52nd Chicago International Film Festival Screening #1: “sieranevada” (Romania)

“sieranevada” (Romania)
Directed by Cristi Puiu


I’m seeing twenty-six films at this year’s iteration of the Chicago Film Festival, so you would think I might shy away from those films with extraordinarily long running times, but no, my first two screenings are 180 minutes and 195 minute, respectively…one felt like it, the other flew by. “sieranevada”, I’m happy to report, was the film that never showed it’s length.

This slice of life family drama, perhaps better described as a loaf of life, is almost utterly devoid of a plot in the classic sense. Instead Cristi Puiu has chosen to focus on the dozens of plots that encompass a large family gathering in a closed environment – both long-festering and newly arisen. That it’s never dull, mostly hilarious and occasionally outrageous is due to the fine-tuned script, direction and fantastic performances (and emblematic of why it was, apparently, the buzz of Cannes).

One of the great attributes of this festival is that we don’t just witness how people live and interact in other parts of the world…we also get to hear how our country affects the attitudes and discussions in their every day. These discussions made up of conspiracy theories and the lack of trust in our motives, while not a central theme on the film, are certainly prevalent and interesting to observe. No, the central theme is life…and the trust, feuds and empathy that are the basis of a family structure.

The director uses mostly very long single-shots, placing the camera in the center of an apartment with five rooms…literally, panning around the room on a fixed tripod, as the action occurs. While claustrophobic as hell, it brings a “Noises Off”-like farcical nature to the action and keeps the viewer engaged. It also counteracts those very few moments when the dialogue wanes. I can’t imagine how many hours of rehearsal were needed to make this as seamless and organic as it felt.

Then there are the actors. There is no way to watch this film and not believe you are watching a real family, in Bucharest, gathered for a dinner. And while there are too many performances to mention everyone, the real glue is the haggered, expressive, lined and inviting face of Lary, our lead, played by Mimi Branescu. In many ways acting as our eyes and ears of the proceedings surrounding him, Branescu is exactly the kind of film star that always seems to exist in other countries but that we don’t seem to have an equivalence for here. In the Hollywood version, someone fabulous looking would play the role (although, if this movie were made here, it would be saccharin, forced and over-the-top in its conflict). These people scream at each other and two seconds later are laughing with each other…like families actually do. I would be remiss not to mention Ana Ciontea, who deftly plays the know-it-all aunt with the opposing political/historical view of what’s going on in the world.

Finally, in lieu of an actual score, the music of the film lives via the radio…filling us with castoffs of a bygone Billboard era (Ace of Base, Chuck Mangione, etc.), informing us how Eastern Europe still looks west for its cultural markers, no matter how many decades have past since that marker’s “Born On” date.

Listen, this movie is not without its faults. The very subtle ending seems a bit forced and it really doesn’t need to be three hours long. But when lights come up on a film, and you say to yourself, “That was great…wait…was that REALLY three hours long?”, you know you’ve seen an honest and successful film. If you have the opportunity and the time, give it a whirl. You will see pieces of your family, and life in it. Highly recommended.

No trailer with English subtitles exists, alas.

Written on 10/15/2016

3 thoughts on “52nd Chicago International Film Festival Screening #1: “sieranevada” (Romania)

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