Directed by Cristi Puiu
Back from a professional trip to Paris, a neurologist at the pinnacle of his career has to pick up his wife so that they can attend a family meal to commemorate his father, who died a year before. At his mother's flat, the guests are waiting for the priest to arrive while arguing about all kinds of things connected and unconnected with the world’s events and wars.
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★★★★ review by Michael Sicinski on Letterboxd
After admiring Puiu's breakthrough film, The Death of Mister Lazarescu, without ever really liking it, and finding that I had genuine antipathy for his nihilistic follow-up Aurora, I am elated to have found the Cristi Puiu film that I can get behind 100%. It would be glib to call Sieranevada a kind of synthesis of the two earlier movies, partly because there is considerable variation in Puiu's cinematic methods. Lazarescu, while grueling, was characterized by a propulsive march toward the grave, the sense that time was not on its protagonist's side. Typical art-film longeurs, when they occured, could provoke a mild panic for this reason -- a ramped-up tension that Cristian Mungiu exploited in more conventional ways in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. By contrast, Aurora dealt with claustrophobia, the sense that even (or perhaps especially) the outside world of everyday Bucharest, as well as conventional family life, had become straitjackets for a particular type of post-Communist masculinity. Not knowing what to do with itself, that machismo explodes into violence.
It is notable in this regard that Sieranevada is about the absence of the patriarch. It takes place on the day of a memorial ceremony, forty days after the death of the paterfamilias. It is an Orthodox ritual that involves all of the members of the family, some close friends, and a priest who must consecrate the man's clothes and belongings, asking God that the deceased be forgiven. (I am no expert on these things, but based on the timing and the rituals, I sense that the purpose is to help the father's spirit exit Purgatory and ascend to Heaven once and for all.)
Over the course of the nearly three-hour film, after a prologue of sorts in which the main character, eldest son Lari (Mimi Branescu), and his wife Laura (Catalina Moga) drop their youngest daughter off with Laura's mom and snake through city traffic to arrive at the gathering, we are plunged into the middle of the family conflicts, bickering, preparations, and discomfort that are part and parcel of any such gathering. But there are key differences that make Sieranevada compelling both as a mordant comedy and a seductive formalist endeavor.
Just as the memorial ceremony is presided over in absentia by the late father, the entire day is held hostage by the priest, whose appearance is continually deferred. He is either caught in traffic, or detained at another event, or something. But as we see the restless guests seated around a table of shifting starters, entrees, soup bowls, and plates, they are reminded that no one can eat until after the blessing, and that requires the priest. Puiu has created a very literal version of a Buñuelian joke here, dinner forever out of reach due to the mysterious (but all too banal) absence of God.
When the priest finally arrives, nearly two hours in, weary sister Sandra (Judith State), who has been cooking all day and arguing with an aging Ceausecsu apologist (Tatiana Iekel), sardonically announces, "habemus papem." By jokingly elevating the local clergy to the position of Pope, Sandra doesn't just make him a synecdoche for his religious authority within the house. She exposes the tyranny that Nusa (Dana Dogaru), the matriarch, exacts over the entire clan in the name of traditionalism and the prerogative of seniority. Food is everywhere but endlessly withheld, and although a few family members slip out temporarily, none of them can leave.
This is the real crux of Puiu's sprawling yet finely crafted exigesis on family. Difficult relationships and micro-aggressions exert their pull, along with secrets that are divulged only because circumstance has worn otherwise discrete people down to their last nerve. But the apartment itself is the film's primary catalyst. Seemingly an unspectacular urban flat, Puiu shoots it like a funhouse or a Tardis, his camera wheeling about on a lazy susan of distractability. There is an anchor point of sorts, in the main entryway, but shooting off from this hub are a kitchen, formal dining room, an office, several bedrooms, a nursery, and possibly more spaces. The apartment is overstuffed with hungry, anxious people, navigating around each other like motorists in an inner city traffic circle.
With his editing and disjointed spatial articulation, Puiu puts us in the middle of a kind of nether region of human interaction. It is utterly familiar -- we all have families that resemble certain moment in Sieranevada -- and utterly confounding. The half-heard arguments, the unfamiliar behaviors, and the thwarted cognitive mapping, all collide with elements so recognizable (such as the 9/11 "truther" talk, or the late arrival of the persona non grata in-law) as to be ridiculous in the context of this structural push / pull. It's a wry dialectic, bone-dry in its comedy of dissolution. Like Puiu's "meaningless" title, which is never alluded to in the film, it's a place, all right, but a half-remembered, misspelled place no one's been. It's a pipe dream getaway, somewhere far from here, and it's also a slurred demand for another beer. Go home, cinema. You're drunk.
