In his previous, massively underrated and virtually unseen film Trois exercices d’interprétation (Three Exercises of Interpretation, 2013), Cristi Puiu had already started experimenting with different Rohmerian passages: vague conversations about social life, cinema and literature embodying the mindset of a group of bourgeois friends. That earlier work is an experiment with an abrupt finale, probably one of the best endings of any film in the 21st century. And even though this ‘exercise’, based on Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov’s Three Conversations, was never meant to be a film per se – rather, it originated as an acting workshop run by Puiu – it provides a sense of direction along with many of the insights that would finally be realised in a proper feature with Sieranevada: arguably the best film of 2016, and a massive success for the Romanian auteur.
This mix of social critique, absurdist comedy, Ionescoian/Beckettian impulses and idle conversation, all set inside the ominous walls of a 50-square-metre apartment, is both a superb undertaking of synchronicity and performance and an impeccable combination of mise en scène and script. Puiu isn’t afraid to throw everything in at once – 9/11 conspiracy theories, Charlie Hebdo, the death of the family patriarch, religious rituals, drug addiction, couples’ dramas, etc. – as if the apparatus were eventually going to either collapse, or, through all of its content, achieve some kind of climax. This family structure – these endless small territories that evolve into different mini-stories, in the constant presence of easygoing Lary (Mimi Brănescu) – acts as a pulsating testament to the underlying concerns that Puiu himself is trying to understand. Sieranevada, as its title suggests, plays with the absurd; but in all its absurdism lies a deeper layer of human issues, of several troubled souls all dancing to the filmmaker’s score. And if, in Moartea domnului Lãzãrescu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 2006), the unending exchanges that the dying Lãzãrescu has with the various people delaying (or hastening) his ultimately death serve as an incisive protest against the former socialist country’s medical system, here in Sieranevada these discussions bare the Romanian (and Eastern European) middle class to the bone.
Samuel Beckett used comedy well because it was a perfect excuse for disguising discomfort. Puiu uses comedy here in the same manner; everyone makes jokes because it’s easier to joke than to deal with real life. Lary, with a wide smile across his face, is the ultimate jokester: ridiculing his brother and his crazy antics, meddling in the kitchen to lessen the drama, even acting like a fool in the face of sudden problems arising in the house. The camera also deals with its characters from a distance, never with a close-up, as if to avoid the close encounter and opt instead for a drama from afar. This method of filming allows Puiu to see life unfold in his films as it is: a comedy, the ultimate theatre of the absurd.
The claustrophobic, sometimes sinister home of Lary’s family is a fantastic plot device: it serves as a confessional, as an improvised hospital, as a mourning place, as a ritualistic salon, as a family dinner hall, as a place where seemingly everyone enters and nobody leaves. The whole family apparatus is ingrained between the walls of the apartment and the camerawork of Barbu Balasoiu, a structure that seemingly holds everything together; as soon as the couple leaves these walls, everything collapses under the weight of a seemingly insignificant occurrence. This sequence not only serves as a small respite from the dense climate inside the house, but it also liberates the narrative so that it can unfold the internal dramas of its lead character. And with that vulnerability, in that small moment in time when one of the most caustic characters is freed from his cynicism, the human side of it all occupies the otherwise dark rooms of the flat, permeating them with a delicate patina of hope and warmth and concluding the film on a more amiable note.
Nevertheless, it’s troubling to see this film under the circumstances that today’s global political realities have placed us in. This era of post-truth is particularly illuminated in the brothers’ exchanges in the family room. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings, the spectre of a Europe under attack draws out the conspiracy theories of a post–9/11 world; everything is questioned, even if that questioning is received with mockery or disbelief. It’s a latent reality of our current state of mind: a world in fear can believe anything, so one holds on to whatever information best serves as protection. And, as social fear is also personal fear, this situational transfer is best seen as a permanent transition: just as there’s an underlying threat in Lary’s relationship with his partner, there’s an underlying threat (of death) hovering over the family members, an underlying threat in the social structure they all inhabit and a different one again in the world they are part of, all cascading in a curious matryoshka doll effect.
It’s a complicated, disheartening thought, especially since most of the climactic moments of the film are never completely resolved. But in that, I believe, lies the majesty of a film like Sieranevada, in the way that it generates its own logic and shares with its audience only a mere glimpse of a bigger problem – never stating answers, but throwing open many questions along the way. It’s a complex creature, a film that demands several viewings and an adept means of depicting the social issues of a nation via the intimate issues of a family; and Puiu’s offbeat, funny, conversational and simultaneously casual and dramatic way of portraying all of this is nothing short of genius.
Sieranevada (2016, Romania, 173 mins)
Prod. Co: Mandragora Prod: Anca Puiu Dir: Cristi Puiu Scr: Cristi Puiu Phot: Barbu Balasoiu Ed: Ciprian Cimpoi, Iulia Muresan, Letitia Stefãnescu
Cast: Mimi Brănescu, Judith State, Bogdan Dumitrache