Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 27, 2010 12:50 pm 
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Cristi Puiu in Aurora

Murder and other daily activities

New Romanian Cinema leader Cristi Puiu stars in and directs this three-hour film, his second, about a man whose four murders seem only blips in a host of minutely observed quotidian events -- observed, but not explained. Puiu is more interested in the what than the why. Or the who: the film doesn't reveal who some of the people are, and motives are still unrevealed even at the end. All that's clear is that Viorel, the protagonist, is full of muted anger. Compared to Puiu's absorbing and critically admired debut, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, about an aging man who dies because he's shifted from hospital to hospital on a holiday weekend, there is no sense of moral outrage or dark humor in Aurora. What prevails is a sense of the meaninglessness of it all. The combination of meaninglessness and complication is a difficult one. None of the stark poetic simplicity here of Camus' Stranger. Puiu's vision of man is of the numbing ordinariness of evil, violence as a quiet, inexplicable reflex. One leaves the film convinced of the originality of its vision, but dreading the thought of seeing more. One feels chilled, baffled.

There's almost a real-time feel as the film follows Viorel from one dawn into a second day. He wakes up with a woman who has a little girl. She is Gina (Clara Voda), apparently his girlfriend. Even at coffee he is stony-faced and withdrawn. He goes to the metallurgy plant where he may have been fired or demoted, and collects two firing pins made for him by an employee to fit a shotgun. That he must test the pins with calipers and insists on paying shows his reflexive distrust and desire to separate himself from others. Puiu the actor is impressively composed, contained, and mundane. He's nobody you'd particularly notice, except that he's not quite there.

Viorel's life is mired in detail, and we get to watch dozens of tasks slowly performed, before and after the murders (there are four, two and two). He leaves things with his mother Puşa (Valeria Seciu), who gives him some of his shirts she's ironed; much argument about the size of the bag. He confronts his stepfather Stoian (Valentin Popescu) for entering his jumbled room (he still has one in the flat, apparently) and tells him he has never liked him: "It's just chemistry. I can't help it." (That may explain the whole lead-up to the murders.) He watches people from his car. His flat is being redone, and he supervises men who remove boxes and other things for the walls to be scraped and painted. (His resentment even toward these men is clear.) He puts together the shotgun, and tests it, firing into a duvet. And so on.

The first murders are observed in a long shot in a hotel parking garage so the victims, a man and a woman, can't be clearly seen. The second two, which happen hours later, take place in a suburban house later identified as that of his "ex-mother-in-law," Rodica (Catrinel Dumitrescu). After a long conversation, he follows her up the stairs with a knife. The stabbing isn't shown. We see Rodica's legs on the floor later from another room. Puiu the director is master of the excruciating delay. Nothing happens with much dispatch. Viorel gets coffee and has conversation with his mother-in-law before he stabs and later shoots her. He hesitates long just deciding what to say when she asks him if he wants one lump or two.

After the murders is when the viewer's ordinary cinema expectations are shocked. Viorel does not run. He simply goes about his business. He has other chores to complete. In the end, he takes his older daughter, a first-grader, out of class and, because his mother is out, leaves her at the next-door neighbors'. Here as always the viewer is plunged into a world of irrelevant, but richly observed, detail: an eager-to-please wife; a husband arguing with his nephew who wants to sell him a fitted kitchen; a preening adult son. And then he goes and turns himself in at the police station. The bored cops interview him as if he were reporting a noisy neighbor.

At one point Viorel terrorizes three women at a chic men's clothing shop. The well-dressed manager never loses her cool. He's looking for a woman they say no longer works there. It's never clear who she is. Puiu's performance is memorable. In retrospect one is struck by the repressed rage and irony of his character. He has created a killer who is close to lots of people, tipped just a little over the edge. The glare in his eye as he looks at his mother-in-law cutting up potatoes gradually tips us off that he is going to use the knife on her.

This is the second in Puiu's planned series of "Six Stories from the Outskirts of Bucharest." The beginning in "aurora," dawn, he has said signals an answer to F.W. Murnaus's warmer vision in his famous film Sunrise. Images by Viorel Sergovici are in harsh color when there is bright light, often under-lit and tinged with blue. A lack of background music, apart from occasional dimly heard songs, adds to the impression of realism. A Louis Moreau Gottschalk piano piece during the opening and closing credits adds an ironically pleasant note. But none of this is truly at all pleasant, unless for the pleasure to some of satisfying festival fashions: a glacial pace, a preponderance of stationary long or middle distance shots, an intermingling of documentary and fictional techniques, and a screenplay that leaves much to puzzle over, and in this case, belies all conventional genre expectations in which, as Puiu has commented, murder is more commonly "glamorized."

Cristi Puiu's 181 film, in Romanian, was shown in the Un Certain Regard series at Cannes and was seen and reviewed as part of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center in September 2010.

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