A Family and a Three Bedroom Apartment

Sieranevada, Cristi Puiu, 2016

From the interior of a car to a crammed apartment, somewhere in Bucharest, on a grey winter day, Sieranevada is a… chunk of Romanian life. On 10th of January, 2015, 3 days after the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, and 40 days after the death of Emil Mirica, a Romanian family has to deal with its own mundane tragedy, the loss of a husband, of a father, or a grandfather and the impossibility of eating due to a series of random and trivial events. After waiting for The Death of Mr. Lazarescu in a medical environment that does not care for its patients, Cristi Puiu now challenges the public to wait, for almost 3 hours, for a religious ritual of passing. And while waiting for the soul of the late Emil to cross from one world to another, the characters, as well as the public, go from enthusiasm, to weariness, to anger, to disgust, to despair, to laughter, to profound disagreement, to numbness, to sadness, to acceptance, to finally being able to eat, but now the food is cold.

If you’re a Romanian you already know; you know the dishes, the traditions, the communist old lady who mumbles about the better times of her youth, the young rebel, who’s either ignorant or refractory, the overdramatic aunt, who has to steal the lights at least for one moment, the vicious uncle, the violent drivers, the nosy neighbours, the smokers in the kitchen, the window curtains, the ornamental plant in the corner, the curses, the crowded family gatherings, the quarrels, the laughs, the interrupted dialogue, the message that almost gets to everyone, but oh, that almost (!), the priest, who’s always late. You know, so when you find yourself on the backseat of Lary’s (Mimi Branescu) car, in the middle of a common argument over a Disney princess’ dress, your lips just arch in an ironic grimace-smile. We have all been, at least once, in a similar situation.

If you’re not Romanian, then things might get a little confusing. You might end up struggling to remake the family tree, or following psychological traits of the characters, or just trying to understand what’s going on in the living room, why Sebi (Marin Grigore) is so fixated to expose, at least to his limited public of family members, a conspiracy theory about the 9/11, why Sandra (Judith State) is arguing with Aunt Evelina (Tatiana Iekel) in the Kitchen, why everyone is all over the place, bustling from one room to another, from one place to another, from one conversation to another, and why isn’t anyone eating, when every single one of the characters is hungry and the food has been on the table from the moment the camera entered the living room. Don’t even try, because the film does not offer answers, but little details which contour an enclosed universe where life and death combine, where world tragedies and personal ones come together, where humour, wit, and a harmless irony sketch serious issues and concepts, where tradition finds its place in a contemporary setting. It is a constant negotiation between truths, personal truths, lies, and personal understandings, a process of discovery, of rediscovery, of self-discovery.

The film makes its viewers feel; it make its viewers experience the claustrophobic atmosphere of that congested apartment built in the Communist period, the tiredness of continue conversation over ordinary subjects or matters of international echo, the desire to just leave, but the need to be present to the much-expected event. Being shot at the eye level, the camera is treated most of the time as a character, it has to “stretch its neck” to be able to see over the other characters’ heads and shoulders, it has to retreat in a corner, not to be unintentionally hit by someone hurrying to open the door. The cinematography transforms the viewer from a simple voyeur, who can see everything without being disturbed by the filmic pawns, to a participant. While the characters might not address or even see the viewer, the second lives the whole experience of being present, which even makes it more frustrating because the viewers cannot agree or disagree with Sebi, ask aunt Evelina to stop eulogizing the communists or see if the Croatian intruder is still alive.

The realism is brutal, which is exactly what would be expected from the director, Cristi Puiu, who is one of the figures to have shaped the aesthetics of the Romanian New Wave, but the perspective is somewhat empathic. The film does not criticise its characters, the irony and the humour comes naturally, they aren’t caricatured, they are deeply human and deeply Romanian, they are part of different groups, belong to different times, they cannot agree on all matters, maybe on none, but they are brought together by a ritual of resurrection. A performative ritual of getting to terms with a loss, a death ritual, in a world weaved around rituals. In a terrified Europe by the terrorist attack in Paris, Romanian family Mirica reunites to honour their own loss, but their own lives catch up with them, making life and death intertwine in a family portrait, sometimes ironic, sometimes candid, before the eyes of a character-camera, which could even play the role of Emil’s soul watching over his family.

The mise-en-scene is masterfully created not to give any glimpse that it could be artificial, the script was half written, half improvised, new events were included in the film, which were not part of the script, the actors had the freedom to add lines and gestures, and all of this transformed Sieranevada from “a dead film” how it was described by the director, if it would have followed the script by word, into a breathing, pulsating filmic organism.

Reviewed by Maria Mantaluta

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