Cristi Puiu’s follow-up to “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” is a tale of murders, but it’s not about murder. Unlike “Targets,” “Falling Down” or similar pics, “Aurora” doesn’t concern itself with the reasons behind the killings but rather takes a seemingly neutral eye to the decision behind the acts. The film is a record of a resolution and the deeds that come with that resolve, rather than its consequences or precedents. As such, it’s a cold movie (and a long one), but it’s undeniably the product of a master helmer. Still, widespread success along “Lazarescu” lines is unlikely.
That said, “Aurora” will certainly be picked up by fests and arthouses, though critical support may not reach the same heights as before. The streak of black humor seen in “Lazarescu” is gone, and there’s less here to draw an audience into the character. The helmer probably wanted his protag, whom he impressively embodies, to be recognizable to all, and perhaps it’s merely our defense mechanisms that prevent self-identification such a murderous character. Puiu seems less concerned with being liked than with the need to tell a particular story, and patient auds will find much food for thought, along with a lasting acknowledgment of the skill and sheer impressiveness of the venture.
“Aurora” is the second in the helmer’s projected series entitled “Six Stories from the Outskirts of Bucharest.” As the pic’s title suggests, the action begins in the early dawn, when Viorel (Puiu) stirs beside his apparently crying g.f. Gina (Clara Voda). From the start, Viorel is an angry man, with a stern glare in his eye. He observes every action around him, extremely distrustful and exuding a simmering combativeness.
After leaving Gina’s apartment, he drives to the metallurgy plant where he works — or worked, as it’s unclear if he’s been demoted or laid off. There he collects some firing pins for a shotgun, then returns to his own apartment; the next hour or so is largely taken up with quotidian events: His mother Pusa (Valeria Seciu) and stepfather Stoian (Valentin Popescu) stop by, he buys a new shotgun, he interacts with workers clearing out his home. This attention to the details of the everyday, though often seemingly leading nowhere, emphasize the mundaneness of the murder to come, and the film studiously avoids glamorization, refusing to allow any pumping of adrenalin.
The first killing comes at the halfway mark, in an underground parking garage, and the action is seen in longshot — the viewer isn’t aware of who the victims are, or their connection to Viorel, until the pic’s end. Though there’s been some preparation for the scene, the action still comes as a shock, partly because Puiu avoids the expected (for example, no car alarm goes off to distract from the horror of the event). Some time later, the second killing occurs offscreen. It’s a horrific moment with a matter-of-fact quality that makes it even worse than the previous murder.
The reasons for these assaults are only revealed toward the film’s end, but even then, Puiu withholds complete explanations, as if to say there’s nothing exceptional about a murderer among us. While telling his stepfather how much he dislikes him, Viorel says, “It’s chemistry. I can’t help it,” which may offer some offer some partial explanation. Despite Puiu’s desire to normalize the killer, Viorel is not a figure to whom philosophical theories easily apply (surely the volumes by Albert Camus on his shelves aren’t there by chance).
As his mother-in-law Rodica (Catrinel Dumitrescu) points out, Viorel tallies up the misdeeds and slights of everyone around him. His simmering anger speaks of deep problems far beyond the ordinary — he looks at people as if they’re potential enemies and mistrusts those who return his gaze. Puiu’s performance is chillingly complete and pitch perfect, projecting an atmosphere of frozen anger that’s as disturbing as it is believable.
The camera is often set up in a separate room from the characters, offering a deceptively neutral p.o.v. that suggests our observational stance is devoid of manipulation. Lensing emphasizes gray-blues both inside and out, conjuring a no man’s land in which the chilly morning light is as unwelcoming as winter’s extended darkness. Puiu has suggested the title “Aurora” can be seen as the flipside of Murnau’s “Sunrise,” offering a frigidness that provides no humanity, where Murnau gave the warm hopefulness of a new beginning.
Though songs are occasionally heard in the background, the only incidental music comes from a Louis Moreau Gottschalk piano piece during the opening and closing credits.