What to make of a film that’s about the sense of tedium and repetition that feels tedious and repetitious? Does one celebrate its languid use of time or chide its deadly slow pace?
At 173 minutes, “Sieranevada” isn’t shy about overstaying its welcome. From its intriguing opening, we see the beginnings of a family drama playing out at a distance. In one of many continuous shots, the camera sits across the street as cars circle blocks, strollers are awkwardly held, and DHL drivers honk to get through. We are then treated to the first of many frivolous but emotionally-charged arguments, in which the protagonist (Mimi Brănescu) is scolded by his partner (Cătălina Moga) for purchasing the wrong Disney costume for a child. We witness these casual, intimate conversations between family members with the everyday jibes, digs and even irrational or racist asides that come from the unfiltered communication shared by family members.
The discussions maintain a realistic edge, at times slowing to a halt to linger on half-formed ideas, often lending a voyeuristic quality to the proceedings. As the main couple arrive at family home, where a commemoration for the loss of a patriarch is set to take place, the film becomes even more subdued. Its intrigue plays out in real time, with pauses and asides feeling almost documentary-like as the family (played by an ensemble that includes Marin Grigore, Tatiana Iekel, Dana Dogaru, and Ana Ciontea) awaits the priest’s arrival.
To the film’s immense credit, the performances drip with realism. The ensemble genuinely feels like a family, particularly as their conflicts bubble to the surface with continually awkward results. Along the way, discussions play out about the Charlie Hebdo attacks, about 9/11 conspiracies and other modern-day madness, all while a Croatian addict vomits off-screen, secrets are revealed after the plying of alcohol, the suit of a dead man gets wrinkled and then altered and a sordid fist fight takes place over a parking spot.
Charitably, the film requires its pace and marathon running time to make one feel embedded in the events as they play out. But that doesn’t make it easier for some to fully embrace as one drifts in and out of the storyline. The widespread constellation of characters are at times hard to follow, despite the leisurely exposition. Instead, Puiu uses snippets of past events, reading into the decision-making of the family through their well-honed, casual interactions.
Of course, such slow-burn storytelling — mixing austerity with flashes of outbursts and black comedy — are hallmarks of the Romanian New Wave. Since Puiu’s 2001 film “Stuff and Dough” first made waves at Cannes, he has found many fans, but it was the the prize-winning “The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu” that truly set the stage for his particular aesthetic of blending the morbid and the banal with a keen, roving eye. In “Sieranevada,” Puiu again focuses on notions of mortality, community and delayed gratification while employing unexpected humor at key moments.
Those familiar with Puiu’s work might not be thrown by his patient approach, but the ponderous technique takes no prisoners for the uninitiated. When it works, and the family comes across as a churning mess of emotions and button pushing, the film is stellar. The humor certainly cuts deep — wry and cutting digs that only the most intimately connected can truly deliver — even as cinematographer Barbu Bălăsoiu’s meandering camera, with its ping-ponging between the various characters, encourages a soporific state, with the placid swaying more somnolent than hypnotic.
Puiu shows a considerable skill with coaxing his performers to deliver quirky, introspective dialogue, even if that’s not enough to salvage every scene. Even by “slow cinema” standards, this is a pretty darned slow film. Anyone excited by the endurance test will find plentiful rewards, if not enough to justify every step of the journey. This is simply a suit that won’t fit everyone no matter how well it’s pinned, and while certain audiences will fully embrace both its form and content, for others it will be one step too far.
“Sieranevada” premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.