Right from its prologue, which consists of a seemingly interminable unedited long shot of a middle-aged couple navigating a crowded Bucharest street, Romanian director Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada announces itself as a slow burn. This unknown couple is eventually identified as Lary (Mimi Branescu) and his wife, Laura (Catalina Moga), who are on their way to commemorate the recent death of Lary’s father with the rest of his family. While the prologue doesn’t further the plot and might initially come off as time-consuming filler, it’s firmly in line with Puiu’s vision of contemporary Romania as a kind of purgatory. The characters in this film thrash about in a rage of meaningless sound and fury to mask the spiritual emptiness at the core of their existence.
The prologue has its mirror in another extended scene halfway through the film, when the couple gets into an altercation with several neighbors in the street over a parking spot. As with everything else in the film, this scene offers no resolution, only angst, anger, and apathy. Sieranevada consists of countless similar moments, both melodramatic and quotidian, strung together in alternating fashion to create a fully realized portrait of the overwhelming banality and occasional joy that makes up these characters’ lives.
The overall effect is a kind of Chekhovian realism. The bulk of the film takes place in the apartment of Lary’s mother, Nusa (Dana Dogaru), and the almost constant bickering about life’s minutiae among Lary’s extended family is well observed and even feels improvised in its authenticity. The conversations between the four generations gathered for the patriarch’s wake veer between pseudo-intellectual observations about society and politics to the kind of family melodrama that often accompanies such ceremonies.
In particular, Puiu conveys the exasperation that arises from the half-informed political arguments at such gatherings, alcohol-fueled debates that go nowhere and ultimately serve no purpose but to anger everyone involved. There are even the Chekhovian flashes of dark humor, mostly provided by Lary, a doctor who feels himself above his family’s petty melodrama. He uses his wit to defuse tense moments, but eventually reveals his own shortcomings and insecurities, which show him to be as flawed as the others.
In addition to the film’s dialogue, the relationships between the characters and the visceral dynamics of the party are equally true-to-life in their muted naturalism. But as the film runs nearly three hours, one begins to question to what end all of these convincing observations are leading. When the Orthodox priest belatedly arrives, Puiu shows the litany for the dead and their accompanying ceremony in its entirety, omitting not a single word. While this certainly adds to the film’s authenticity, the sequence adds little to its overall meaning. Perhaps Puiu wants us to contrast the ceremony with the various indications of conspicuous consumerism in the lives of these people, who spend a large chunk of the film either shopping or talking about shopping.
But the notion that Puiu wants to show us that contemporary Romanians are trying to use consumerism to fill in the spiritual emptiness in their lives is undercut by the fatuity of the priest and his entourage, and the antireligious musings of an elderly ex-communist woman at the party. The priest, who builds a great deal of expectation among both the guests and the audience by his late arrival, is a bore whose parables about the nature of faith are utterly unconvincing and even nonsensical, as evidenced by the other characters’ disappointment with his performance and musings.
The priest’s Orthodox Christian ideology is revealed to be just another unpersuasive grand narrative, like communism and familial love, that does nothing to assuage the characters’ longing for something substantial to which they can attach their errant, objectless faith. The ex-communist, while shown to be a heartless apologist for Soviet totalitarianism, nevertheless makes a convincing argument against religion that Lary at least tacitly supports. However, when even she tries to cozy up to the priest, one senses that Puiu’s intent is to show the nihilism that lies at the heart of contemporary Romanian society, where nothing is sacred because there’s nothing left to believe in.
With all of the seemingly tangential conversations about 9/11 conspiracy theories, family secrets, religious dogma, and both the terror and accomplishments of the communist years, Puiu seems to be getting at fundamental questions about the nature of faith and doubt. The unresolved character of the topics raised points to both their timelessness and their futility. Perhaps one is as incapable of knowing the truth about one’s own family as about the mysteries of God and death. Every moment of faith in this film is accompanied by negation. Lary’s pious sister, revolted by the oppression of the communist state, is shown to a thoughtless anti-Semite. The priest comforts no one with his staid, muddled babble, and leaves these people to their grief and confusion the first chance he gets.
But neither is skepticism shown to be a solution to life’s problems, as Lary’s rational doubt and erudite cynicism do little to prevent his world from deteriorating around him. Like the film’s unexplained title, the barely muffled anger and violence of the social ills at Sieranevada’s core hint at but never reveal the larger political chaos seemingly waiting to erupt just off camera.