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.