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Sieranevada | 2016 Cannes Film Festival Review

Death in the Family: Puiu’s Grueling, Rewarding Portrait of Familial Strife

Sieranevada PosterPeople are never who they seem to be, at least until you get to spend enough time with them to see beyond their sometimes complex personas. But that takes time and patience, two things required when attempting to embark on a Cristi Puiu feature. The godfather of the Romanian New Wave arrives with his latest intimidating slice of simmering tensions with the enigmatically titled Sieranevada, the exact meaning of which is never properly elucidated. Clocking in at nearly three hours, it’s a grueling, tangled exercise of lengthy familial exchanges, ranging from benign deliberations on 9/11 and conspiracy theories to searing personal dramas, juxtapositions which eventually appear to be microcosmic stand-ins for hapless humanity and its predilection for miscommunication and deceit. Despite its head spinning first hour, which forces the audience to slowly acclimate to a troubled milieu in a packed apartment somewhere in Bucharest with family members attending a ceremony for their recently deceased patriarch, the end result is an increasingly captivating series of exchanges, eventually boiling over into underlying issues allowed to consume them while they let their carefully prepared dinner grow cold.

Only several days after the Charlie Hedbo attacks in France, an extended comes together to mourn the passing of patriarch Emil with a traditional mourning ritual set to transpire about forty days after his death. Dr. Lary (Mimi Branescu) and wife Laura (Catalina Amiga) squabble about their daughter’s costume for a school play before arriving at his mother Nusa’s (Dana Dogaru), where her contentious sisters (Ana Ciontea, Tatiana Iekel) are more preoccupied with their own personal agendas. They’re joined by a handful of other family members, all waiting endlessly for the priest so they may commence with their Orthodox dinner and usher Emil’s spirit into heaven, which includes having a male family member wear his clothes, a duty fulfilled by nephew Sebi (Marin Grigore), who is several sizes too small for the outfit. As time wears on, dormant woes surface and memories are stirred.

There’s a satirical streak running through Sieranevada, as if the ghost of the deceased Emil is hampering his own succession to heaven (or, as secrets are revealed, perhaps limbo). DP Barbu Balasoiu trains his camera from concealed angles, panning back and forth between a flurry of movement as characters indiscriminately whir about the cramped apartment. Those familiar with Puiu will note Sieranevada is an anxiously babbling 180 from the equally laborious but brooding 2010 feature, Aurora.

Structurally, this is most similar to Puiu’s underrated (and underseen) 2013 feature Three Exercises of Interpretation, a project which seems to fare better thanks to a preordained set of scenarios. Despite the suffocating, languorous pacing, the eventual payoff is considerable, as a peculiar familiarity sinks in with this broad cast of characters, the audience slowly fed bits of information meant to determine how they’re all related and, in some cases, why some of them are behaving strangely. Eventually this seems to vie for most obstructed cinematic dinner since Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. And yet, somehow, nothing really coalesces from this angry ether of 9/11 conspiracy theories, rants and raves about gypsies and Jews, or barbed commentary on Obama and Putin.

A comment on the Charlie Hedbo shooting places the timeline several days after the infamous terrorist attack—but what exactly all this babbling is supposed to imply isn’t quite clear, unless it indicates mankind’s predilection for diagnosing and commenting on world issues yet unable to deal with what’s happening in their own backyard. Enigmatic and difficult to embrace, Cristi Puiu continues to be a formidable, ambitious auteur with what amounts to an incredibly impressively staged chamber piece.

Reviewed on May 12th at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival – Main Competition. 173 Mins.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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