Romania (181 mi) 2010 d: Cristi Puiu
Certain film nationalities are immediately recognizable, such as the dialogue driven screwball French comedy that plays out as farce, the near documentary simplicity of Iranian films, the strict adherence to precision and razor sharp detail in Austrian films, or the Romanian cinema that we have here that features endlessly long takes of real time drama which focuses on the absurdity and utter banality of life. Puiu’s earlier work, THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU (2005) was so searingly realistic, many left the theater believing they witnessed a documentary, only to discover afterwards that the whole thing was meticulously scripted. Puiu’s reality is so explicitly realized onscreen that you barely realize he’s using actors. As if to become even more intimately involved in his next project, he places himself in front of the camera as the lead actor known as Viorel, a puzzling, ordinary man with a rather mousy personality reminiscent of Fassbinder’s WHY DOES HERR R. RUN AMOK (1970), a film shot with a dull, dispassionate style which is only exacerbated by the three hour run time of the movie. Viorel is immediately seen as a guy on the fringe, as early on, he just seems to be in the way, taking up space, as others are busy living their lives, including a wife and two daughters, all of whom have a rushed, morning routine while he stands around doing nothing. His expressionless face reveals a pathetic figure of a man beaten down to the point of self-pity, an odd choice for the lead in such a lengthy film. But like LAZARESCU, the director paints a portrait of a post Communist world that is slowly finding its way out of the dark, yet reveals scathing examples of the darkness left behind.
What’s immediately striking is the virtuoso piano music by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a 19th century American composer whose music is so lively and upbeat, like a mazurka, that one could joyously prance around and dance to it as it plays over the opening credits about ten minutes in, a striking contrast to the otherwise drab and downbeat mood of the film. Violel soon finds himself spending his time alone in a rutted apartment partially stripped for rehab, where he’s immediately met with a water leak from the apartment upstairs, as one of the kids let the bathwater overflow. All we hear is a berating mother offering an endless barrage of insults to her son as Violel is obviously pictured as a drowning man flailing away in the forgettable and rather dubious nature of his own life. The viewer gets used to seeing him quietly spend time alone, where visitors, unanswered phone calls, or knocks on the door are all perceived as meaningless interruptions, where the guy just has no connection to the world. We see movers in his home removing certain items, while he instructs them what not to take, signs of a marital separation. In a disturbing scene, we see him purchasing a 12 gauge rifle, where buying Czech or Russian products result in a significant discount, but the scene includes an obvious disturbance from an offscreen customer who is shouting profanities that are included in the film’s trailer (Aurora  trailer), but edited from the actual film’s subtitles, a good example of how a film gets cleaned up for the foreign market. It’s an interesting scene, however, as there’s the turbulent suggestion of an unseen, underlying menace growing out of control. Next thing you know, the guy’s ominously stalking around his house with a loaded rifle, even taking practice shots, which surprisingly go unheard and unreported in Bucharest.
Mild-mannered Violel has suddenly turned into a prodigious planner, where he looms silently undetected in the darkness of a hotel garage, inexplicably shooting two people on sight. Puiu’s style is to provide as little background information as possible, leaving the audience stunned and in a mysterious daze, clueless as to any motive. As Violel’s behavior gets more and more disturbing, becoming more aggressive and confrontational with people, the world around him gets louder and grows more claustrophobic, where he rides the bus with people literally standing on top of one another or he recklessly darts across busy city streets, risking his life with each crossing. Perhaps the creepiest scene in the entire film takes place in a women’s clothing store where he’s looking for someone who’s not there, but he suspects they’re covering for her, leaving exposed his fragile male ego that is so indignantly wounded that his behavior becomes crudely offensive in his animosity towards the female clerks, where our familiarity with what lies just under the surface only accelerates more horror filled visions in our heads, the kind we read about all the time. Puiu’s character does not disappoint, as he’s simply out of touch with the world around him, where he constantly perceives himself as the harmed party. Like an exploding time bomb, Violel continues to make the rounds across the city, always carrying the weapon in his bag, where the city itself is oblivious to his intentions. Part of the absurdity of the film is how the director holds back any motives for nearly the entire duration of the movie, only really becoming apparent by the end, where Violel, ever the victim, feels his damaged soul is just too complicated for others to comprehend. Apparently it all makes perfect sense to him, but his problems are literally drowned out by the systematic banality in people’s routines, where their already troubled lives leave them exhausted by the endless accumulation of petty annoyances and on-going needs that consume their daily lives. In the end, it’s all a chamber drama of misdirected, undermining psyche’s pushing and pulling one another away from any meaningful compatibility.