A slow burn thriller taken to the extreme, Cristi Puiu's "Aurora" continues the Romanian writer-director's obsession with time as his main narrative device. Whereas Puiu previously applied a patient, naturalistic approach to the final day of a dying man in 2005's "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," his new three-hour opus studies a dead man walking: Stepping in front of the camera, Puiu plays a weary, isolated divorcee named Viorel, whose frustrations with his ex-wife and her family eventually lead him to commit a series of murders. Beyond his crimes, not much happens, and that's the point. Puiu constructs Viorel's gradual downfall as a purposefully overextended black comedy.
Initially produced under the working title "Scenes of a Crime," the movie drags that basic concept as far as it can go, although "Scenes Between a Crime" describes it better. A full hour passes before Viorel accomplishes anything other than quietly plotting his violence with a trip to the gun store. He's constantly at odds with people around him. His basic frustrations include coping with nagging in-laws, his children and other regular acquaintances -- all reflected in Puiu's endlessly droll expression. Many sequences unfold in observational long takes of near-documentary proportions. The world of "Aurora" dominates the tone even more than its eerily calm protagonist, as moments slowly tick by and the environment seeps under your skin.
The challenging pace may define the experience, but suspense and intrigue lurk within Puiu's temporally ambitious technique. Rather than establish an elaborate backstory and build toward the climax, he bases his entire production around meandering exposition. Since nothing is definite, each hour remains engagingly unpredictable. Expectations of the crime genre suggest that doom awaits Viorel sometime around the third act, but Puiu seems less concerned with his fate than simply getting him there using the most roundabout method possible.
At the Cannes Film Festival premiere, Puiu introduced the movie by confessing that "it's long...I feel foreign for that." Notwithstanding his obvious sarcasm, "Aurora" does bear a strong resemblance to many of the recent Romanian features to emerge from the festival circuit, particularly Corneliu Porumboiu's "Police, Adjective," which also ends with comically extended judicial interrogation. Both movies, in addition to "Lazarescu," use plausible conversational flow as a means of satirizing the ineffective nature of all communication.
Puiu's characters tend to ramble: An early dialogue between Viorel and another woman about whether or not the grandmother in "Little Red Riding Hood" was devoured in clothes or naked sounds like the muffled version of a Tarantino exchange. In his subtle way, Puiu makes mannered dialogue sound fresh and strange.
This strategy comes together in "Aurora" with Viorel's rambling confession, a finale that inspires laughter for the sheer matter-of-factness of Puiu's deadpan performance. By offering context on the tail end of a story where a conventional version would have it at the beginning, Puiu invites repeat viewings -- although his unhurried style is certain to turn some viewers off for the same reason it will turn others on.