Movie Review: The Family, with love and squalor, by Cezar Gheorghe

Starting this april, we will publish a film review each month, written by one of our talented guests, some of the greatest film critics in Romanian film industry. Here to start the "movie reviews" series is Cezar Gheorghe - editor at Observator Cultural with a remarkable text about Cristi Puiu's masterpiece, Sieranevada.

Sixteen characters captive in an apartment for almost three hours, the life of a family seen from the perspective of the one who has left it forever, everything that is beautiful and abject in the interactions we have with those we love. Sieranevada is the story of a commemoration that doesn’t happen. It is our story, the story of those who, overwhelmed by a pain we don’t understand, choose to take shelter in our own mind and hide our fears behind the concrete reality. “Sieranevada is the imperfect reconstitution of some feast day. It is an abridged history of our irreversible distraction.” (Cristi Puiu in The Director’s Intention, part of the screenplay for Sieranevada).

In Aurora (on of the director’s previous films) the way reality was investigated was through an exigent realism, in which no concessions were made for the ambiguity inherent in the ordinary. The actions of the protagonist remained mostly obscure for the viewers, as did the relationships between certain characters. At the end of the three hours, in which we watched the main character cross an enigmatic Bucharest, there remained unexplained actions, unidentified characters, and gestures whose sense eluded us. Sieranevada, the third film in the series Six stories from the outskirts of Bucharest, is an exercise of investigating a family who, in the afterthought of the father’s disappearance, loses its balance. I chose this way of phrasing as it is very dear to director Cristi Puiu and to his philosophy on cinema. As the author likes using the word ‘confession’ in regard to his fictional body of work, it’s futile to underline the autobiographical undertones that the film has. Cristi Puiu likes to show what ‘the human eye sees’, preferring an observational documentary type approach. But this time, the perspective from which we see the film’s action, is that of the person who has disappeared – a discreet and understanding presence; a silent witness who records everything that has been going on since his departure.

Cristi Puiu’s People

However, what the eye sees (or what the silent witness, who is one with the camera, sees) has nothing to do with a commemoration. No one speaks respectfully of the departed man. The light seems to fall, not on the life of he who has left, but on the lives of those that remain. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and in Sieranevada this is a source of inexhaustible humor. At the first screening after the one from Cannes Film Festival, there was laughter for the entire length of the film. It is a type of humor that seems to have been invented by Cristi Puiu. We laugh at things that wouldn’t normally be funny; that highlight ugly traits in the protagonists. This ties in to the way the director outlines his characters and into the wealth and credibility of the world he displays before us. Puiu’s People exist past the silver screen, because they are not meant to simply serve a dramatic purpose .They don’t fit in boxes, they don’t wear labels such as bad person/good person, bad father/good father. In Sieranevada, all the characters are in the same time good and bad characters. People say and do the worst things, and are capable of displaying gestures of love and enormous generosity only moments later. A situation like this arises in the very beginning of the film, when Lari and his wife are in the car, discussing the blunder he had made earlier by buying the wrong dress for their daughter’s festivity. The protagonist (Mimi Branescu) is behind the wheel, and his wife (Catalina Moga) is chastising him for not having bought a Disney princess dress for their little girl. At first sight, it would seem the wife falls into the category of ‘nag’, especially after the comment she makes about her daughter’s classmate (“a stupid peasant girl, with both parents gone strawberry picking in Spain”). However, a few seconds later she begs her husband to talk to his daughter, whom he neglects and fails to listen to, demonstrating that she is a loving mother who is attentive to her child’s needs. The characters’ psychologies aren’t shown through basic words or expressions, – these would oversimplify a reality much too complex to be presented through the scope of character tropes.

What Cristi Puiu has on hand are hybrid, complex emotions; he is the creator of baroque constructions with an architecture that is paradoxical to his type of realism. His people are not simply good or evil, but, as in real life, they are capable of the most abject actions and attitudes and also the biggest generosity towards others. This mix, this lack of predictability that the characters are made of, represents a fundamental trait of Cristi Puiu’s dramaturgy. It is understandable that after a couple of hours spent in the midst of these characters, the viewer gains the sensation of familiarity, of closeness, of a common history


The Profane…and the Profane

The Sacred and any nuance of mysticism that was to be expected in the proximity of the father’s death seem to have been done away with. The sacred has been reduced to the profane. There is laughter, there are tears, and family secrets are divulged. The ritual of the suit which one of the deceased’s grandchildren (Marin Grigore) must wear cannot be completed because the suit is too large for him. A granddaughter (Ilona Brezoianu) brings a Croatian friend to the apartment, who has a massive hangover from drug and alcohol consumption. The protagonist’s sister (Judith State) is upset at her own husband (played by Roland Matsangos), who, as implied, is cheating on her; she quarrels with an old lady (a communism nostalgic, interpreted by Tatiana Iekel), bursting into tears. The Reunion leaves the commemoration of the deceased behind when Toni (fantastically interpreted by Sorin Medeleni), the dead man’s son in law, arrives. The drama that ensues brings to light how Toni had a fight with his neighbor, due to the fact that he was having an affair with the man’s wife. His attempt to reconcile with is own wife degenerates, becoming an exhibition of private details (probably one of the most comical scenes in the film). Everything goes crazy, as the mother (and the wife of the man who has died) insists on going through every ritual, waiting for the priest who, to everyone’s desperation, is running late. The only episode in which the memory of the father is evoked takes place outside the apartment, when Lari tells his wife a story from his adolescence – but even this scene happens between two very tense moments.

In Sieranevada, the cinema is an anthropologic instrument, an investigation people make into life. Cristi Puiu’s characters are marked by their own history and suffering. They cannot meet one another in the middle because they are protecting themselves, assuming roles and wearing other people’s clothes.

Viewed – with love and squalor – by one of the greatest Romanian cinematographers, family is a space of tension that brings out many human traits, both good and bad, for each of us.

P.S.: At the end of the film, you will probably feel the need to call your family.


by Cezar Gheorghe


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