“Sieranevada” by Cristi Puiu: A Barely-Made-It Masterpiece

Written by Zornitsa Staneva


Following in the wake of Woody Allen’s chirpy Hollywood comedy “Café Society”, Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada, the Romanian opening of the official competition feels like a product of a wholly different planet and art form. As soon as the opening sequence various cinematic categories can be facilely slapped on “Sieranevada”: a filmmaker’s film, “art house” at its bleakest and most minimalist, a three-hour long cinéma-vérité experiment in a shabby post-communist apartment…

All of the above are certainly applicable and from the outset the film’s premise is to demand the audience’s patience, a lot of it. We will be served a concoction of never-ending naturalistic dialogue set in the kitschy, shabby apartment of a Bucharest grandmother whose husband has recently passed away; a heavy dose of Romanian funerary culture; the lingering ‘afterglow’ of Romania’s communist regime; some intermittent comic-relief references to conspiracy theories of various terrorist acts; and most of all, family drama in its most unadorned, warts-and-all reality…

Lary (Mimi Branescu), a 40-year old world-weary (or maybe just nagging-wife-and-spoilt-children-weary) doctor and the nagging, pushy wife in question Laura (Catalina Moga) are about to attend a family gathering at Lary’s mother’s apartment, commemorating the forty-day period of mourning following Lary’s father death, an important Romanian religious and family tradition. Family members and some friends are beginning to trickle into Nusa’s (Dana Dogaru) granny-looking apartment and various feuds, disputes, petty quarrels and other simmering bitternesses start to take shape as the family edgily awaits a priest’s arrival so that the religious ceremony can take place and feast can commence. Both hunger and resentment build up in real time, as the camera follows Lary around the apartment’s various spaces, particularly in the corridor, a sort of no-man’s land through which the various familial alliances transit, each with their litany of grievances. The family politics and tensions quickly instate a claustrophobic atmosphere, occasionally lightened by elements of absurd comedy.

Formally, ‘Sieranevada’ is a pure cinéma-vérité, Romanian New Wave product – no special effects, naturalistic dialogue and acting style, extremely long-takes and a pronounced emphasis on prolonged panning shots at the expense of editing – everything is in place on order to plunge the spectator into the cantankerous family meal that feels all too real at times. Especially hard-hitting because of their ordinary, daily-life quality are the married couples’ squabbles:  the bickering over a child’s school play or a baby’s brand of milk formula bear all the hallmarks of cinéma-vérité of the most earthy, Romanian, post-communist brand.

Puiu is unabashed in his unconcern for the audience’s tolerance of the lack of conventional ‘entertainment’: one is either going to endure the three hours of family embarrassment getting hungrier and edgier along with the ensemble cast on their own terms as an invisible, uninvited guest at Lary’s father’s wake, or remain an outsider increasingly exasperated on the margins of this film-universe. It is by no means an easy or pleasant watch, but the cast is uniformly excellent, at times annoyingly real, as is the bitingly witty dialogue and dark humour. Rewards are to be had in watching “Sieranevada”, but just like family life, they don’t come easy.

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