★★★★★ review by Leo (Willem) van der Zanden 🔥⬇🏠 on Letterboxd
IFFR Film 4
The sole reason you shouldn't make a "Best of"-list as soon as the year is over. If I didn't randomly pick this three hour epic out of all the possible films at the IFFR, I would have sorely missed out on something great.
Just like the two other three hour masterpieces of 2016, Toni Erdmann and American Honey, Christi Puiu's intimate drama of a family trying to commemorate a man's passing is ludicrous in its dark humor but succeeds in creating an impossible balance with the equally tense drama, just like Erdmann did earlier this year. For another comparison: imagine Vinterberg's Festen, but instead of putting the whole family in an enormous manor, everybody gets forced into the tiniest Romanian apartment you can imagine. Right from the opening shot of a city block filled with cars, we get a sense of this intimate, packed nature that Sieranevada gives us and we only occasionally get the time to catch a breath.
From the second we're in we get swung from argument to argument, family member against family member. Tears are shed and laughs are had and in all this more than familiar madness, we actually get to know each and every one of these characters. Even when the house is filled to the brim with some 20 people, we still see 20 different characters. Everybody has his or her own problems and they all shine through at the right moments with the right power. At a certain moment it isn't like you're watching a film any more, you're watching a living being. Every person feels connected to the next in some way and they beautifully play off of each other, creating scenes that are so memorable in their mundanity that they can't be overlooked.
Naming any character as the MVP here is an utterly impossible task. Every single person has a moment to shine and every moment is as beautiful as the next. Even when whole groups get swallowed by the darkness of the dimly lit rooms, thanks to Barbu Bălăşoiu's astoundingly simple, naturally lit cinematography, we still get a sense of these characters, swirling around, creating more lifelike realism than any film of its kind.
2016 definitely proved itself to be a monster when it comes to natural, human-focused filmgoing experiences and Sieranevada may just be the pinnacle of that. Yes, maybe even better than Toni Erdmann.
★★★★ review by Jeremy Heilman on Letterboxd
Forget Toni Erdmann… the most damning indictment of this year’s George Miller-led Cannes jury is that this ambitious and astoundingly original family drama went home without a major prize. A three-hour epic inquisition into the nature of truth that barely manages to leave the same small cramped apartment, Sieranevada is undoubtedly a major work, all the more surprising for being so unlike Romanian director Puiu’s other features… or many other features at all. The most distinctive aspect of the film, by far, is its unique camerawork, which bobs in and out of rooms, peeks around corners and drifts from one conversation to another as the dozen or more visitors to an apartment hosting a funeral dart around on screen, squabbling and commiserating with one another. It’s motivated camerawork, but what it’s motivated by remains unclear. Instead of feeling as if you’re directed to hear one key conversation after another, the film immerses you in a space with so much going on that your description of the event would surely vary versus another viewer’s. That attempt to turn the objective movie camera into a subjective presence ties directly into the reams of dialogue that the characters speak over the course of the film. Whether disagreeing about the location of a restaurant that they once visited or debating the validity of even raising 9/11 conspiracy theories, the characters in Sieranevada are gifted with incompatible viewpoints that might not be mutually exclusive. The tight quarters exacerbate these differences, yet Puiu seems dead set against shutting down the process of interpretation. As such, one character may be right that the character Snow White’s dress has no correct color, even as another is right that within the context of the play that the costume will be presented in there is a right and wrong choice. Such logic extends across most of the film’s observations, whether the topic is history, adultery or political action. An exasperating, exciting movie that I am eager to revisit.
Note - This is a blatantly masterful work that I am reticent to champion more fully, if only because I briefly nodded off a few times during my screening. I feel that I got the gist of the film, which threatens to grow repetitive over the course of its runtime, but I also suspect that an additional viewing with a clearer head will see my opinion of the film improve.
★★★★½ review by Florin Stan on Letterboxd
After the difficult, unusual yet commanding Aurora, director Cristi Puiu's future in the movies acquired a note of unpredictability. From that point onwards, it seemed as if his career could go anywhere, that his movies could hold unexpected elements that would baffle and unsettle, it seemed as if he would be willing to go to unexpected, unknown places. It was his Only God Forgives, his turning point of sorts, if I'm allowed a completely unrelated comparison (in terms of style). It comes as a surprise then to see him return back to something like Drive (again, only talking about career trajectory) instead of pursuing the path he found. Sieranevada is much closer to Moartea domnului Lăzărescu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu), and I don't mean that as an indication of regression. What I mean is a return to a more confident, less volatile state of mind, to a more assured, less aggressive way of expression.
