Spoiler Alert. You’ve been warned…
Violence in movies, especially the kind that seeks to titillate the viewer into sympathy with violent action, is one of my greatest problems as a cinephile. On the one hand, I believe very strongly in the freedom of expression and would never seek censorship of those who would propose to make art that glorifies (or worse, sexualizes) violence; I believe in the power of adults to make up their own minds about such things. On the other hand, as an adult, my mind was made up a long time ago; nothing turns me off more than when a filmmaker uses the power of the medium to aestheticize human suffering, to make it superficial by equating it with any other of the spectacular visual effects that can be written off as empty fiction by the viewer. The only kind of screen violence I am able to tolerate is the kind that takes away the glamor and shows us the impact of suffering; not a leering, graphic thrill, but an awful, intolerable reality that embraces the true horror involved in bringing about pain in another person.
One of the most powerful realizations to be found in Aurora, Cristi Puiu’s startling take on the process of planning and carrying out a series of murders, is just how deeply the writer-director (and in this case, star) was willing to delve into the routines of a murderer in order to arrive at the same conclusion. Viorel (played brilliantly by Puiu) is an engineer at an anonymous factory who splits his time between his unavailable girlfriend and a frequent and silent exploration of various locations in and around the Romanian town in which he lives. For the first hour and a half of the film, we follow Viorel in what seems to be a gloss on Police, Adjective; a series of long takes suggest a mixture of menace and the mundane as Viorel hides in the shadows, stakes out an empty lot filled with parked trucks, purchases a hunting rifle (which he measures for size by placing the barrel under his chin while reaching for the trigger,) while also attending to family matters like picking up his laundry from his mother, moving his belongings out of his apartment so the walls can be stripped of wallpaper and repainted, and eating lonely meals when he finds the time. What is Viorel up to? Why is he carrying his rifle around with him? How is he so nonchalant one moment and so bitingly vitriolic the next?
Puiu’s script does a brilliant job of stripping everything away– psychological motivation, expository dialogue that might give things away, unnecessary revelation– to instead put us in the vicinity of a person who has made a secret decision and who lives his life without a single doubt about the necessity of his impending action. What makes Aurora so thrilling is Puiu’s camera, which stays fixated upon Viorel; the camera remains an outside observer instead of a tool for putting us in Viroel’s shoes. Puiu has made a clear choice to reject the need for an empathetic relationship to this psychopath; instead, we merely observe, with mounting horror and confusion, as Viorel’s plan is finally and irrevocably unleashed in the second half of the film. The camera, our gaze, mirrors Viorel’s invisibility within his society; hiding behind walls, tucked away in the corner of the room, as if we ourselves were creating his plan through our own curiosity. The cumulative power of the film’s central mystery (of being so close to a character and still trying to piece together what exactly he is doing and why) leads to a devastating conclusion fraught with real tension over what might happen at any moment; is he picking up his child from school in order to kill her? What about his own parents? And what of the suicidal gesture earlier in the film? Will that come to fruition too? Why is Viorel doing this?
But perhaps Aurora’s most audacious point is found in the way Puiu handles the inevitable violence; it is startling, shown from afar, obscured by walls and objects and presented in very long takes that wash away any sort of romantic energy from the murders. Instead, the movie presents the audacious selfishness, the “totalitarian” arrogance if you will, of taking the life of another person. Aurora argues that we should all feel guilty that arrogance, that we are always killing something within one another, within ourselves. This impulse to erase those that would violate our vision of how our lives should work is at its worst in those who try to reorder the world to their own point of view; dictators and artists, film directors and architects, each knows the destructive power of choosing one option and effectively eliminating the other. What makes Viorel such a troubling and profound character, one that the director felt he had to play himself, is the lack of introspection he displays, the lack of doubt. It is certainty, surely, that is on trial in Aurora; action is irrevocable, and so it must be scrutinized, examined and recognized as a suspicious impulse within us. Certainty is the path to atrocity, doubt its only remedy.
In the end, the Viorel’s story is, miraculously, rendered irrelevant; Puiu understands the mundane nature of violence in a world where things like this happen all the time and in a brilliant anti-climax, he neuters Viorel by stripping his actions of their intended impact. This is certainly Puiu’s bravest move, to switch on something approaching a comic denouement in the place of the typically sensational ending; to ignore the rationale behind violence makes the act meaningless, and without a meaningful motivation, all of the planning, all of the violence, all of the suffering becomes fully realized for precisely what it is; empty, pointless, incomprehensible. Aurora is, for me, a very important and special movie; by eviscerating the hollow audacity of a killer and his plan, the film exposes violence as the destructive, senseless force that it is.