Sieranevada ★★★½

Cristi Puiu is the kind of realist, like Andrey Zvyagintsev or Nuri Bilge Ceylan, whose realism always seems to mean something more. The manner is a scrupulous naturalism: the takes are long and patient, the acting unaffected, the drama decidedly kitchen-sink. But there is a poetic character to Puiu’s austerity, a deep current of symbolism beneath the plain veneer, that widens the dimensions of the commonplace, and supplements the vérité view. His films fix on the banal and everyday and yet — without the slightest compromise of their naturalist integrity — reach beyond them, to realms social, political, even philosophical. They don’t merely feel true. They pursue higher truths.

This tendency is manifested early in Sieranevada, Puiu’s sprawling, prickly, mordantly funny new film. In fact it’s evinced in its opening shot. A man, soon revealed to be merry protagonist Lary (Mimi Branescu), in a hurry and unable to find a parking space on a crowded downtown Bucharest street, leaves his BMW to idle in the lane as he and his wife, Laura (Catalina Moga), dart into an apartment to drop off their adolescent daughter to be babysat for the afternoon — only to be summoned back to the idling car a moment later by an arriving driver’s testy get-a-move-on horn. Lary, apologetic, is obliged to circle the block; Laura, once she’s finished with the child, is left to hurl her things in the backseat post-haste and hop in as her husband swings by.

Now as quotidian crisis this is familiar enough. And if Puiu’s prefered style — he’s staged the rigmarole in an unbroken, coolly observant six-minute long shot — teases out the comic in the quandary, it’s of the sort, equal parts ludicrous and mundane, that you’d rather expect to find bedeviling Larry David on TV. But of course this prologue isn’t just a slice of life or droll vignette. It’s a robust, complex image, rich in subtext, fizzing with social truth; and it’s an image sturdy enough, under Puiu’s firm command, to sustain a multiplicity of readings, whether you’d fancy the circling car to be Romania after Ceaușescu, the congested street the European Union, or the dire state of parking the global economic recession. Or perhaps it means something grander still, all this idling and circling: aren’t we all looping around the block, so to speak, until we die?

Lary and Laura are on their way to Lary’s family home to observe his recently deceased father’s Eastern Orthodox Christian funeral rites alongside a cataract of mourning aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins, who count among their number an obstinate 9/11 truther, a philandering alcoholic, a pugnacious former communist, and a twentysomething party-girl who thinks it wise to bring along her strung-out junkie friend. Chaos ensues, needless to say. Lary is our point of entry to this grim carnival, and as he wanders from living room to bedroom to kitchen, amused and unruffled before the deluge of domestic strife, he quickly seems the only sensible one of the bunch — the dispassionate straight man amid a whole lot of farcical discord. But over time Puiu complicates our assumptions, and Lary begins to buckle beneath the weight of grief and distress. He becomes a bit like Matthew Modine in Full Metal Jacket: he thinks he above this madness, but it inevitably takes its toll.

The elaborate folk ceremony — a traditional affair, intimate but elaborate, involving costumes, dirge singers, and the on-site blessing of a visiting Orthodox priest — Puiu lets unfold at leisure, and much of the film’s drama derives from its clear sense of accumulating time. (Sieranevada runs an imposing 173 minutes, and you feel them.) Bunuel seems an unignorable touchstone here. Custom dictates that dinner not be served until after the service; and as the priest, in absentia for ages, has been held up by traffic, the much-desired family meal is repeatedly deferred. Like the oft-thwarted middle-class diners of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Puiu’s hungry mourners just can’t manage to eat. The truant priest himself, meanwhile, has something of a Godot figure about him: ever waited-for, uncertain to arrive.

Elsewhere metaphors abound. A family ritual requiring that a suit be bought for the deceased (symbolically) and worn to dinner by a relative (literally) entrains a minor scandal when the relative in question tries the damn thing on finds that it’s about five sizes too big — an image of inheritance and ill-fitting legacy so pointed that the assembled grievers can’t help but laugh. Adam Nayman, in a review for Reverse Shot, refers wittily to the smack-addled pal passed out in the bedroom as Sleeping Beauty, drawing an intriguing connection to an argument over Disney princesses waged by Lary and Laura early on — a connection I concede I might never have drawn myself, but which attests, I think, to the subtextual richness of Sieranevada’s design. The texture of the film is the texture of life, authentic and true. But weaved into that texture everywhere are symbols to pick out and seize.

Nor is the texture itself dour or grave. Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu was “funny” in rather the same way that, say, The Metamorphosis is funny, and one hardly left Aurora sore from clutching at one’s sides. But Sieranevada is a family comedy in a straightforward sense. If Lary’s relatives lament the loss of the patriarch, they are very good at keeping their anguish concealed; they prefer instead to pass the time in friendly conversation, or better yet debate, as when Lary’s nephew — the conspiracy theorist of the 9/11 idee fixe — cues up an array of clinching YouTube videos of the “jet-fuel-can’t-melt-steel-beams” variety and challenges anyone to prove him wrong. Puiu is well above pot-shots — the nephew is nutty, but his conviction is treated with fairness — and gives each among the motley cast their due. The humour he finds in the clashes and interactions — and of course in Lary, who observes it all dryly from the sides.

Puiu’s direction is so assured that it’s easy to mistake its elegance as effortless. There is nothing effortless about Sieranevada, to be sure: the long takes, the intricately choreographed movement, the dense and meaning-rich naturalist dialogue, the radically shifting sympathies and unstable emotional terrain — all this comes at tremendous expense to the crew and (especially) the cast, of whom Puiu demands so much. That’s the other thing about Puiu’s brand of realism: it effaces the virtuosity required to pull it off. The very mode downplays the feat. This smart, uproarious, politically charged film has indeed the appearance of a docudrama, so true to life does it often feel. But it’s no less a triumph of style and of craft.

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