The technical differences between his last three films are of course minute. The point of view is still detached and observational, the pacing is glacial while the long unbroken takes offer the captivating hook through which realism is expertly conveyed. It's the decision to leave the dark depths of one troubled mind and return to a collective representation of societal constructs the aspect that constitutes the shift from a more personal view to a more encompassing one, from examining society through one person (Aurora) to examining society through an ensemble (Moartea domnului Lăzărescu, Sieranevada).
The film is about a family reunion on the 40th day since the passing of the goodman of the family, a significant date in the Orthodox Church in which the custom is to have a memorial meal in order to commemorate the dead (on the 40th day God decides where the dead will rest until the Last Judgement, and it is believed that praying for them will have a deciding factor in the outcome of their soul's fate). The whole film (nearly three hours) happens during this day and for the most part inside the apartment where the memorial takes place. During this time, the interactions between the family members reveal many aspects of everyday life, including the extremes of both a strict and a relaxed world view and how they clash with one another, the role of family and religion in a modern society, the importance or relevance of customs and traditions, the generational gap, the need to put forth an unaffected facade when all circumstances suggest otherwise.
The first fifteen minutes are the weakest, but once Larie (Mimi Brănescu), a 40-something doctor and the son of the deceased, arrives with his wife (Cătălina Moga) at his mother's (Dana Dogaru) apartment where the gathering is, the film grabs and holds tight, never letting go. Sure, the experience can be exhausting but, in a way, the audience must go through what the characters are experiencing (and that includes frustration and fatigue) in order to have the desired impact. The small apartment is crowded with people, the confined space coupled with the decision to keep the cuts to a minimum creates a tense atmosphere in which frictions are bound to happen. And from these frictions that spur from ego, the absurdity surrounding everyday life is made more apparent with each passing minute, to the point where the only thing left to do in order to remain somewhat sane is laugh (the tone is at times darkly humorous, Larie makes light of many situations throughout the film, even the name Larie derives from hilarious).
The fact that all of this happens during what is supposed to be a somber day yet no one seems to be able to behave as such ironically - but emphatically - shows the flawed nature of humans. Rather than being presented as something to scorn, spirituality is instead seen as something that is scorned, with no real chance of having a true impact on the modern human - with a history forged through systematic abuse and seemingly pointless, imposed customs that are respected with exactness providing no help and fueling the cynical fire - even if making peace with oneself in relation to the outside world through spirituality is a tried and tested alternative. Maybe spirituality is too strong of a word with too many connotations, but the same holds true for empathy. On the other hand, the family unit is greatly destabilized by many external factors, until it starts to fall apart from the inside. The depiction of the capital, packed with parked cars on narrow alleys and forever in construction, mirrors the state of our characters, stuck in a seemingly rhetorical existence and patching away the problems at its core with stubbornness, cynicism or indifference. All this charade wears people down; it's how they cope, each in their own carefully but poorly concealed and ultimately detrimental way. Dropping the facade - Larie's laid back attitude towards everything, the others inclined to jump at each other's throats before admitting a mistake or trying to sort things out - is unthinkable however, especially today when it has become such a big part of life to the point it is expected, and is employed with such readiness and ease.
A demanding three-hour mammoth of a film, Sieranevada is nevertheless a great accomplishment in the examination of present-day society with its many flaws and few but important qualities. Let's just hope Puiu won't wait another six years until his next one.
★★★½ review by Calum Marsh on Letterboxd
Cristi Puiu is the kind of realist, like Andrey Zvyagintsev or Nuri Bilge Ceylan, whose realism always seems to mean something more. The manner is a scrupulous naturalism: the takes are long and patient, the acting unaffected, the drama decidedly kitchen-sink. But there is a poetic character to Puiu’s austerity, a deep current of symbolism beneath the plain veneer, that widens the dimensions of the commonplace, and supplements the vérité view. His films fix on the banal and everyday and yet — without the slightest compromise of their naturalist integrity — reach beyond them, to realms social, political, even philosophical. They don’t merely feel true. They pursue higher truths.
This tendency is manifested early in Sieranevada, Puiu’s sprawling, prickly, mordantly funny new film. In fact it’s evinced in its opening shot. A man, soon revealed to be merry protagonist Lary (Mimi Branescu), in a hurry and unable to find a parking space on a crowded downtown Bucharest street, leaves his BMW to idle in the lane as he and his wife, Laura (Catalina Moga), dart into an apartment to drop off their adolescent daughter to be babysat for the afternoon — only to be summoned back to the idling car a moment later by an arriving driver’s testy get-a-move-on horn. Lary, apologetic, is obliged to circle the block; Laura, once she’s finished with the child, is left to hurl her things in the backseat post-haste and hop in as her husband swings by.
