"Sieranevada," Cristi Puiu's nonsensically titled, formally accomplished and richly engrossing new movie, unfolds during a dour family gathering in a cramped apartment in Bucharest, Romania.
The date is Jan. 10, 2015, roughly a quarter-century after the fall of the country's communist dictatorship, 14 years after the Sept. 11 attacks and just three days after the shooting rampage at the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, to name a few of the historical convulsions referenced over an afternoon of lively squabbling.
The purpose of the occasion, however, is to commemorate an altogether more mundane tragedy. Forty days have passed since the death of an elderly patriarch named Emil Mirica, and his relatives have met to consecrate his clothes and other possessions – an Orthodox ceremony whose air of forced solemnity hardly constricts the natural flow of bickersome chatter and unruly emotions.
Puiu, as is his custom, does not appear to orchestrate the proceedings so much as observe them, with a sustained intensity that gradually becomes nothing short of spellbinding.
A nearly three-hour talkfest that plays out in something close to real time may sound daunting on paper, but if you can make it past the opening shot, you will find yourself gripped for the duration.
For seven minutes, the camera watches from an unblinking distance as a man slowly steers his car down a busy, jammed street, looking for a temporary parking space while his wife drops off their young daughter at a home nearby. What follows is the sort of everyday logistical frustration that will be immediately recognizable to anyone who's ever had to juggle errands, bad tempers and worse traffic, and it neatly establishes Puiu's preferred method of staging, which amounts to a virtuoso exercise in crowd control.
By the time the man, a doctor named Lary (Mimi Branescu), and his wife, Laura (Catalina Moga), arrive at the memorial, Emil's old apartment is already bustling with activity. The cinematographer, Barbu BA–lA–soiu, likes to plant the camera in the middle of a room or hallway and send it spinning left or right on its axis, as if it were an unseen guest whose gaze were continually being redirected by some fresh source of dramatic interest.
From time to time we catch sight of a baby being cared for behind a succession of quickly opening and closing doors. Lary's younger sister, Sandra (Judith State), slaves away in the kitchen while their mother, Nusa (Dana Dogaru), rules over the proceedings with practiced testiness. To single out more of the characters would seem almost inappropriate, not because they aren't vivid screen presences (they are), but because they so seamlessly achieve the hectic, sprawling intimacy and spontaneity of a family unit in motion. This is ensemble acting of a remarkably high order.
Lary, a genial, hulking bear of a man, acts as something of a stabilizing force under these circumstances, a human anchor around which gossip swirls and a few subplots develop. There are disruptive visits from not one but two unexpected guests. The food that Sandra is preparing is left to sit out, unconsumed, as the Miricas wait and wait for a priest, who must confer his blessings on the apartment before the meal can begin.
This particular complication turns "Sieranevada" into something of a wry Eastern European riff on "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie," Luis Bunuel's 1972 satire about a dinner party that is forever being comically and perhaps cosmically forestalled. Bunuel was a gifted surrealist and a sharp critic of organized religion, neither of which quite applies to Puiu, a committed realist who seems genuinely curious about God's place in the 21st century world. In this film, he doesn't seem to be skewering spiritual belief so much as the ease with which it can calcify into hollow, self-serving pieties.
Religion, an object of insincere devotion and sincere contempt, is one of many subjects that come in for serious debate during the sharp, darkly funny and wide-ranging conversations that make up the bulk of "Sieranevada." As the talk veers from a young man's elaborate 9/11 conspiracy theories to an older woman's repellent glamorization of life under the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the film becomes both an acerbic essay on the subjectivity of truth and a multigenerational microcosm of Romanian society. But even to describe it in these terms, much as they may suggest the complexity and fair-mindedness of Puiu's filmmaking, is to risk bleeding the movie of its thorny, unpredictable verve.
This is a gentler but no less exacting picture than Puiu's 2006 masterpiece, "The Death of Mr. Laza-rescu," which turned a sick man's final hours into a scalding indictment of a broken society. But like that movie, as well as Cristian Mungiu's exceptional recent "Graduation," it speaks to the creative vigor and vitality of the films that have emerged from Romania over more than a decade.
Above all, his is an art of rigorous, under-the-glass scrutiny that somehow escapes its own sense of entrapment. In "Sieranevada," a simple shot of an apartment's gloomy interior contains the ever-present scars of a nation's cruel history, even as the characters breathing, talking, laughing and raging within those walls suggest the promise of a still-unwritten future.