Taking place in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack, Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada reveals a family in turmoil when the patriarch dies.
The Great Dictatorby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Lary (Mimi Branescu) and his wife Sandra (Judith State) are reluctantly on their way to a family gathering. While Sandra, in a long, single-take scene, blocks the street with her parking, we watch the traffic. En route, they bicker about banalities in another long scene. The family is gathering for an Orthodox ceremony to mark 40 days since the death of the grandfather, Emil. In the Orthodox tradition, the soul leaves the body at the time of death and wanders until it comes before God for judgment 40 days later and thus priestly intercession is needed.
People come and go out of his widow’s apartment (Dana Dogaru), they talk incessantly, quarrel and argue about politics, some of it scripted, some of it improvised. And all of it is extraordinarily naturalistic acting. It’s as if we’re eavesdropping. It’s never explained who they are, though some seem to be aunts and cousins, maybe brothers and sisters. Cami (Ilona Brezoianu) brings home a Croatian woman, maybe a junkie, maybe an architecture student, who vomits off camera throughout the film. They are waiting for the priest, who finally arrives late with a group of others and then conducts a lengthy ceremony. A family meal is prepared in the tiny kitchen, though it can’t be eaten until all the formalities have been completed.
The camera is constantly busy moving from room to room in the gloomy, claustrophobic apartment full of people and the talk never stops. Set a few days after the Charlie Hebdo attack, there’s heated discussion of conspiracy theories. A political argument about the state of the country breaks out between Evelina (Tatiana Iekel), who was a communist activist, and one of the younger relatives, who has opposing royalist views. There’s talk of previous Romanian leaders, Obama and Putin. And outside the flat, in the background and unacknowledged, there seems to be some kind of street demonstration going on. There’s talk of how argument should proceed by listening to opinions and allowing oneself the freedom to see and question. A family argument about infidelity breaks out between Aunt Ofelia (Ana Ciontea) and her violent husband Tony (Sorin Medelini), which sends her into hysteria and affects the whole gathering. Someone comments that if Emil were still alive all this wouldn’t be happening, the family would be kept in order.
As director Cristi Puiu (The Death of Mr Lazarescu and Aurora) said at the press conference following the screening at the Cannes Film Festival, the camera takes the place of the dead person, we are seeing the family through his eyes, how they behave when he is not there. The family is in a state of seething disquiet and in the light of their talk of the state of the nation in the past and now, it’s tempting to equate the role of patriarch Emil with the authoritarianism of previous leaders. Lary’s final catharsis is an acknowledgement of both what Emil was really like and the all-pervasiveness of lies, his own as well as other people’s.
Layering detail upon detail, Sieranevada is a very long film, but the acting is exceptional and makes it worth sticking with. And that family meal, after three hours, does finally get onto the table – though by then there are only two people left to eat it.
Sieranevada screens at the BFI London Film Festival on 6 and 7 October 2016.