Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 20, 2017 10:19 pm 
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A family gathering

I reviewed Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu at the 2005 NYFF, the first one I covered and the first film I saw there. I was entranced. Later I reviewed his Aurora at the 2010 NYFF. I found it strangely compelling, but quite lacking the moral outrage and black humor that made Mr. Lăzărescu so powerful. Sieranevada was in the 2016 NYFF, but I missed it then; I am reviewing it as part of the SFIFF, 5-19 April 2017. Sieranevada resembles the classic play, from Eugene O'Neill to Tennessee Williams to Tracy Letts, in which a family gathers and people squabble and spill the beans. But it violates the rules of such a play because it lacks discernible highs or lows and it never quite goes anywhere. It's more like the old movie Grand Hotel, "People come, people go. Nothing ever happens." That seems to be the point. Puiu captures the texture of the ordinariness of life. But he carries it to an extreme, it's very skillfully done, consistently well acted, but it goes from fascinating to numbing.

It's a kind of memorial dinner, like a wake, 40 days after the death of Emil, at his widow's cramped apartment, with a dozen family members, even a drunken young Croatian woman brought in by someone, and as time goes on a philandering husband who turns up unexpectedly and so upsets his wife she may have had a stroke. Puiu plays with our patience. He did that most effectively in his first, best, film, The Death of Mr.Lăzărescu, in which a very ill man dies in the course of a busy weekend shunted from one hospital to another. This time, the ritual at the flat of the widow, Nasu Mirica (Dana Dogaru), is that the priest must come and perform his service for the deceased before they can eat, and he is very late. Then attention shifts to Sebi (Marin Grigore), a young thin family member who's had a great deal to say about 9/11 and the Charlie Hebdo attacks, which have just happened, and he thinks connected - he's conspiracy theory nut and a truther. He must don one of Emil's suits and enter the dining room, asking forgiveness, as his spirit, before they can eat. And that is delayed too, because the suit is much too big for Sebi and has to be pinned. Then there is the unexpected appearance of Tony (Sorin Medeleni), the philanderer, causing a scene. Before that there have been many interludes, many ruffled feathers, notably between a royalist who weeps when an older woman rudely sings the praises of the communist days, describing Marx and Lenin as "kikes."

But in a way none of this matters: what Puiu is about is capturing the texture of life, the rhythm of family interactions for their own sake, and doing that in a special way, through a virtuosic flow and a quirky visual presentation. There are various rooms off the little entrance, with doors often being opened and shut, and a lot of the time the camera stays in the hallway, peeking into the rooms as people come and go and talk, so we see and hear some of the people but not all of them. And the camera oscillates back and forth between people giddily - so it's both stuck and highly mobile. It gives you the feeling of being half like a real participant, half like a voyeur, or perhaps the floating spirit of the dead man. And Puiu keeps the flow going, as Asghar Farhadi does in the early part of his recent The Salesman, and the Georgian directors Nana Ekvtimiishvili and Simon Groß do in their recent My Happy Family - skillfully wrangling a lot of people, here a dozen or so crisscrossing back and forth to kitchen, dining room, bathroom, in and out, giving the sense of a continuous take. That seems to be the point: the flow, the rhythm, the long trivial conversations, the fretting, the arguments that never end. This resembles another overlong recent Cannes film, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Winter Sleep, except this is more claustrophobic, and not focused on one person.

Sieranevada (whose title, by the way, means nothing) sort of bookends itself with the eldest son, Lary (Mimi Branescu), a neurosurgeon, who now sells medical equipment, and his wife Laura (Catalina Moga), who come in a car: we arrive with them, and they have a big trivial row over a Disney outfit for their kid going in, and then near the end, back out in their car for a while (but still before food has been served) they have a kind of sharing and reconciliation, a confession from Lary about his father, the deceased. But the first few minutes, sitting looking at the car, is almost enough to make you want to walk out before the movie's even begun. After the first hour, though, I was enjoying the skillful flow and texture. It is masterful - and a change from the medical nightmare of Puiu's first film and the strangely deadpan murder story of his second, Aurora. This is a film about nothing, about life. But we have an hour and fifty-one minutes to go after that first hour, and it starts to wear you down.

The New Romanian Cinema is about many things, but sometimes it's about nothing, never more skillfully and completely than here: but also about everything, from the trivially personal to the politics of Romania and the state of the world. It's massively interesting but as drama never really satisfying.

Sieranevada, 173 mins., debuted at Cannes May 2016 for the first time in Competition (his first two films were in the Un Certain Regard category); showed in at least two dozen other international festivals including Toronto, London, and New York. It opened theatrically in France Aug. 2016 to very solid reviews (AlloCiné press rating 3.7; but spectator rating poor, 2.7). It got 3/5 stars from Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian and B- from Mike D'Angelo of AV Club. Its Metacritic rating is 78%.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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