For all its willingness to risk audience discomfort by immersing the viewer in the slow, agonizing buildup to the titular event, Cristi Puiu’s justly lauded 2005 film The Death of Mr. Lazarescu was painstakingly precise in the specifics of its details and never less than fully legible. With his follow-up, Aurora, a no less challenging immersion in the daily existence of a single figure, Puiu deliberately courts a frustrating obscurantism that at times plays like an intriguing mystery and other times just baffles. If the film is ultimately too opaque to satisfy on the level of graspable narrative or characterization, that may be precisely the point, but it still makes for a viewing as wearisome as it is rewarding.
Starring the director himself as the middle-aged Viorel, Aurora follows the man over the course of several days—translating to three hours of screen time—as he pokes suspiciously around a perpetually gray-skied Bucharest, interacting with a group of characters to whom his relationship is not entirely clear until the final scene, and eventually, committing a pair of violent acts. As Puiu’s camera gets cozy with his character via an off-the-cuff naturalism (an effect achieved via tremulous camerawork and a reliance on available light), the film documents several repeating patterns in the character’s behavior. Hiding between trucks in a semi parking lot, he spies on the same family as they leave their house every morning. Skulking around at night, he sidles up to a house, then quickly dashes away, though not before turning back for a few last glances. At home, at an apartment in the middle of being fixed up, its instability and dilapidation mirroring his mental state, he turns off lights, pulls down shades, and is always on the lookout.
Still, for all the viewer’s constant immersion in the specifics of Viorel’s activity, there’s the sense of constantly rubbing up against the unknowable, as both the character and the meaning of his activity and relationships remain as inscrutable as his tightly drawn stoic’s face. Keeping the audience at a distance from a character’s inner life is no uncommon strategy, but Puiu is almost perverse in his withholding of information. Often, signifying his distance from the character, he films himself through frames (doors, windows) in long shot, the conversation barely (and sometimes completely in-)audible; other times he leaves the action pointedly off screen. It’s as if he’s determined to give the viewer just enough information to string him along, but never enough to quite achieve a workable comprehension.
But what we do see is sufficiently intriguing that we want to know what this man is up to, why he takes the extreme actions he takes, and who the victims of these actions are. From the opening scene in which Viorel and a woman discuss her daughter’s precocious reading of the Little Red Riding Hood myth, wondering why the grandmother isn’t naked when the hunter cuts her out of the wolf’s stomach, since the wolf is dressed up in her clothes, Puiu injects a vaguely sinister overtone into the proceedings, one that takes on larger implications in the shady exchanges and eruptions of violence that populate the rest of the film.
Most of Aurora‘s running time, however, is devoted not to the violent, but to the banal, and depending on your tolerance for patience-trying depictions of the quotidian, these scenes register as either expertly staged and philosophically necessary or increasingly tiresome and progressively redundant. The truth is probably somewhere in between, but watching a skittery Viorel impatiently wait to purchase a piece of cake at a café or taking in the neon-lit view from his car windshield as he drives through a commercial district before ducking into a tunnel are minor pleasures that can’t easily be denied. More striking even are Viorel’s encounters, not only with what may be members of his own family, but with several other families whose situations are more clearly sketched than, and offer commentary on, his own.
In one scene, the man who lives upstairs and whose son’s bathtub splashing may have led to a leak in Viorel’s bathroom ceiling comes with his kid to offer to pay for damages. As a nearly silent Viorel looks on, the bilious patriarch tells his kid that he won’t be going to summer camp or getting presents from Santa. When the man’s wife comes down, he rudely dismisses her and sends her back upstairs, the whole sequence mirroring the familial rage and marital discontent that may have influenced Viorel’s actions. The messiness of family life is further evoked, though in more benign fashion, in a later scene when Viorel drops his daughter off at a neighbor’s apartment after virtually kidnapping her from school. As Puiu’s camera scans the room with a Renoirian sweep, it takes in an extended clan including two youngsters fucking in the bathroom and an old man lamenting that since no one will drink with him, he’ll have to quaff his brandy alone.
Like another recent celebrated Romanian film, Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective, Aurora ends with a disquisition in a police station, though this time it’s a less heated exchange involving a civilian and a pair of cops. As the officers question Viorel, we learn along with them several of the details of his background that Puiu had been deliberately withholding until that moment. But this belated bit of exposition does not and cannot explain much, a point that Viorel makes here explicitly, and one that the film had been making implicitly throughout. “You seem to think you understand,” the character says to both the policemen and to us after responding to their questions. “I don’t know if you understand.”
What Puiu seems to be suggesting is that the complexities of human behavior and relationships are beyond the power of the law to comprehend, but are they also beyond the power of the cinema? They’re certainly not beyond the capabilities of the novel, as Theodore Dreiser’s American Tragedy both bemoans the inability of the legal system to understand its protagonist’s actions and itself empathetically outlines their psychology with exact precision. But Puiu is a very different kind of artist than Dreiser and it wouldn’t be fair to judge the one by the other especially since transparency is not what the Romanian is after. Still, the question remains after watching Aurora: If the murky depths of human behavior are beyond the capacity of the cinema to penetrate, and Puiu’s film stands as testament to that fact, then what incentive do we have as filmgoers to spend three hours fighting our way through all this calculated opacity?