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First Look Review - SIERANEVADA

A family comes together in a small Romanian apartment on the anniversary of the death of their patriarch.





Review by John Bennett (@johnbennett812)

Directed by: Cristi Puiu

Starring: Mimi Branescu, Mirela Apostu, Eugenia Bosanceanu, Rolando Matsangos, Ana Ciontea, Sorin Medeleni, Judith State, Tatiana Iekel, Martin Grigore


Sieranevada was viewed at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.



Its style is natural, yet controlled; its characters are real, yet symbolic; its setting is claustrophobic, yet worlds seem to fill that apartment; its story is slice of life, yet lurking in its heart is a mysteriously important artistic urgency. It’s an epic, stunning ode to and condemnation of people, and it deserves to be seen and seen again.



Romanian New Wave director Cristi Puiu is best known for The Death of Mr. Lazerescu, a film that helped launch one of the most exciting film movements in recent history. Puiu’s Sieranevada, which opened the competition of the Cannes Film Festival in May, proves that the Romanian cinematic movement is alive and well, and possibly even more vital than ever. In his newest film, Puiu has created something truly special: Sieranevada is an epic of family relations and a tour-de-force of form that, though challengingly long (with a running time just shy of three hours), feels larger and more important than the sum of its many, many parts.


Sierenevada’s plot is more or less straightforward: a family gathers in a small apartment in a Romanian city to commemorate the death of Emil, a patriarch of sorts. Though the film’s set-up is simple, the film introduces a large number of family members simultaneously without much ceremonious exposition. Even if it may be consequently challenging to follow the film at first, there is a puzzle-solving pleasure in keeping track of who is related to whom. At the center is the oldest son, Lary (Mimi Branescu), a middle class doctor. Orbiting him are his mother, his partner, his aunt, his uncle, his brother, his cousins, and one of his cousin’s very intoxicated friends, among others. Just when you think you’ve figured out the relationships, a new character will storm into the apartment to add yet another layer to the drama. Despite the initial complication, as soon as you get acclimated to the world of Sieranevada, you’ll be able to clearly see the brilliance of the way that Puiu seamlessly folds new characters into the complex ever-churning plot.

Puiu helms this ship of fools with a visual style that’s very characteristic of contemporary Romanian directors (like Radu Muntean and especially Cristian Mungiu) - a style that I would refer to as aestheticised naturalism: a style whose handheld camera look makes the content feel real and immediate while striking off-kilter compositions of a murky, cloudy palette subtly indulge in art-house visual flare to great effect. In Sieranevada, Puiu charges this Romanian New Wave template with a relentless snowballing of cinematic energy. When we think of style, we often think of visuals, but Puiu must also be commended on another aspect of style - his blocking. Imagine the tremendous storytelling effort it must have taken to juggle a dozen characters in such close quarters. The effect is smooth and dazzling; at about the one-hour mark, you realize how long Puiu has kept the camera in a corner of the apartment’s cramped hallway as the actors bounce contentiously off one another like highly charged electrons, only to zoom into other rooms for even more fierce confrontations. Never in a movie has so much meaningful drama and absorbing style been contained in one long take in a small dark hallway.


In keeping the action almost entirely in one apartment (there are two forays outside that happily aerate the film a bit), Sieranevada can be seen as a sort of inversion of Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). In that film, the apartment was a fixed spot where L.B. Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart) could participate with the world through his window on his own terms. Where Rear Window looks out on the world, Sierenevada uses the apartment setting to turn its gaze inward. In Puiu’s film, all subjects of fascination are contained in three rooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, and a small hallway. If Rear Window uses one small apartment to show how we look out for entertainment or escape, Sieranevada uses one small apartment to show how we look in - how we, like the film’s characters, look relentlessly for those things that will make us happy, the things that will gratify us, or the things that we use to justify ourselves to others.

At one crucial moment in the film, Lary’s brother, Gabi, (Rolando Matsangos) describes the experience of being at home after having fought as a soldier: “When I’m at home zapping at the TV, I get so afraid.” He’s clearly not the only one; nearly all the characters drip with anxiety and desperation, both political and personal. The characters each have their own reasons to be angry or afraid: Ofelia (Ana Ciontea) detests her obnoxious philandering husband (Sorin Medeleni); Sandra (Judith State) hates the communist politics of an elderly aunt (Tatiana Iekel); Sebi (Marin Grigore) frets constantly about conspiracy theories. In these and countless other developments and interactions, Sieranevada effectively reflects the day-to-day quiet but potent rage against the inevitably and perpetually imperfect state of things that we all experience to some extent, whether we realise it or not. As if this weren’t great enough, Puiu counterbalances and diffuses some of that ever-present anger through moments where the characters humorously acknowledge not only the absurdity of their circumstances, but also the absurdity of their reactions to those circumstances. A visiting priest recounts for the family a somber tale about faith; as soon as he leaves, the family’s ponderous silence is broken by the sardonic old communist aunt, sporting a ridiculous fur hat: “I don’t know what any of that meant.” Subtly channeling Beckett and Bunuel, Puiu includes an absurdly humorous plot point regarding a luncheon that is delayed each time someone in the family has a pressing problem - and it’s delayed for most of the three hour film. Sieranevada’s final moment, without giving too much away, is such a beautifully funny recognition of the paradoxically urgent and useless nature of human rage that it almost makes you want to cry - at least that’s what this reviewer wanted to do once Sieranevada began winding down its three hour parade of human folly.


Of the 30 films I saw at the Cannes Film Festival, Sieranevada was the best. But it requires close attention - patience is necessary to process some of the film’s dense inter-character framework. Still, whereas some of the festival’s longer films seemed slightly bloated to me (American Honey, Toni Erdmann), Sieranevada’s three hours felt just right. Its style is natural, yet controlled; its characters are real, yet symbolic; its setting is claustrophobic, yet worlds seem to fill that apartment; its story is slice of life, yet lurking in its heart is a mysteriously important artistic urgency. It’s an epic, stunning ode to and condemnation of people, and it deserves to be seen and seen again.

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