The concept of family, that classic vessel for everyday life, relationships, disagreements, secrets, memories and a whole range of other elements both light and dark, is something both decidedly banal and profound at the same time. The topic has graced the big screen, for better or for worse, countless times and yet still remains an inexhaustible area for exploration, as the subject of humanity is rich and encompasses a high degree of intimacy and identification. Romanian director Cristi Puiu decided to delve deep into the heart of this microcosm with far-reaching repercussions for his film Sieranevada [+], which opened the extravagant competition of the 69th Cannes Film Festival, immediately setting a high standard in the quest for this year’s Palme d’Or in terms of ambition, meticulousness and directorial mastery.
Skilfully deploying his talent for panoramic shots (amongst a number of others) and the interplay between some 15 characters in the rather reduced space of a five-room flat, in which a commemorative ceremony is taking place, 40 days on from the death of the family patriarch, the director has put together (in his characteristic style, which requires a certain level of patience) a bountiful opus, and an exceptionally realistic group study open to numerous layers of reflection that are encrypted to varying degrees (brotherly bonds, the relationships between men and women, religion and communism, and communication, to name but a few). And, as is often the case when there is a death, this traditional orthodox celebration to honour the deceased, which brings together all the members of the family, entails both tears and laughter, coupled with a sense of restlessness and electricity in the air.
“The problem is that you didn’t listen.” Sitting in his car, on the way to his mother’s home, Lary (Mimi Branescu), a likeable 40-something doctor, is being dragged over the coals by his wife, who is more interested in the shopping she is planning to do in the hypermarket and future holidays than she is in the upcoming post-funeral ritual. After they arrive at their destination, the couple melts into the group, an opulent spread before them – but before eating, everyone must wait for a blessing from the priest, who is running late. Mother, brother and sister, brother-in-law, aunt, uncle, nephew, niece, and cousin, without forgetting three friends of the deceased, a Croatian woman who has collapsed in a corner, and a baby, whom everyone is trying not to wake: this small number of people go from room to room, form groups, converse, smoke, drink and fight, all at the mercy of the events. This maelstrom created by Cristi Puiu has as many pieces as an impossible puzzle; sometimes there are discussions superimposed on one another, or snippets that we can vaguely make out through constantly opening and closing doors. From discussions about current affairs (conspiracy theories versus official statements) to quarrels over where the old communist regime got it right and where it went wrong, via marital crises and infidelities being paraded in public, Sieranevada (sold internationally by Elle Driver) digs deep with its underlying methodical rigour into its subject matter: the illusion of knowledge and the countless facets of reality.
The director examines this heart-warming whirlwind full of undeniable vitality, and certainly not lacking in humour or excess, as a neutral observer, as if he were a scientist interpreting symbols, analysing a mixture in a test tube and successfully determining the identity of each element that makes it up. Fantastic acting and some masterful work on the visuals and sound round off this fascinating tableau (which unfolds at a rhythm as close to real time as possible, which will nevertheless be taxing for fans of all things fast-paced), which constitutes a real tour de force by a director who has reached maturity with regards to both his perception and his talent for representing the intricate nuances of life on the big screen.
By Fabien Lemercier