Now as quotidian crisis this is familiar enough. And if Puiu’s prefered style — he’s staged the rigmarole in an unbroken, coolly observant six-minute long shot — teases out the comic in the quandary, it’s of the sort, equal parts ludicrous and mundane, that you’d rather expect to find bedeviling Larry David on TV. But of course this prologue isn’t just a slice of life or droll vignette. It’s a robust, complex image, rich in subtext, fizzing with social truth; and it’s an image sturdy enough, under Puiu’s firm command, to sustain a multiplicity of readings, whether you’d fancy the circling car to be Romania after Ceaușescu, the congested street the European Union, or the dire state of parking the global economic recession. Or perhaps it means something grander still, all this idling and circling: aren’t we all looping around the block, so to speak, until we die?
Lary and Laura are on their way to Lary’s family home to observe his recently deceased father’s Eastern Orthodox Christian funeral rites alongside a cataract of mourning aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins, who count among their number an obstinate 9/11 truther, a philandering alcoholic, a pugnacious former communist, and a twentysomething party-girl who thinks it wise to bring along her strung-out junkie friend. Chaos ensues, needless to say. Lary is our point of entry to this grim carnival, and as he wanders from living room to bedroom to kitchen, amused and unruffled before the deluge of domestic strife, he quickly seems the only sensible one of the bunch — the dispassionate straight man amid a whole lot of farcical discord. But over time Puiu complicates our assumptions, and Lary begins to buckle beneath the weight of grief and distress. He becomes a bit like Matthew Modine in Full Metal Jacket: he thinks he above this madness, but it inevitably takes its toll.
The elaborate folk ceremony — a traditional affair, intimate but elaborate, involving costumes, dirge singers, and the on-site blessing of a visiting Orthodox priest — Puiu lets unfold at leisure, and much of the film’s drama derives from its clear sense of accumulating time. (Sieranevada runs an imposing 173 minutes, and you feel them.) Bunuel seems an unignorable touchstone here. Custom dictates that dinner not be served until after the service; and as the priest, in absentia for ages, has been held up by traffic, the much-desired family meal is repeatedly deferred. Like the oft-thwarted middle-class diners of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Puiu’s hungry mourners just can’t manage to eat. The truant priest himself, meanwhile, has something of a Godot figure about him: ever waited-for, uncertain to arrive.
Elsewhere metaphors abound. A family ritual requiring that a suit be bought for the deceased (symbolically) and worn to dinner by a relative (literally) entrains a minor scandal when the relative in question tries the damn thing on finds that it’s about five sizes too big — an image of inheritance and ill-fitting legacy so pointed that the assembled grievers can’t help but laugh. Adam Nayman, in a review for Reverse Shot, refers wittily to the smack-addled pal passed out in the bedroom as Sleeping Beauty, drawing an intriguing connection to an argument over Disney princesses waged by Lary and Laura early on — a connection I concede I might never have drawn myself, but which attests, I think, to the subtextual richness of Sieranevada’s design. The texture of the film is the texture of life, authentic and true. But weaved into that texture everywhere are symbols to pick out and seize.
Nor is the texture itself dour or grave. Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu was “funny” in rather the same way that, say, The Metamorphosis is funny, and one hardly left Aurora sore from clutching at one’s sides. But Sieranevada is a family comedy in a straightforward sense. If Lary’s relatives lament the loss of the patriarch, they are very good at keeping their anguish concealed; they prefer instead to pass the time in friendly conversation, or better yet debate, as when Lary’s nephew — the conspiracy theorist of the 9/11 idee fixe — cues up an array of clinching YouTube videos of the “jet-fuel-can’t-melt-steel-beams” variety and challenges anyone to prove him wrong. Puiu is well above pot-shots — the nephew is nutty, but his conviction is treated with fairness — and gives each among the motley cast their due. The humour he finds in the clashes and interactions — and of course in Lary, who observes it all dryly from the sides.
Puiu’s direction is so assured that it’s easy to mistake its elegance as effortless. There is nothing effortless about Sieranevada, to be sure: the long takes, the intricately choreographed movement, the dense and meaning-rich naturalist dialogue, the radically shifting sympathies and unstable emotional terrain — all this comes at tremendous expense to the crew and (especially) the cast, of whom Puiu demands so much. That’s the other thing about Puiu’s brand of realism: it effaces the virtuosity required to pull it off. The very mode downplays the feat. This smart, uproarious, politically charged film has indeed the appearance of a docudrama, so true to life does it often feel. But it’s no less a triumph of style and of craft.
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