To Tell the Truth
by Adam Nayman
Dir. Cristi Puiu, Romania, no distributor
The tension in Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada is between the various lies told and recalled by its characters and the relentless objectivity of its camera, which swoops, pans, hovers, lurks, sulks, and retreats in sync with its subjects but, crucially, does not embellish. The scrupulous real-time realism associated with the Romanian New Wave in general and Puiu in particular has been employed here not simply as an auteurist tic but because it’s the ideal form for a film that is obsessed, in different ways, with the nature of truth, which, according to some strains of ancient and modern philosophy, must be observed and revealed rather than asserted or explained. The visual perspective in this three-hour epic is athletic and dexterous, but also, above all, objective in the manner of a great non-interventionist documentary by Allan King or Patricio Guzmán; that it is as easy to forget the presence of the camera as the fact that the arguments and confrontations it catalogues are the by-product of thrillingly skillful filmmaking acting rather than authentic, captured reality suggests something of this marvelous movie’s total triumph.
Puiu broke through with the seriocomic urban horror movie The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), the first “major” Romanian movie of a movement, which has now been codified by scholars and exploited by film festival programmers (i.e. the lazy TIFF program note for Adrian Sitaru’s The Fixer, which cited “the signature minimalist approach of the Romanian New Wave” for a film with perfectly conventional shot lengths and continuity editing). Lazarescu’s grotesquely existential set-up—a man moving along the health-care conveyor belt gets closer to death with each new handler—and Dardennes-inflected mobile camera were impressive even if some critics, myself included, suspected that he was scoring hollow sociological points along the way; the distinctly Haneke-ish Aurora (2010), which preceded Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan (2015) as a sort of Euro-art-house Taxi Driver, was an impeccably directed slog through an alienated Bucharest killer’s stations of the cross.
This seemingly accelerated transformation from great white hope to white elephant is why I skipped Puiu’s 2013 Three Interpretation Exercises, an experimental feature in which a group of actors gathered to workshop scenes adapted from Russian writer Vladimir Solovyov’s Three Conversations—a reputedly arduous text whose high-end obscurity, combined with the seeming pretentiousness of Puiu’s project, ensured that the film wouldn’t be widely seen even by the standards of independent Eastern European cinema. I now regret having not seen Three Interpretation Exercises, because it appears to have been a dry run for Sieranevada, gathering a troupe of performers around a dinner table and feeding them complex, suggestive dialogue while the camera feasts quietly on their line readings and reaction shots in equal measure. In interviews about that film, Puiu described his desire to make a movie that had a quality of eavesdropping, and that the sensation of intense discussion surreptitiously overheard was at least as important as the topics being talked about, although the narrative and dramatic details of the episodes themselves—one of which hinges on a group viewing of an Apichatpong film (!)— are surely suggestive. In “The Monkey Is on the Branch,” for instance, the characters end up talking at length about The Antichrist, a figure who wouldn’t have been out of place amidst the modern Dante-isms of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.
One of the many ways to slice into the appetizing rhetorical smorgasbord of Sieranevada is to see it as a movie about the collision of secularism and Christian tradition, the latter embodied by a Romanian Orthodox priest, whose arrival into the tiny apartment that houses some 90% of the film’s action is comically delayed in the manner of Samuel Beckett. For the first hour or so, Sieranevada is about waiting for a religious figurehead to manifest, as if from thin air; the plan is that once the priest arrives, the gathered family members of the late Emil—a character who is never seen, having died before the start of the first scene—can pay official tribute to their departed pater. But while some of the assembled mourners seek the succor and relief represented by a holy man—and duly absolve him, sight unseen, of the sin of tardiness—there are others whose impatience is barely disguised, and all too earthly in origin: their burning question is, simply, “When do we eat?”
Whether or not one finds this basic set-up hilarious or hard-going (or “taxing,” to quote Variety) may be a matter of cinematic taste or else familiarity with the pain and drag of family rituals. While the cultural and political context of the film may be blisteringly specific—it’s set in the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings and includes frequent allusions to Romanian political history as well as U.S. foreign policy post–September 11—the atmosphere of cozy suffocation feels pretty obviously universal. The Canadian author Douglas Coupland titled his best book All Families Are Psychotic, and that claim certainly holds for the clan in Sieranevada, except of course that what’s irritating, incensing or outrageous to any one character, like, say, putative protagonist Lary (Mimi Brănescu, who looks strangely like a Romanian Denis Villeneuve), the eldest and best-humored of three adult siblings crammed into the apartment with a dozen other cousins, spouses, and unexpected guests, isn’t really on the radar of another. The incompatible worldviews of these people as they make small talk are one thing; it’s the clashing priorities and agendas that underlie the kibitzing—everything from the best way to memorialize Emil to the infinitely more delicate question of whether it’s okay to graze on hors d’oeuvres in the meantime—that catalyze scattered and accumulating outbursts of verbal-bordering-on-physical violence.
