The veritable circus of Bucharest society that swirled around and defined Cristi Puiu’s last film, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, a study of a man dying, is practically absent from his latest, Aurora, a study of a man killing. It is another entry in his “Six Stories from the Outskirts of Bucharest” (dedicated to Eric Rohmer’s moral cycle of films), but Aurora flips Lazarescu on its head. Instead of that film’s increasingly passive hero, we get Viorel, played by the director himself, as someone entirely in charge of every interaction in his life; instead of the precise, revolving door world of Bucharest’s strangers, the careless, and the helpful having to deal with Lazarescu’s infirmity, Aurora provides three hours of borderline inscrutable interactions between Viorel and the people around him. It is perhaps the longest film dedicated to detailing a single mystery: that of its impenetrable—and murderous—hero.
Puiu’s inhabitation of the character, the unique style of deliberate hesitation in which he does all things as he travels around Bucharest over the two days the film takes place, literally motivates every scene. His performance, his character, the movie itself is all at the service of a single point: this is a man who kills. The mission, then, of Aurora, is observing a man capable of killing before, during, and after the act, not to discern motif or rationale, but simply to observe. But while Lazarescu recorded a multitude of varied spaces and people from all walks of life, focused on opening possibilities and insights exterior to its titular character, any given 10 minutes of Aurora could be watched or not, excised from the film or not. Puiu is not presenting specific things but rather the nothing-special in a man’s life until, presumably, we become as familiar with his habits and manner and way of life as one could—thereby understanding to a realistic-naturalistic degree what in a nominally normal world is involved in random killing.
The upshot of this, as hinted in my notes on the film from earlier, is our preposterously odd inability, for the longest time, to determine the makeup of Viorel’s character. Realism in this manner—like that of Tuesday, After Christmas—is behavioral rather than psychological; interior states can only be inferred through the way characters respond to physical and social situations. The idiosyncrasy of Aurora is that it gives Viorel very few specific social encounters or specific activities to do—as such, we never know what his job his (assassin, mechanic, unemployed?), what the people whom he meets are to him (mistress, sister, parents, in-laws?), and every movement, every statement becomes shrouded in a very exact imprecision. Puiu’s unusual characterization of his hero, acting constantly affronted by everything in the world, from objects and people even to sounds, his supreme exactness in behavior but his ultimately halting, wasted actions of hesitation in nearly every scene, sketch a character who at any time could be a either a meticulous professional or a disturbed, perhaps even idiotic sociopath—or both. The film is stripped very successfully of the kinds of social references that would help an audience code, categorize, or explain Viorel’s behavior or character, and at it’s most interesting, we are left in an ambivalent place to judge (or figure) him.
But the downside has already been mentioned: except the last reel or so, which gets startlingly specific, no scene in Aurora stands out, nothing is necessary, not moment is inspired. Certainly we spend so much time with the Viorel’s character that Aurora gives you plenty to appreciate, from its rich, granular detail of the direct soundtrack to the frightful, explosive apprehension built around Viorel’s killing instrument after spending so much time watching him take it apart, practice with it, use it, and start carrying it everywhere. But the film is solemnly monotonous in style and meaning and inessentiality. The last act actually gives too much away, increasing the amount of black humor that, as in Lazarescu, is wonderfully and organically sprinkled throughout, making sure the audience is suddenly more consciously aware of a tone that, to Puiu’s credit, had been kept consistently as an undercurrent through the whole picture. Ultimately, though, there is no exploration in Aurora, only exposition—in the film’s own idiosyncratic, cryptic-realist manner—and I wonder where its interest lays beyond the thin, elongated surface study of the vagueness of an unexplained human character.