Film review: Aurora: The Great Challenge, by Sebastian M. Ceolca

In Aurora, Cristi Puiu’s 2010 film, Viorel (played by the director himself) is a middle-aged man, haunted by uncertain thoughts and anxiety.

He crosses the city this way and that, putting together a secret plan whose contents only he knows. He is divorced, the father of two girls, and from in between the trailers abandoned on virgin land, at the edge of the city, Viorel is watching what appears to be a family – this after having purchased two artisanal power drills for the hunting rifle he keeps at home.  Thus, tragedy is preparing to knock at the door.

About his film, Cristi Puiu said that ‘the number one enemy of this film is the spectator’s brain, which tends to oversimplify’. Nothing could be closer to the truth. The film still disorients viewers and baffles critics.

In retrospect, right after Aurora was launched in Romanian theatres, it was subject to a number of lengthy debates, that generated quite diverse critical interpretations. However, foreign film critics did not have the patience to do the same. Reviews dismissed the film fairly quickly, preferring to reproach Puiu that the film is not as accessible as his former film, The Death of Mr Lăzărescu (with which it obviously shares no connection, on any level); to complain about the length of the film (three hours), and the slow flow of action, as well as the lack of any classical narrative information. This, however, is precisely what Cristi Puiu was avoiding: the favorizing of a comfortable state, as a result of the complete control that the viewer is used to developing over the story he/she is subjected to. Thereby, the state of disquiet propagated by Aurora does not come from Viorel’s actions themselves, but from what he is perpetually preparing to do.

This socio-political thriller (because if we were to sort this film into a certain genre, that is what would probably suit it best) is of an overwhelming ambiguity. It is almost useless to specify that this is not a film suitable for just anyone, least of which those who find the lengthy manner of a motion picture to be a real challenge. The challenging aspects of Aurora, however, come bound together with an epic wait that is rewarded with a satisfaction akin to the feeling one has when solving a complex puzzle. But what does this provocative Romanian film’s uniqueness consist of, unprecedented and unequalled?

In Aurora, in support of its complexity and in detriment to the audience accustomed to mainstream cinema (even Romanian mainstream), it is as important when certain states that Viorel goes through are filmed; at least as important how they are filmed; and also, for how long they are filmed. Up until the final sequence (when the pieces of information we have about Viorel take on some relative sense), Aurora makes small temporal leaps, subtly violating the rules of transforming real-time into cinematic time.  Cristi Puiu manages these moments with excellence – considering how he had to cut up thirty-something hours of a man’s actions into just three hours of screen time. In these stylistic circumstances, the real-time (just about 48 hours) is subjected to an almost unnoticeable reduction. Another important aspect is the use of sequence-frames. Almost every single one is an unknown placed in between two other unknowns. Initially, neither of them motivates the existence of the one preceding it or following it. Otherwise said, ambiguity breeds ambiguity. At least thrice, only in the first have of the film, Viorel is promulgated by the editing of a sorry, mysterious state, into an even worse and even more mysterious one. Cristi Puiu was not interested in the psychological process that bridges the gap between the two, and this lack of bridges is what stirs up a particular interest in the viewer for Viorel’s next steps; at least it does in theory. For example, in the plant where Viorel works, in a far-off plane, Viorel will have an unheard dialogue with someone we will never again see in the film. This dialogue is the result of an anxious disposition that Viorel had displayed a couple frames prior. The relevance of this scene in the film’s narrative whole is minor, at least in its immediate assimilation. Its purpose is to motivate his disquiet. Also, the character finds himself, twice, in a suburban area, where he observes the activity happening in front of a house, and later follows a woman shopping, from behind the store shelves. The use of these two actions will be felt later on in this ‘narrative disorder’, perfectly organized by Viorel’s mysterious inner existence.

Still, Aurora is a film that answers only a part of the questions we might be asking after watching it. Many narrative aspects will remain suspended in the unknown (for instance, Viorel’s health problems, which clearly exist but are never explained). Puiu demonstrates that once in a while, the story time is conditioned by nothing but the absolute present. Aurora is a daring film, that still finds us unprepared. In 2010, it was ahead of its time. A supreme provocation of the New Romanian Cinema.

by Sebastian M. Ceolca
English translation by Maia Petrigenaru Van Kline

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