i.e., the beaten neighbor’s – wife); conflict – not only between men and women – is irresolvable.
How can this condition be transcended? Only accidentally and fleetingly: husband and wife in the car (him crying), two brothers laughing at the table – moments of grace. If description of the film calls for a quasi-religious language – confession, grace, nostalgia for sacredness – this is not an accident. Christian Ferencz-Flatz has traced in Puiu’s post-2010 interviews and artistic activity his increasing interest in the literary and philosophical tradition of religious existentialism – especially as represented by the work of Russian theologian and writer Vladimir Solovyov.[ii] Puiu has been planning for years an adaptation of Solovyov’s 1900 War, Progress, and the End of History: Three Conversations, Including a Short Tale of the Antichrist, and this preoccupation has fed – as Ferencz-Flatz shows – into other work he has done recently: his Three Exercises of Interpretation, which is a filmed experiment conducted in France with a group of actors, using fragments of Solovyov’s text; his 2014 short Das Spektrum Europas, in which two contemporary Romanians discuss a 1920s text – by Hermann Keyserling rather than Solovyov, but belonging roughly, according to Ferencz-Flatz, to “the same vein of vitalist-spiritualist philosophy”; and finally Sieranevada, with its supporting character – the military brother – lifted from Solovyov, and with the priest, when he finally arrives, telling the clan a rambling, inscrutable parable which, being about Christ’s Second Coming, echoes Solovyov.
We are in a fallen world. The old ways are in crisis. (This is a story about a family gathering meant to honor the memory of a dead patriarch.) They are corroded, corrupted, drained of meaning. (Nor were they ever necessarily “good”.) But – in Puiu’s powerfully conservative vision – they’re all there is: the gathering of bickering relatives, the empty rituals, the traditional gender roles – because of them, the world is at least organized. And they allow for occasional flashes of grace – husband and wife walking hand in hand after he has come clean, the sons of the dead patriarch laughing together at the table. (As Cristina Hermeziu notes, there is no woman character sharing in that liberating fit of laughter with which the film ends. Women don’t seem to have much sense of humor in this patriarchal world, which – Hermeziu suggests – the film complicatedly celebrates rather than describing neutrally: “Self-mockery, a sense of absurdity, a sense of gratuitous play – these are male abilities. Only crying is for everybody.”)
Artistically, there is nothing wrong with Puiu’s vision, with the possible exception of a small suspicion of complacency. The fatalism about husbands being adulterous (apparently always were, always will be), combined with the sentimentality about confession (its powers of temporary purification allowing the bickering spouses to walk hand in hand like young lovers again), begins to suggest a recipe for hypocrisy: an endless cycle of adultery followed by confession – a good shared cry while talking of the sins of fathers, a feeling of cleanliness, a walk hand in hand – and back to adultery again, because males can’t help it, it appears to be in their nature.
There is also a feeling that Puiu is no longer an innovator of Romanian cinema (on which he has exerted in the past a transformative influence rivalled by no other single individual in its history): a sense of his having settled comfortably, magisterially, in ways of seeing/thinking/expressing that are no longer very open to challenges and interrogation; in other words, a sense of his having classicized himself. (The filmmaker who’s currently showing himself to be an innovator of Romanian cinema is Radu Jude.) Let’s take a look at a character who can be considered the film’s star creation: Toni – the shame of this fictional clan, its black sheep – who singles himself out among the film’s characters during that protracted confrontation with his wife. Puiu’s working principle here is one he probably learnt from John Cassavetes, who is – famously – one of his idols: a person reveals herself when she’s making a fool of herself in public. Puiu reveals Toni to us by – so to speak – stripping him naked and exposing at length what seems to be every blemish, every wart on his skin. The truth about a human being – what’s left when all social inhibitions, protective layers etc. fall off him/her – is understood as a mixture of abjection and vulnerability. The effect that the exposure of this truth is intended to have on the audience is also a mixture – of amusement, fascinated horror, compassion, and maybe an element of nightmarish self-recognition. This long scene (necessarily long: the viewer must be made to feel as though an accident was happening in slow-motion before her eyes, and, equally fascinated and horrified, she could neither intervene, nor shut her eyes and ears) is one of the film’s peak moments. (And, if 63-year old actor Sorin Medeleni hadn’t died at the end of 2015, the role of Toni would have done for him, with any justice, what the role of Mr. Lăzărescu, in Puiu’s 2005 film, did for actor Ion Fiscuteanu.) That being said, the underlying conception of “human truth” – of the ways in which human beings “reveal themselves” –, and the specific revelations about Toni, are classicized to a point which may not be very far from cliché. The exposed adulterous intimacies are calibrated by Puiu with the maximum quotient of provincial sadness/shabbiness/triviality: Toni’s wife, while spontaneously making a list with the names of his mistresses, mentions the one “from the Căciulata spa”, who texted him that “the monkey and the dragon are the ideal couple”. In his Cahiers du cinéma review of Sieranevada, Joachim Lepastier wrote that what the film sells, at such moments, as revelations of a weak, all-too-human condition, are really little more than the “piquant” clichés of the “boulevard theatre” tradition[iii]. There is no reason to go as far as Lepastier – unjustly – goes, in order to admit that these notions of the all-too-human and of its revelation have been so insistently mined in literature, theatre and cinema that by now they may feel somewhat conventional. This may account, partly, for the warmer public embrace given to Sieranevada, in comparison with Puiu’s earlier films: people are starting to catch up with him, but he may also be helping them by – magisterially – settling down.
[i] Cristina Hermeziu, „Cine râde la Sieranevada”, La Punkt, posted online on September 20, 2016, http://www.lapunkt.ro/2016/09/20/cine-rade-la-sieranevada/, accessed December 4, 2016.
[ii] Christian Ferencz-Flatz, “Cinemaul direct față cu istoria. Cîteva note despre Sieranevada”, Vatra, January-February 2017, posted online on November 26, 2016, https://revistavatra.org/2016/11/26/christian-ferencz-flatz-cinemaul-direct-fata-cu-istoria-cateva-note-despre-sieranevada/, accessed on December 4, 2016.
[iii] Joachim Lepastier, review of Sieranevada, Cahiers du cinema, no. 724, July-August 2016, 62.