Sieranevada (2016)

Review #1,477





THE SCOOP
Director:  Cristi Puiu
Cast:  Mimi Branescu, Judith State, Bogdan Dumitrache
Plot:  Centers around a family gathering on the anniversary of a patriarch's recent death.

Genre:  Drama / Comedy
Awards:  Nom. for Palme d'Or (Cannes)
Runtime:  173 mins
Rating:  NC16 for some coarse language and sexual references
International Sales:  Elle Driver

IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
Wow, this is such an astounding film.  I haven’t seen a Romanian film this good since Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007).  Cristi Puiu, who with Mungiu, lit the fire that was the Romanian New Wave in the 2000s, gives us a work of staggering skill, in particular, the craft of blocking and directing of actors.  

Best known for The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), a key work of that period, Puiu delivers a longer drama—this time clocking at almost three hours—that by its end, one might be left gasping for air, and heaving a sigh of relief.  That’s not to say that Sieranevada is an exhausting endeavour, but because of the way it was shot, this is as close as you get to a claustrophobic family drama.

In its opening sequence, a long take that lasts what seems like more than ten minutes, the film makes its style conspicuous.  With a camera that pans where the characters are walking to (and from), while staying absolutely rooted to the spot, we are thrown into a buzzy town with parked cars, moving cars, moving trams, and people walking about.  

The focus is on one family, a man and his wife who send their young daughter away with her maternal grandmother.  And for good reason, for they are bringing us to an apartment of hell—to partake in a family gathering to commemorate the recent passing of its patriarch, the man’s father.  With the relatives and in-laws all cooked up in this small space waiting for the priest to arrive, the gathering promises surprises, shocking revelations and unintentional comedy.

Almost the entire film is shot within this tight space in a style similar to its opening, offering us all-too familiar rooted pans after a while.  Because of this technique, Puiu doesn’t have full control of lighting and sound.  In fact, some parts of Sieranevada may feel amateurish: you can’t see the characters properly in rooms with little light, and sometimes you might feel that you are hard of hearing (though English subtitling is certainly a boon in this regard).  

But it is precisely because of this style that Puiu shows his prowess in getting extraordinary performances from his ensemble cast, while capturing their limited mobility in the confined space, which is so often a source of frustration for those who just want some peaceful solitude.

Sieranevada is intense, but also highly-satisfying.  It is as much a chamber piece as it is an incisive exploration of group dynamics vis-à-vis conversational topics.  From current affairs like the Charlie Hebdo shooting, world-shaking events like the 9/11 attacks, and the turbulent history of Romanian politics, to personal and inter- and intra-family issues, each group conversation, in its ever-changing mix, is fascinating to behold.  

Puiu’s masterstroke is, of course, letting us into the family without any escape route, so that we become accustomed, and finally laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of it all, and perhaps find some kind of universal resonance—that our extended family gatherings can be no less a farce.

Verdict:  This intense and highly-satisfying three-hour chamber piece revolving around the gathering of an extended family in an apartment is a masterclass in the rigours of acting and blocking.

GRADE: A





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