Sieranevada ★★★★

[8]

After admiring Puiu's breakthrough film, The Death of Mister Lazarescu, without ever really liking it, and finding that I had genuine antipathy for his nihilistic follow-up Aurora, I am elated to have found the Cristi Puiu film that I can get behind 100%. It would be glib to call Sieranevada a kind of synthesis of the two earlier movies, partly because there is considerable variation in Puiu's cinematic methods. Lazarescu, while grueling, was characterized by a propulsive march toward the grave, the sense that time was not on its protagonist's side. Typical art-film longeurs, when they occured, could provoke a mild panic for this reason -- a ramped-up tension that Cristian Mungiu exploited in more conventional ways in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. By contrast, Aurora dealt with claustrophobia, the sense that even (or perhaps especially) the outside world of everyday Bucharest, as well as conventional family life, had become straitjackets for a particular type of post-Communist masculinity. Not knowing what to do with itself, that machismo explodes into violence.

It is notable in this regard that Sieranevada is about the absence of the patriarch. It takes place on the day of a memorial ceremony, forty days after the death of the paterfamilias. It is an Orthodox ritual that involves all of the members of the family, some close friends, and a priest who must consecrate the man's clothes and belongings, asking God that the deceased be forgiven. (I am no expert on these things, but based on the timing and the rituals, I sense that the purpose is to help the father's spirit exit Purgatory and ascend to Heaven once and for all.)

Over the course of the nearly three-hour film, after a prologue of sorts in which the main character, eldest son Lari (Mimi Branescu), and his wife Laura (Catalina Moga) drop their youngest daughter off with Laura's mom and snake through city traffic to arrive at the gathering, we are plunged into the middle of the family conflicts, bickering, preparations, and discomfort that are part and parcel of any such gathering. But there are key differences that make Sieranevada compelling both as a mordant comedy and a seductive formalist endeavor.

Just as the memorial ceremony is presided over in absentia by the late father, the entire day is held hostage by the priest, whose appearance is continually deferred. He is either caught in traffic, or detained at another event, or something. But as we see the restless guests seated around a table of shifting starters, entrees, soup bowls, and plates, they are reminded that no one can eat until after the blessing, and that requires the priest. Puiu has created a very literal version of a Buñuelian joke here, dinner forever out of reach due to the mysterious (but all too banal) absence of God.

When the priest finally arrives, nearly two hours in, weary sister Sandra (Judith State), who has been cooking all day and arguing with an aging Ceausecsu apologist (Tatiana Iekel), sardonically announces, "habemus papem." By jokingly elevating the local clergy to the position of Pope, Sandra doesn't just make him a synecdoche for his religious authority within the house. She exposes the tyranny that Nusa (Dana Dogaru), the matriarch, exacts over the entire clan in the name of traditionalism and the prerogative of seniority. Food is everywhere but endlessly withheld, and although a few family members slip out temporarily, none of them can leave.

This is the real crux of Puiu's sprawling yet finely crafted exigesis on family. Difficult relationships and micro-aggressions exert their pull, along with secrets that are divulged only because circumstance has worn otherwise discrete people down to their last nerve. But the apartment itself is the film's primary catalyst. Seemingly an unspectacular urban flat, Puiu shoots it like a funhouse or a Tardis, his camera wheeling about on a lazy susan of distractability. There is an anchor point of sorts, in the main entryway, but shooting off from this hub are a kitchen, formal dining room, an office, several bedrooms, a nursery, and possibly more spaces. The apartment is overstuffed with hungry, anxious people, navigating around each other like motorists in an inner city traffic circle.

With his editing and disjointed spatial articulation, Puiu puts us in the middle of a kind of nether region of human interaction. It is utterly familiar -- we all have families that resemble certain moment in Sieranevada -- and utterly confounding. The half-heard arguments, the unfamiliar behaviors, and the thwarted cognitive mapping, all collide with elements so recognizable (such as the 9/11 "truther" talk, or the late arrival of the persona non grata in-law) as to be ridiculous in the context of this structural push / pull. It's a wry dialectic, bone-dry in its comedy of dissolution. Like Puiu's "meaningless" title, which is never alluded to in the film, it's a place, all right, but a half-remembered, misspelled place no one's been. It's a pipe dream getaway, somewhere far from here, and it's also a slurred demand for another beer. Go home, cinema. You're drunk.

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