In his relatively short 2005 drama “The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu” (which clocked in at 150 minutes), Romanian director Cristi Puiu invited us to witness an ailing old man’s final hours, using the threat of his demise to create suspense amid a broken system — of families, neighbors and professionals — who failed to save his life. In the absurdly titled, 23-minute-longer “Sieranevada,” the guest of honor, Emil, has already died, and his family has assembled 40 days later for his memorial service. To the extent that funerals are for the living, not the deceased, Puiu’s overlong domestic drama somewhat taxingly allows those gathered to seek their own catharses, rewarding audiences with the patience to unravel this tangled ball of yarn.
That, of course, is a polite way of saying that the vast majority of moviegoers would be bored silly by being locked up in a Romanian apartment for three hours, watching as characters whose names and connections to one another are barely given shuffle from room to room, alternately avoiding and stirring trouble. The good news is, apart from whatever visions of Monument Valley treasure hunts Puiu’s defiantly irrelevant/misspelled title may conjure, anyone who stumbles into “Sieranevada” by accident or chance — as opposed to die-hard cinephilia and admiration of the Romanian New Wave, of which Puiu is essentially the godfather — should immediately realize his blunder.
The film opens on a congested street corner. The curbs are lined bumper-to-bumper with cars, and rather than look for a spot, Lary (Mimi Brănescu) leaves his SUV parked in the middle of the street and runs inside for a minute — 60 full seconds, which might seem like an eternity to be staring at a cruddy Romanian apartment building on a cold January afternoon, though if you can’t handle the restlessness of that moment, now would be a good time to stand up, return to the lobby and demand a refund. While the characters (a generous word at this point, since we’ve hardly been introduced) are inside, a DHL delivery truck turns into the street and, unable to advance, the driver starts laying on the horn.
Patience, as we have already established, is a virtue Puiu prizes above all else — with the possible exception of honesty, though one could argue (and Puiu would) that honesty doesn’t really exist. Lary runs back to his car and drives off, while his wife Laura (Cătălina Moga) and daughter wait on the corner for him to circle the block. Following d.p. Barbu Bălăsoiu’s gaze, the camera pivots back and forth, rather inconveniently placed, like some sort of half-curious bystander loitering across the street. That’s true for the whole picture, as the camera practically haunts each scene (and maybe that’s the point, that we’re seeing through the eyes of Emil’s ghost), hovering in hallways or the corners of rooms, unseen by the characters but well within their personal space.
Once Laura joins her husband in the vehicle, the camera continues to eavesdrop, this time from the back seat as the couple argue (somewhat hilariously) over the most trivial of topics — and a full two and a half hours later, it’s there in the back seat that it witnesses the film’s key scene. We’ll call it “the confession,” although it barely even qualifies as an “acknowledgement,” and yet, for Lary, this between-the-lines monologue represents his way of coming to terms with something his father’s memorial brought to light.
In order for audiences to make the most of not only this scene, but the rest of the film’s rather taxing running time as well (don’t trust the emperor’s fashion critics who claim it “flies by”), there are a number of important facts it would help to know going in, since Puiu isn’t the sort to deliver them via exposition: The film takes place in Bucharest on Jan. 10, 2015, three days after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, and 40 after the death of Mirica family patriarch Emil, whose widow (Dana Dogaru) has assembled her sisters (Ana Ciontea, Tatiana Iekel) and children, Lary and Sandra (Judith State), for a traditional Orthodox dinner that will allow her husband’s soul to pass on to heaven — which explains the running joke in which skinny Sebi (Marin Grigore) is expected to seek forgiveness on the dead man’s behalf by while wearing one of his suits.
As it happens, that dinner very nearly doesn’t get eaten, so distracted are the guests by all the complicated family dynamics. (There are as many as 16 people crammed into the flat at one point, when the priest and his assistants arrive to bless both the event and the apartment.) Lary has chosen a strange time to present his mother with a stationary bike, for example, and his aunt Ofelia (Ciontea) spends the whole scene with her back to the camera, sobbing. Along the same lines, younger sister — or maybe she’s a cousin — Cami (Ilona Brezoianu) introduces a measure of turmoil by bringing along a wasted young Croatian woman (Petra Kurtela), who might be a junkie, or maybe a prostitute, or maybe even an “architecture student” (as Cami claims), but who is definitely either passed out or throwing up off camera for most of the movie. Cami’s concern for this totally unrelated character, it should be noted, is a sympathetic alternative to the indifference everyone showed Mr. Lăzărescu in Puiu’s masterpiece.
Dramatically speaking, “Sieranevada” is actually a far more robust film than “The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu” was, although it demands quite a bit of work from the audience to sort out where exactly the drama lies as the camera sits there, inside the apartment, but outside the tiny spheres of action, tilting its head back and forth as doors open and shut and characters hustle back and forth. Things pick up a bit when Tony (Sorin Medeleni) turns up. He’s the reason Ofelia has been crying, and the subsequent confrontation over the matter of his infidelity triggers a domino effect of sorts, revealing skeletons in various other closets, including the late Emil’s.
While the film may be ponderous going for the vast majority of moviegoers, if only because characters talk and talk and talk, but seldom ever speak the truth, while the camera never seems to be positioned in quite the right place to judge, “Sieranevada” gives audiences plenty to sink their teeth into over the hours and days to come. Puiu is something of a philosopher, it turns out, and though we’re so immediately desperate for clues (Who are these people? How are they related? And why are they so obsessed with 9/11 conspiracy theories?) on the first go round to juggle all the implications, he manages to weave a tapestry — or family quilt, if you will — in which deception and the hopeless search for truth is judged both on the micro level (as in extramarital affairs) and a more global scale (which is where questions of Romania’s Communist past, 9/11 and Charlie Hebdo fit into the picture), and where disturbances in either sphere ripple out into the world at large.