Romanian writer-director Cristi Puiu makes films that are, in the best sense, endurance tests. Working with long running times and delaying audience gratification, the man behind The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and Aurora uses duration as a weapon, immersing us in his characters’ unhappy worlds so that we understand and, more importantly, feel their experience.
Sieranevada doesn’t alter that formula, placing us inside the home of a brittle family reunion and then not letting us leave. At almost three hours, Puiu’s latest tries your patience, but that’s partly by design: This is a movie filled with characters who don’t really want to be there, either.
The movie starts with a succession of arguments—over a double-parked car and, later, about Disney princesses’ relationship to the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales—and those merely serve as a warning for what’s to come. Discord is rampant in Sieranevada, as Lary (Mimi Branescu) no doubt suspects as he and his wife Laura (Catalina Moga) drive to his mother Nusa’s (Dana Dogaru) home for a funeral service for his recently deceased father. For much of the film’s running time, we will stay inside that modest apartment, the characters waiting (and waiting and waiting) for the priest to arrive to deliver a special prayer so they can then eat.
It is no surprise that a simple prayer and meal will be complicated by unforeseen circumstances—Puiu loves utilizing aggravation as a dramatic device. (His award-winning Mr. Lazarescu was all about the unexpected obstacles to getting an older man emergency medical care.) It’s somewhat disappointing that Puiu relies on a rather standard narrative technique to power his new film, but his Waiting for Godot-like approach isn’t meant to create any sort of artificial suspense or tension. Instead, those come from the casual interactions of his characters, who grow increasingly hostile as they prepare for the priest’s arrival—and only become more so after he leaves.
Preferring crisp realism, Puiu doesn’t spend much time introducing his characters or explaining their relationship to one another. They talk, and we put the pieces together of who’s who. Sandra (Judith State) is Lary’s sister, more emotional than her stoic brother. The mother’s sister is Ofelia (Ana Ciontea), who has a long-simmering grievance with her no-good husband Tony (Sorin Medeleni), who will show up later in the evening. Some members of the family are 9/11 truthers, believing the U.S. government played a part in the tragedy. Lots of topics are discussed but, oddly, the man’s death who brought them all together for the day is hardly mentioned.
It’s hardly news that the world is filled with unhappy families. But Puiu brings his own twist by suggesting that life itself is something of an endless altercation, each of us carrying the baggage we acquired from our family into an adulthood in which we grapple with others equally warped. Consequently, the references to 9/11 and the Charlie Hebdo killings may play like background noise—the movie takes place in early 2015, shortly after the shooting took place—but they’re integral to the film’s emotional tapestry, connecting the personal to the political and the everyday to the universal.
With that said, those broader connections aren’t immediately apparent when Sieranevada is busy overwhelming us with crisscrossing dialogue and lingering resentment. There aren’t a lot of screaming matches in this movie—that’s not how these characters resolve their differences. Rather, they gnaw at each other, pick at a scab from an earlier fight, pester and ridicule. We feel the animosity without it becoming readily apparent. A black-sheep younger member of the family brings along a Croatian friend who’s either drunk or strung out, presenting a pressing concern for the rest of the clan when she falls unconscious. Lary is referred to dryly as “the prodigal son” by his siblings for reasons that aren’t immediately clear, although we can guess. (He’s a doctor in a family that doesn’t seem terribly financially successful.) Puiu’s camera pivots from room to room, sometimes capturing overlapping conversations in scenes that feel lifelike but also meticulously choreographed as actors move through the tight space.
There are revelations amid the simmering discontent, although none of them are particularly earth-shattering. In a film a few minutes shy of three hours, that can feel anticlimactic, but it’s very much in keeping with Puiu’s preference for anxiety over release, for leaving the unresolved questions floating in the air. And so he has to rely on his actors to invest fully in a chamber piece that feels more like the latest round in an ongoing, passive-aggressive feud. We’re just meeting these gloomy characters, but these are the lives they’ve been trapped in since birth, and Puiu and his cast transform Nusa’s home into a prison. Quite often, we’re seeing the back of characters’ heads, or just their profiles, and so the actors have to do more than deliver Puiu’s caustic dialogue—we have to sense the dread deep in their very beings.
Among the ensemble, Branescu is an obvious highlight, playing Lary as a man who has his own secrets but carries them in a way that feels recognizable to all of us who don’t share every aspect of ourselves with even those to whom we’re related. It’s a performance of shrugged shoulders and weary quips, and although Lary is supposed to be in his 40s, it’s telling that he looks so much older—or, put another way, looks far too exhausted for his age. Although his departed father isn’t discussed a lot during Sieranevada, we can feel the old man’s ghost tormenting Lary—first metaphorically but, later, in a way that underlines how he’s been figuring into his son’s thoughts for most of the day.
If Sieranevada lacks the startling immediacy and consistently cutting humor of Mr. Lazarescu, it may be in part because that previous film set the bar not just for Puiu’s work but that of the Romanian New Wave as a whole. As a result, Sieranevada’s swift, grim realism no longer shocks us with its ground-down bluntness and offhand mastery: He and his colleagues have spoiled us. That said, this movie’s built-up strain becomes its own kind of dramatic fuselage, pinning us in this miserable world. No wonder, then, that there really is no “happy ending” or a release of the tension. People don’t get such releases in their daily lives. Maybe that’s why the father isn’t mentioned that much—after all, he’s actually the lucky one to have passed on to the next life, hopefully far removed from this one.
Director: Cristi Puiu
Writer: Cristi Puiu
Starring: Mimi Branescu, Dana Dogaru, Sorin Medeleni, Ana Ciontea, Catalina Moga, Judith State
Release Date: Screening in competition at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.