Sieranevada, dir. Cristi Puiu│Cristi Puiu’s new film Sieranevada opens without its central character in clear sight. Lary is not visible as he drives his BMW X3 in town and has to circle the block, unable to find parking space. Instead of following him, the camera remains for several minutes on a woman he dropped off and her daughter, as they anxiously wait for his return. Lary is indeed characteristically passive and untroubled. Once in the car, it is with irony and complacency that he explains to his angry wife that he chose the Sleeping Beauty instead of the Snow White dress for his daughter’s school show because it was prettier. Lary will arrive at the ceremony for the remembrance of his father Emil with the same nonchalant attitude, yet his stoicism and refusal to have strong opinions will then be tested.
Puiu’s extremely long takes and unpretentious camera movements, typical of the Romanian New Wave, present the family members and friends of the deceased from a distance but with careful attention. The director captures how, when having to share a whole afternoon with a multitude of relatives of wildly contrasting beliefs, one begins to register these people’s most minute mannerisms, even though their psyches remain impenetrable.
In the many lengthy scenes of discussions, these familiar strangers therefore reveal the performativity that goes hand in hand with their opinions. Yet it would be too easy to raise to cliché card: Puiu demonstrates great compassion for these borderline neurotic characters by matching their behaviour to their belief with incredible detail and subtlety. Strong and tall, Sandra, one of Lary’s sisters, is the typical hardworking and idealist young housewife, busying herself in the kitchen and getting aggressively upset when realizing that someone may disagree with her. Her interlocutor is the elderly Evelina who, wearing a precious fur hat indoors, remains still and straight-faced when raising her voice to condescendingly defend the Communist times and reprimand the younger woman’s ungratefulness. While their argument isn’t a new one, it finds vividness and complexity in these women’s determination to refer to their own personal experiences as anchors to their beliefs.
Lary, by contrast, remains very calm and only intervenes in his family’s fiery conversations to joke about their seriousness. His amiability amidst the growing unrest makes him the most relatable character, especially as he becomes increasingly disillusioned about his chances of having a quiet dinner or of eating anything at all. Nevertheless, his disenchantment turns into a sadder desperation as eventually, he must too get involved in his family’s debates, may they be about religion, politics or more personal matters.
Lary is forced to take the question of belief seriously. Discussing the 9/11 attacks with his suspicious younger brother, he understands that certitudes are never safe from the disparaging remarks of others, turning against their defender to hurt him profoundly when called unfounded. But the ways in which we rely on our beliefs are often not limited to a binary where our opinion is true and the others’ false. Before sharing our thoughts, we have to face them ourselves. While Ofelia chooses to confront her certitude that her husband has been cheating on her, others prefer to act as though they knew nothing of their beloved’s betrayal. Conversely, in a mutual understanding, the unfaithful one may ignore his partner’s deliberate naivety. As Lary tells his wife, „I know when you know I’m lying.” In this emotional scene, Lary recalls his father’s incomprehensible combination of dishonesty and gullibility. This father who couldn’t be trusted yet believed the most absurd stories here finally finds his central place in the story. Lary’s disillusionment and lies by omission seem to stem from a childhood where beliefs and the truth were rarely separated. Now that his father is gone, his influence comes into relief and Lary must face its consequences for his own family.
Puiu nevertheless chooses comedy, although of the driest kind, to explore the intricacies of beliefs. However upsetting these never ending debates about politics or marriage, the characters are not all blind to their absurdity and occasionally laugh at each other or themselves. Over the course of this dinner -presented almost in real time- Lary had to lie to a mad uncle and admit that his own supposedly clement attitude may be harmful. Yet in the end, his now more active engagement with diverging opinions only balances his preference for irony and distance, which he manages to communicate to his brothers. Finally seated to eat, with food on their plates but half the family dealing with yet another crisis, the three brothers cannot eat. They’re too busy laughing.■
Sieranevada │ Director: Cristi Puiu│ Screenplay: Cristi Puiu│ Camera: Barbu Balasoiu│ Editing: Ciprian Cimpoi│ Music: -│ Cast: Mimi Branescu, Dana Dogaru, Sorin Medeleni│ Producer: Anca Puiu, Sabina Brankovic, Lucian Pintilie, Zdenka Gold, Laurence Clerc, Olivier Thery Lapiney│ Production Company: Mandragora / Alcatraz Films / Production2006 / Sisters and Brother Mitevski / Spiritus Movens Production / Iadasarecasa│Country: Romania│ Year: 2016│ Running Time: 173 min.│ International Sales: │ Festival: Cannes IFF 2016│