By Daniel Lindvall.
There’s a sequence in Cristi Puiu’s new film, Aurora, where the main character, the middle-aged Viorel (Puiu), drops his 7-8-year-old daughter off at the neighbours’ place, where she’s supposed to wait for her mum to come home. She doesn’t seem to know these neighbours very well. There’s an elderly couple, who apparently own the flat. A nephew is visiting, trying to sell them a new kitchen. A young couple (a son and his girl friend? a daughter and her boy friend?) keeps moving between a bedroom and the bathroom, closing the doors behind them. The little girl sits alone at a big table, looking rather lost.
For the better part of this three-hour-long film this is pretty much the position of the audience as well. We follow Viorel around Bucharest. He wakes up next to a woman. Who is she? She shows him an expensive dress, “Look what he bought me.” Who’s “he”? He spies on a house where a couple take two little girls out to a car. Who are they? He visits his workplace briefly, to collect a debt. A workmate helps him repair his gun. Is he a hunter? He spends time in an empty flat he’s supposed to redecorate, but doesn’t do any work. An elderly lady arrives. She lets herself in. Is it her place? Is it his mother, although he calls her by her first name? She’s accompanied by a younger looking man. Viorel’s brother? He goes to an expensive boutique, insisting to talk to a woman that doesn’t work there anymore. Why? Somewhere in the middle of the film he cold-bloodedly guns down a couple in a hotel garage. Is he a hit man?
Puiu’s first feature film, Stuff and Dough (2001), has been credited with turning Romanian film production back to realism and thereby setting the stage for what we now know as the Romanian new wave. His second feature, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu(2005), which won the Special Jury Prize in Cannes, often felt like a docudrama. In this third feature Puiu takes his ‘fly on the wall’ approach to film-making to new extremes. During the best part of the film the audience has little idea of what is going on, little idea about who these people are that pass by on the screen and what their relation to Viorel is. Yet, through the combination of that astute eye for everyday details that has become the hallmark of new Romanian cinema, and by offering us just enough hints (sometimes misleading) to keep us guessing actively, Puiu succeeds in keeping the tension up throughout the film. In the end, everything (and in another way, nothing) is revealed with such swiftness that we are left wondering, when the screen goes black, if the film is already over.
But if Puiu’s third film is another step in the evolution of his and Romanian cinema’s realist aspirations, it also differs from many of its predecessors. Stuff and Dough followed the travails of two working-class kids trying to set up a small business and inevitably getting drawn into the world of organised crime. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu chronicled a poor, dying man’s last journey through Romania’s decaying health care system. Both films, like so many other Romanian 21st century films, focused on the harsh economic realities of life in post-Stalinist Eastern Europe. But now, as many average Romanians are hit by drastic cuts in wages and draconian ‘austerity’ measures, Puiu’s film joins in a tendency of some Romanian directors to ‘move on’ to making films about the relationship dramas and alienation of ‘normal’, ie middle class, families enjoying a ‘Western European’ lifestyle. Could it have something to do with the fact that success has set these artists moving in a socio-economic direction that is completely opposed to the trajectory of the majority of their countrymen? Only time can show.
[Aurora was screened as part of the program of the ‘Romanian Film Days’ here in Stockholm, 11-13 February 2011.]
Daniel Lindvall is Film International‘s editor-in-chief.