Cristi Puiu’s Aurora plays this Sunday afternoon at the 48th New York Film Festival. The film is currently without distribution.
Could this movie be any more Romanian? It’s been five years since director Puiu’s festival-circuit favorite The Death of Mr. Lazarescu heralded a new movement in film, and in that time what may have once constituted personal aesthetic preferences have become a national cinema’s lingua franca. Aurora employs all of the Romanian New Wave’s familiar motifs: watch an unshaved protagonist navigate dilapidated lodgings and industrial ruins lit with a sickly green glow; watch long stretches of silent surveillance, three hours of filmmaking without close-ups, without edited sequences of shots, steeped in morose silence. See an irascible population that takes out its bitterness on children; see moments of black humor, like the inherent absurdity of carrying a shotgun in one hand and a slice of chocolate cake in the other; see a lead actor whose inscrutably stoic mien betrays unhappiness but little else.
Cristi Puiu lets on next to nothing in Aurora, both as star and as writer-director. The characters’ relationships and motivations are willfully obscured as we’re plopped into protagonist Viorel’s life in media res, left to grope for the narrative’s form. It takes quite a while for the ambiguities to take shape, for even the barest outlines to become apparent amid the ambiguous-but-punishing stretches of quotidian chores. Aurora ultimately emerges as a chilled if not chilling look into the aftermath of a divorce, of abject despondence and desperation obscured by a phlegmatic face, the iciness softened only for two moments-long episodes of hot-blooded violence. (Even once you think you’ve figured it out, Puiu challenges your assumptions; in one of the last lines of dialogue, Viorel tells a few police officers, “You seem to think you understand. I don’t know if you understand.”)
The viewer has to work hard here for what we’re usually spoon fed—as though Puiu’s giving Euro-American audiences a taste of what it’s like to have been Romanian over the last several decades. This is, of course, sophisticated filmmaking, with an artful structure that repeats like a sonata, in which drama is not introduced with something as vulgarly cliché as a gun but with something enticing and mysterious like a homemade, black-market firing pin—in which drama does not build but shoots out unexpectedly like vomit. Still, it’s about time we demanded more from Romanian cinema than a retread of what has by now become the same old style.