Puiu attempted something similarly combustible in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, which had a nice, clean narrative and thematic arc, but somehow grew more morbid and placid in equal measure; from its title on down, the film was a foregone conclusion. What’s exciting in Sieranevada—or, again, depending on your aesthetic preference, “taxing”—is how the raucous, multi-directional dramaturgy keeps us from apprehending the true shape of the film for most of its duration. Puiu keeps so many balls in the air that he seems to be auditioning for the austere-festival-cinema equivalent of The Ed Sullivan Show—how long can he keep them all spinning?— but as with any good magician, the exertion is effortless. When twentysomething Cami (Ilona Brezoianu) shows up late, dragging a half-conscious gal pal behind her, we’re braced for catastrophe, but the plus-one spends most of the movie comatose, hidden from view (it’s a great joke that this incongruous Sleeping Beauty gets her own room while everybody else sits elbows-up in a little living room). Elsewhere, what seem to be long-simmering resentments are doused well ahead of schedule while seemingly copacetic relationships deteriorate out of nowhere. And even the priest, whose entrance is announced via the script’s single best line—no spoilers but it might be a dig at Nanni Moretti—doesn’t behave predictably as he duly fulfills his circumscribed theological and narrative functions.
Sieranevada is so literally and figuratively crowded that an interpretatively minded critic can pull out any old scene and extract its rich core of meaning: if there’s been a better filmic metaphor for the way that organized religion intrudes (with an invitation) on domestic life than the priest’s extended cameo, I haven’t seen it; at the same time, there is a hushed, respectful distance to the filming of the rite itself—shot from behind the bobbing heads and bowed backs of the assembled parties—that takes it far out of the realm of irreligious burlesque. This, once again, is the direct effect of Puiu’s objective-cum-omniscient style, which is so masterfully controlled (the cinematography is by Barbu Bălăsoiu) that every act of reframing or cutting feels like an event, or else slips by unnoticed beneath the flawlessly maintained surface. And yet the mise-en-scène may really only be bronze medal stuff here as compared to the acting and writing, which both would require more room than I have here to receive full tribute. Puiu has conjured up an endless stream of cross-talk that feels off-the-cuff even as it evinces deep intellectual connections at different intersections—like, for instance, how the paranoid-YouTube-9/11-Trutherism of geeky Sebi (Marin Grigore) bounces off both his own country’s legacy of governmental obfuscation and the even more abstract debate about whether God is watching over the dinner party; or the perfectly proportioned, neatly inverted parallels between late-coming adulterer Toni (Sorin Medeleni), the brother-in-law of the deceased, and Lary, whose ability to keep one kind of grief at bay is undermined once a different set of regrets (and sins) has been placed on the family table.
The long scene where Lary and his wife, Laura (Cătălina Moga), who is strategically kept out of the fray for most of the movie, hash their own issues out in a parked car is moving in a way that Puiu has not really attempted to date; in lieu of the harrowing detachment of Lazarescu and Aurora—films with distant and fundamentally unknowable protagonists—he switches into a confessional mode that brings him again close to Beckett and clarifies once and for all Sieranevada’s interest in the slippery nature of truth. Over the course of a remarkable run-on monologue, Lary (and Puiu) distills a staggering breadth of feelings about the interwoven vertices of trust running between husbands and wives and parents and children and back again, all organized around an anecdote that’s somehow both completely, humorously transparent and as mysterious and ineffable as anything in the ritualized chanting ceremony that preceded it by an hour or so. Let somebody more qualified speculate on the deep-seated relationship between Lary et al’s agonized battles with honesty and conscience and the larger group psychology of a country still coming to terms with decades of dictatorial deception; if it’s a cliché to say that in the best movies, the personal is also political, rest assured that Sieranevada houses not a single full-out cliché in its long duration, as even characters who seem to be punchlines—like Toni, who comes on like a true asshole during his initial stint in the house—are given the depth and fullness that can only really be granted by great acting.
It’s probably a sour note to end on by comparing Sieranevada, a film that did not win a prize at Cannes (where it was in good company with Toni Erdmann and Elle), with one that did, but even allowing for the fact that different people look to different movies for different things (and all with a different set of taste-buds flavoring the search), it’s amazing to think that anybody—be they director, actor, or critic—could look at Puiu’s movie side-by-side with Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World and decide that the latter attempts and achieves its intended theatrical long-day’s-journey-into-night catharsis with anything resembling similar results. If both directors are to some extent chasing Bergman, it’s still constructive to compare their respective grace notes, both of which strive for overt symbolism in the grand old manner of canonical, Criterion Collection–ratified, mid-60s “art cinema.”
Puiu ends, at long last, with one character ill-fittingly clad in another’s clothes, a running sight gag that pays off with the bittersweet realization that the dead are destined to stay that way—in the absence of actual resurrection, it’s better to eat, drink, and be as merry as possible. Dolan, meanwhile, closes his movie with a close-up of a wounded animal that prophecies a demise to come with such self-seriousness that it becomes laughable. I’ll take Puiu’s overt joke, and the way it miraculously transubstantiates into wisdom immediately thereafter, and I can’t for the life of me fathom how somebody else could not, short of lying to themselves.