The Cannes Film Festival has opened with another Woody Allen film—his 1930s Hollywood comedy, Café Society—but the first film officially in competition in front of our eyes was something far more audacious. Two directors whose names are synonymous with the mid-2000s re-emergence of their country’s cinema, now generally called the Romanian New Wave, are competing this year. Yet to screen is the latest from Palme d’Or winner Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), but it is unlikely to be as forceful as Sieranevada, from his compatriot Cristi Puiu.
Best known for his grueling plunge into the labyrinthine nightmare that is the Romanian health care system in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu—a tragic, fatal pilgrimage through offices, hospital hallways, ambulances and clinics told with an absurd, pitch black humor—Sieranevada’s subject is much simpler: an extended, inter-generational apartment gathering at the 40-day memorial of a family member. Yet the apartment walls are as confined as those of Lazarescu's hospitals, the relationships as fraught, the excuses and obsessions as personal and twisted. This one apartment becomes the terrain into, out of, and around which children, parents, aunts, uncles, kids, husbands, widows, a priest and his entourage and a drug addict all push, shove, scoot, and sidle, going from one room to another and back again in the cramped space. Everybody is waiting for something, first the priest to perform a ceremony, then for a nephew to dress in the dead man’s suit, then an unwanted relative to leave, and then to eat—it’s like Waiting for Godot, if Godot was stuffed cabbage.
Everyone and each of their small problems bounce and ricochet around the wood-paneled flat, beautifully colored by subtle sfumato lighting, opening and closing each room’s frosted pane doors in vain attempts to isolate rants, petty melodramas and exhausted or exhausting family members. Open, walk through, close, open again: the film is a dance of antsy door-play, a family reunion dinner choreographed like a bedroom farce. Founded so strongly on neurosis and now trapped in the claustrophobia of the mourning flat, the coming and going of each member between rooms whether for chore or drama is droll melodramatic math, caustic and funny. And it should be, as this sequence makes up nearly the entirety of the film, a vast, dense center like a black hole pulling all nearby inside and holding them there.
Bookended by two low-key excursions outside with the dead man’s son Lary (Mimi Brănescu) which pinpoint him as our guide into the maelstrom, the drawn-out memorial is staged with playful perversion by the director as a nearly a realtime experience of—let's be frank—clearly a lousy party. The camera is always tucked discreetly in some corner or the other, and when Puiu cuts, sometimes after incredibly long scenes, time seems to have moved only a few extra seconds in-between. As in Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel, it feels we are stuck here, perhaps forever.
In this dusky flat, where people are gathered to observe a man’s death rather than celebrate his life, the conversations take a turn for the exasperated and complaining: cheating husbands, junkie friends, 9/11 conspiracy theories, the good (and bad) old days of the communist regime. The mood is of constrained franticness, a family’s normal hysteria and unhappiness carefully kept in check through strategic re-arrangements of who is in which room, as well as the pacifying presence of our nominal hero, Lary, big, bearded, and mostly indifferent to the rituals, the emotions, or the people around him. He even sometimes laughs from the edge of the frame, chuckling at what’s proceeding in front of him, one of many signals to us that despite its bone-dry realism, Sieraneveda is often very funny. The absurdities and little lies people tell one another in order to keep going pile up in real time, filling the apartment with drolly ever-mounting family baggage.
With a film requiring so much close control from the director to keep the energy from flagging, the dialog flowing, the ridiculousness plausible, Puiu sometimes plays his hand too obviously. What impressively feels like natural interactions being unobtrusively filmed with no obvious style or judgement will here and there strike a false note or gather the wrong people together into a room, the squabbles sounding practiced, contrived, or even theoretical. Yet the movie does in fact need its occasional heavy-handed explanation to support what could seem like a meandering and tedious film if it were not so formidably made and slyly amusing. We naturally perk our ears up at broader thematic conversations that seem to describe, overall, the situation we’re watching, talk that suggest something deeper going on in this gathering, a portrait of a society in microcosm. In this way, an early argument about what the communists did or did do for the country and a fascination with Bush-Iraq-Kennedy-9/11 paranoia introduce Sieraneveda’s consistent theme of there being two sides to each situation, two interpretations of the same fact that observers must be responsible for evaluating. Which ultimately explains Puiu’s insistently, almost maniacally objective style of filmmaking, laying before us so many different kinds of people who in this moment come together for family but who are in fact wrought by shame and unhappiness. The family’s resident conspiracy theorist looks for divine-like connections between things; the priest before leaving hilariously and inadvertently posits a world where the Second Coming went unnoticed; and a rival voice argues for logic and evidence. And meanwhile, under it all, we’re all waiting for someone to wear the dead man’s suit so that everyone can eat.