Cristi Puiu’s Romanian family comedy-come-drama, Sieranevada, is the directors latest epic. Clocking in at 173 mins (just shy of three hours) it could be described more as an experience, than a film. Don’t think too deeply about the title – Puiu himself states that it means nothing at all. A little foreshadowing perhaps, as that notion is pretty reflective of the film itself. There is a real sense of having ‘lived’ Sieranevada rather than simply watched it. Whilst it’s incredibly long (in Puiu’s usual style), don’t let that put you off. Sieranevada is a hidden gem of 2016, and everyone should watch it.
After the death of his father, Lary pays a visit to his mother’s house (along with the rest of his family) to pay his respects and commemorate his late father. Whilst waiting for the priest to arrive, the family members each deal with their grief in different ways. Drama, tears, fights and reconciliations commence – the four main ingredients of any successful family gathering, especially one under such emotional duress. A story of a man trying to deal with his own grief, Sieranevada, allows us to engage with all of these sensations- all at once.
That said, Sieranevada is also one of the funniest films I have seen in recent years. What makes it so genuinely amusing is that it feels like Puiu barely intended for it to be amusing. The humour comes from the completely natural and inane actions of the families members, the circular conversations and the way the interactions we see are instantly relatable to anyone who’s ever been to a family gathering. From the intergenerational arguing about politics, to the constant closing of kitchen doors, to watching food being laid out that no-one is allowed to eat just yet, Sieranevada perfectly captures the montages of extended family life.
A constant stream of events occur which prevents the family from gathering around the table to eat – the very reason why they are all there in the first place. The lateness of the priest, the appearance of Lary’s cousin’s drunk friend, the arrival of Uncle Tony and the ensuing melodrama that follows, are all things to keep the family from commemorating their deceased father. Yet, in a way, all of these interruptions are commemorative of family life – nothing ever goes to plan, even at a wake. The food is moved around, taken out of ovens, put back in again, and constantly just out of reach of the characters – who are drinking more to compensate. A recipe for disaster.
It truly does feel like an experience, rather than watching a film. Puiu’s handheld camera sometimes follows characters around the space, stepping into rooms and then leaving them again. Just as often, the camera is left in the hallway, or just behind a door. We can barely see what is happening and are left staring at the back of people’s heads, yet the dialogue is so engaging that it hardly matters. It feels as if we are the camera; we walk the same steps as the characters, constantly moving and not always seeing the bigger picture. By not allowing us to ever see the entire space, Puiu succeeds in shrinking the flat even smaller than it is. The whole film feels claustrophobic (deliberately, of course).There are too many people in such a small space. Family members sit in separate rooms, gathering in groups too large for the space they are in. It feels chaotic and utterly mesmerising.
At certain points, it could be mistaken for a documentary. It is unclear if there was a script, or whether Puiu just put a real family in a flat and switched the camera on. Either way, the results are phenomenal. The cast are superb, and whilst it’s hard to pick a standout performance, Sandra (Judith State) and Lary (Mimi Branescu) are certainly ones to mention. Brother and sister, children of the deceased, the two of them rarely interact yet are both clearly struggling to deal with the death of their father – in very different ways. They seem to move in opposing circles (physically, around the flat and emotionally too), with Sandra alluding to her husband’s infidelities, whilst Lary practically admitting his to his own wife. Again, in both scenes – Puiu is confident with the camera, keeping the same shot for several minutes while we watch these excruciating conversations.
It’s the astonishing command of the camera, and the authenticity of the characters, which makes Sieranevada a truly immersive experience. I haven’t watched a film that felt so real in a very long time (if ever). The attention to the smallest details (each and every character is fully developed, regardless of how long they are onscreen for), really drives home the naturalist feel of the film. It’s rich in colour, design and in content – all elements supporting the naturalist style that makes the film so unique.
A film that can not only hold my attention for that amount of time, but can also make it feel like it was no time at all, is a film that deserves to be seen. Sieranevada does both.