Romania France Croatia Macedonia Bosnia-Herzegovina (176 mi) 2016 d: Cristi Puiu
Romanian director Cristi Puiu, the writer/director of the acclaimed film THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU (2007), has roots that can be traced back to Eugène Ionesco’s theater of the absurd, and while his earlier film was a scathing indictment of the indifference of the antiquated health care system, this is an altogether different animal. Anyone who has dreaded the obligatory invite to large family dinners will have a field day with this film, as it is the family dinner from hell, easily one of the funniest films of the year, feeling more like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, as it’s the meal that never comes, but is constantly referenced in conversation by nearly everyone as the very next event to happen, yet the characters are curiously stuck in a purgatory of paralysis, like Buñuel’s THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL (1962), where something that can go wrong does go wrong, creating an amazingly synchronized tour de force of both camera movement (by Barbu Balasoiu), seemingly swiveling from a central corridor in a family apartment yet pointing in all directions, often stuck behind closed doors where something sinister is happening, or the door swings open and we hear every single word of a full-blown argument, where the precision of the verbal assault has literally wounded someone into a swooning spell, knocked completely off their feet, or something equally paralyzing, yet also there is a continual eruption of non-stop dialogue, like a percussive symphony of voices, where the relentless pace of the director’s screwball comedy timing is impeccable. Romanian filmmakers have a thing about language, where their art preserves something unique about their society, where they don’t wish to excise a single word, which might explain the nearly three-hour length of this drama, which feels more like a well-written play. The formal audaciousness of Puiu’s sophisticated balance of camera movement and sound, however, recalls a similar complexity from the films of Dziga Vertov, the so-called father of cinéma vérité, using a complex editing scheme to maximize the impact of the drama. What Puiu adds to this equation are some of his nation’s best actors, displaying naturalism with a remarkable stylistic flair.
Some may not find the content all that elevating, though it’s never less than entertaining and at times is drop dead hilarious, but the conversational material itself is mired in opinionated views, old habits, hearsay, prejudices, rumors, gossip, jealousy, conspiracy theories, questionable information gleaned from the Internet, and even personal threats, where it seems to probe the banality of human existence at every turn. The film is a comic satire on the supposed dark cloud hanging over the rising middle class after the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989, which spelled the end of the communist era in Romania, where a younger generation is wealthier, more educated, with plenty more opportunities than their parents and grandparents who remain products of an old, failed totalitarian system that is now viewed as a disgrace. But while they have been part of the European Union since 2007 and can afford more things, like cars, modern appliances, or televisions in nearly every apartment, they also have short memories, as there is no recollection of how life was lived prior to 1989. When parents or grandparents remind them, they may as well be from another planet, showing little gratitude for the oppression and misery that they withstood, as the Romanian standard of living was near the bottom of the former Soviet bloc countries. The film examines what freedom has brought to the nation, where the wintry streets of Bucharest seem mired in traffic jams and petty squabbles, with graffiti on the walls of housing units, while the family unit remains a picture of dysfunction. Opening with parents dropping off their young daughter for a dance rehearsal, they double-park on a narrow street, leaving their car unattended, where tempers erupt when they block any oncoming traffic, unnecessarily instigating a chaotic roadside obstacle that angers the back-up of cars that can’t get through, creating a picture of urban malaise, where we can’t hear what’s being spoken, but see the obvious confusion in a brilliantly choreographed comedy of errors. Once they finally get back in the car, instead of peace and quiet, we hear Lari (Mimi Branescu) and his wife Laura (Catalina Moga) bicker about the costume he purchased for his daughter, as it’s all wrong for the show, where he preferred the Brothers Grimm approach for a Disney production, but as she rightly points out, the Grimms had nothing to do with Mulan, so his indifference to what she actually needs only puts added pressure on their daughter, who doesn’t have an appropriate costume to wear. This serves as a prelude for what’s to come, as they’re already late for a family dinner.
