Sieranevada – Review (Cannes Film Festival)

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The Romanian New Wave continues to crash through Cannes with no sign of slowing down or losing any of its power. The first of two films in competition this year from Romania was Sieranevada, the fourth feature from The Death of Mr. Lazarescu director Christi Puiu. A funny and deliberately frustrating film that takes place predominantly inside one modest apartment during a memorial service for the patriarch of a family.

The various family members, those invited and those who weren’t, all gather to take part in a variety of rituals and to eat dinner together. At least that’s the plan. The film could be retitled Waiting for Ciorbă, as no-one really gets to actually eat, but they do drink. And fight over a number of topics, from politics and conspiracy theories, to more personal matters surrounding infidelity. One early argument surrounds a character who is a ‘9/11 Truther’ who seems to be always just on the edge of screaming, “Jet fuel can’t melt steel beams!” as he tries to convince his family of the various conspiracies that he believes are going on all around them.

Conversations around the dinner table, in the kitchen, bedroom and hallway all flow in and out of each other as Puiu never lets one situation or debate settle or reach a conclusion, as if he’s making it clear that this is all a little pointless really. People have opinions about all sorts of things that they’re not interested in changing and all this arguing is just texture to life rather than something that actually means anything.

Setting the film almost entirely within the apartment pays dividends, as we are trapped with this family for almost three hours, and cabin fever quickly begins to set in. Puiu’s camera often remains static and at eye level for reasonably long periods of time, simply pivoting on an axis between two or more areas of the apartment to dip in and out of conversations, almost as if it doesn’t really matter which one the camera stops on. It also leads you to start willing for the camera to swing one way rather than the other, like the characters in the family who are keen to escape at times, or desperate to see what’s going on with the ‘cheating husband’ or the ‘junkie daughter’.

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Sieranevada may sound a little tough going on paper and the runtime may put some people off, but the film is filled with a lot of black comedy, and despite the cabin fever and claustrophobia that Puiu mines, it also feels somewhat sprightly and never once drags. Mostly because the characters just never stop talking.

Whilst the film may be thematically underwhelming for the most part, it’s possible that this is the point. We are in the position of the ghost of Emil, for whom the memorial is being held, haunting the rooms of his old home and watching his family bickering amongst themselves. And you can’t help but feel that Emil, like us, is laughing at the absurdity and pointlessness of it all. And perhaps that is Puiu’s ultimate joke: a satirical swing at the mere idea that what we talk about is important at all in the grand scheme of things.

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