Once inside, it’s like we’ve been dropped in the middle of a Russian novel, as we are introduced to more than a dozen characters, some who just drop in or out, with no regard for establishing names and relationships, that will continue to be baffling to the audience throughout. Everything is on hold as they are waiting for the priest to arrive, as he’s been delayed or is stuck in traffic, and they can’t eat until he gets there. Making things more ambiguous, initially we have no idea what the occasion is that is bringing the family together. Is it a christening, a baptism, a birthday, a marriage, a newborn, or a death in the family? No one offers a clue. Instead, it’s a choreography of doors swinging open and closed, with women cooking in the kitchen while characters are constantly on the move throughout the rooms, sometimes standing in the hallway, creating a claustrophobic effect of something that’s about to happen, but everyone’s on hold. Typically, they resort to bickering, creating a master class of confusion, with Larry’s mother Nusa (Dana Dogaru) tasting the boiled cabbage to make sure it’s right, but she also seems to be the guiding force behind adhering to the practices of an Eastern Orthodox religion. Without her, everyone would be at a loss. More than an hour in, we decipher that this is a memorial service for her recently deceased husband, where a clue is observing a suit that’s been laid out for him on the bed, but there’s no body. Food is everywhere, borscht and chorba (is there a difference?), cabbage rolls and polenta, where there’s enough to feed an army, yet no one’s allowed to eat. That doesn’t stop Lari and others from constantly picking at what they can while they wait. While we hear 9/11 conspiracy theories, blaming Bush for playing a part in the tragedy, all apparently downloaded from the Internet, yet no one mentions who or what brought them all together. Easily the funniest character is Evelina (Tatiana Iekel), a grandmother who lords over the other younger woman by professing nostalgia and true admiration for the Ceaușescu era, which she fondly recollects as the good old days, being a party member in good standing, where she recounts all the good work that created a better life for these younger woman and their families, which is more than an earful for the rest to endure, as everyone seems to despise her views, especially since they’ve had to endure it throughout the entire cooking process. Eventually breaking into tears is the only thing that stops the old woman, with everyone whispering what rot behind her back, though she appears to be dressed for a formal dinner with the Czar, wearing one of those Russian fur hats worn by grande dames to the opera. It’s a good two hours before the priest finally arrives, walking around every room offering blessings for just about everything. While you’d think this would open the floodgates, as people are famished. Not so soon. If emotions were stirring while waiting for the priest to arrive, they grow even nastier after he leaves.
Enter Tony (Sorin Medeleni), rat bastard husband of Nusa’s sister Ofelia (Ana Ciontea), who’s been accused of sleeping around with someone else’s wife, and pounding someone into the pavement for the mere mention of it. No one wants to let him in, but he’s let in anyway, as it’s fitting for the occasion. Despite the gracious offer, he’s a low-life that belligerently starts terrorizing his wife and anyone that sides with her, creating a manic disturbance just as they’re about to settle down for dinner. The aptly named Ofelia breaks into a melodramatic fit and nearly faints, lying on the couch with Nusa fanning her back to life. Suddenly it’s high drama, with exaggerated charges and counter charges, where the event has unraveled in discord and vicious rumors, yet it’s the kind of thing that happens at family affairs whether you like it or not. Accusations are leveled, people’s feelings are hurt, and someone comes to their rescue, while various family members gravitate to the individual sides to gain insight, offer advice, and try to calm things down. Women seem to huddle together while the men do the same, a custom apparently that goes back to the caveman era. Of course nothing gets resolved, but Ofelia gets to itemize all the things she finds repulsive and disgusting about Tony, including graphic descriptions of sexual acts he allegedly committed, where his character suggests he’s done all that and more, yet he’s still a member of the family, and they’re all in it together. Lingering resentment is everywhere, with ridicule flying in every direction, where instead of full-fledged arguments with parties screaming back and forth, they seem to gnaw at one another, pick at open wounds, and then just dig a little deeper. In the middle of this sordid affair, Lari gets a phone call, as he and Laura leave together temporarily, creating yet another traffic disturbance, this time with more violent overtones, where both he and Laura are pushed, shoved, punched at, and threatened, though somehow they survive the onslaught. Having a moment to themselves in the car, they internalize how they view the day’s events, suggesting Lari’s father was no saint himself, bringing dishonor and shame to his wife and family, who are now in the process of honoring him. As if God had struck him down with a lightning bolt, the heavenly powers are creating havoc with the day’s events playing out in real time, where we can only sense from afar just how deep some of the problems are. Dark truths emerge from the family’s past, grievances are aired, yet the eruptive forces of rage, accusations, absurdities and laughter seem to have opened everyone’s eyes, releasing some of the tension, creating a temporary lull in the action, yet is it just a mirage, surrounded by more of the same? Meanwhile, the table is set, food is served, but only a meager few are eating, as the rest are once again embroiled in yet another turmoil happening in another room. None of this feels earthshaking, where except for Lari in the car speaking quietly about his father, there’s little in the way of a cathartic emotional release where some degree of confessional truth or honesty comes into play, instead, there’s scant evidence anything ever gets resolved. While aggravation is the driving force behind the drama, with characters forever forced to wait, and then wait some more, perhaps in the end they just get more used to one other after wearing each other down. It’s a grim picture of the oppressive forces surrounding us, where life is viewed in Sisyphean terms as an endless altercation of unhappy families, filled with a build-up of psychological damage apparently learned early on from childhood that we carry into our adult lives, suggesting there is an extraordinary amount of Romanian discontent, with few solutions in the works.
Meanwhile, perhaps a few simple instructions about parking in congested urban areas…