LFF 2017: Funny Cow Review

Adrian Shergold’s Funny Cow is a mixed bag. Just a side note – I am probably going to focus this review on a very, very small part of the film because I feel like it’s the part which has resonated in my mind since I saw the film, and not in a good way. That’s not to say that the rest of film wasn’t good – I actually found it to be a refreshing and nuanced portrayal of a woman coming to terms with her own trauma through humour. There is a just a particular moment within the film which completely altered the way I viewed it, which I will focus on more later.

Maxine Peake plays a female comedian (whose only credited name is Funny Cow). The film takes us through her life, going backwards and forwards all the way from her childhood, to a TV interview she is giving about her life. No matter how tough things get, there is already an understanding from early on that things are going to work out for her. And things do get tough…

From being elated at the premature death of her abusive father, to meeting and marrying a violent husband, to subsequently trying to curb her mother’s alcoholism – Funny Cow is a film which seeks humour in the darkest of moments, and it’s really quite good at it. Peake’s character has a complexity that is rarely seen in female characters. She spends most of the film trying to laugh her way through traumatic events, only to discover that she cannot right all of life’s wrongs with a funny joke. She plays the ‘clown’ expertly, but is also heartbreaking to watch at points – especially in the scenes with her alcoholic mother (played by Lindsey Coulson). Shergold subtly shows the cyclical nature of abuse through these two characters – both mother and daughter become moulded into ‘victims’ by the people around them. The daughters release is comedy, the mother’s release is drink, but they are two sides of the same coin.

So, what’s not to like? Well…

Before Funny Cow (I really, really wish she had an actual name) takes to the stage, she becomes enamoured with stand up comedy after watching comedian Lenny (Alun Armstrong) perform, albeit very badly, at a local venue. His act, proceeded by a low-key strip tease act, is without many laughs. His material is bad. His delivery is bad. He’s also, and this is a pretty key theme later on, pretty racist. Let’s be clear though, the racism isn’t the reason why the audience don’t laugh – he just isn’t very funny. Regardless, Funny Cow is impressed. Not with his actual jokes, but at the idea of making people laugh and getting paid to do it.

Later in the film, Funny Cow is given the opportunity to take Benny’s place at a similar show. It’s a spontaneous decision – Benny is ill and there is literally no-one else to do it. And though she has been faced with a few men telling her that women simply aren’t funny, the worst that happens during her debut stand up show is one shouty drunk guy, who is quickly reigned in by those around him. Funny Cow can hold her own, and a lot of her initial set is bouncing insults off him. The tables have turned and the humour comes from the lack of control this man now has. In any other circumstance, his heckling would be intimidating but Funny Cow is in control, and she is answering back.

After this, Funny Cow proceeds to tell a joke about an Englishman, a Pakistani man and a gay man. Only, that’s not how she describes the latter two. Clearly, I am not going to repeat this joke but the bottom line is that it’s an incredibly homophobic and racist joke, with added offensive vaguely South Asian accents. Of course, the audience in the good ol’ 1980s onscreen howled with laughter. Then I realised it wasn’t just the people onscreen who were laughing, it was the 2017 film’s audience too, all around me.

Shergold wants us to feel happy that Funny Cow’s got the laugh, that she is being accepted. We know this is the first step on her way to success, to being the person she needs to become. But why do we have to build a white woman’s success on the back of other types of discrimination? I know what the answer is already – ‘it’s just how things were back then!’. Funny Cow was written in 2017, not 1982. It doesn’t have to be that way, it’s a fictional story.  Using racist and homophobic jokes to elevate the main white, straight character is at best lazy, and at worst is a sign that this film only cares about white people. It is not interested in social progression or overcoming discrimination if you are not white.

Let’s be clear too, Funny Cow is an incredibly white film. In fact, there is one character of colour who is nameless, and doesn’t actually speak. Everyone is else is white, straight and cis. This lack of POC only kicks salt into the wounds.

Of course, it is possible Shergold wanted us to read this scene as Funny Cow doing what she needed to do to get those racist old white men on side. There’s no evidence that this is the case, though. There is no discussion of it in the film at all, she simply finishes her set and her career takes off. Simply writing racism and discrimination into a film doesn’t equal combating it. It’s only with critique of those institutions within the text that a film can really be seen to understand that ‘this is how things were AND this is why it was bad’. With Funny Cow we only get the first half of that sentence.

As you may have guessed, this means I have a lot of mixed feelings about Funny Cow. Maxine Peake is incredible, to the point that the film probably would not have worked without her. Instead of just tragedy (with a few laughs) Peake connects with the audience and invites them into her world. She’s a comic genius, bringing the (at times) underwhelming script to life. I also have to sing the praises for the production design team – Funny Cow  was consistently gritty and raw, mostly thanks to the attention to detail within the design. Taking us from the gritty Northern industrial landscapes, to Funny Cow’s outlandish reinvention with her peroxide hair and sporty red car is an impressive feat, and one that is pulled off impeccably.  

It’s not a bad film, like I said it’s actually quite a good film. Yet, it left a horrible after taste in my mouth and as much as I attempted to understand how Shergold could justify the rampant racism and homophobia, I just couldn’t get my head around it. I still can’t.

LFF 2017: Ana, mon amour Review

In a student flat, in the heart of Bucharest, Ana and Toma are having a deep, flirtatious conversation about literature and philosophy. They sit side by side, locking eyes, laughing at one another. They giggle at the noises of loud sex that carry into the small flat from the people next door.  It is the beginning of a romance. Ana spills her drink. Whilst Toma walks away to find something to clean it up with, Ana begins rummaging furiously through her bag, looking for something. She’s hyperventilating. She can’t find her tablets. Toma tries to reassure her, but Ana is gone. She is having a panic attack. Toma lies her down, and strokes her stomach – soothing at first, but then sexually. They embrace each other.

The first sequence of Cãlin Peter Netzer’s Ana, mon amour, sets the mood for Ana (Diana Cavallioti) and Toma’s (Mircea Postelnicu) tumultuous, long term relationship. Ana suffers from frequent panic attacks, and various mental health issues that are not completely disclosed. She has trouble leaving the house, an act which often results in her having a full on panic attack. Netzer’ explores their relationship from university, to adulthood, to parenthood – all the while examining the effects of mental illness on a relationship, and the cyclical nature of family trauma. Presented out of sequence, Ana, mon amour takes us through scenes of Ana and Toma’s life together, as Toma is recalling his experiences to a therapist after his and Ana’s divorce.

As in keeping with the traditions of Romanian cinema, Netzer keeps his camera close to his subjects and handheld, for most of the film. We are invited to investigate every inch of their faces, their bodies and their personal space. Much of the cinematography is handheld, giving a sense of constant movement and change – a huge theme of the film. We, as the camera, are never stable – much like Ana, and much like Ana and Toma’s relationship. The camera also feels intrusive in their lives at some points, especially when it captures acts that are traditionally private. Sex scenes between Ana and Toma are graphic and Netzer doesn’t hold back from showing everything. The same goes for Ana’s panic attacks – the camera moves closer into her face, capturing a private and shameful moment for her. It feels claustrophobic – we feel as Ana does.

We weave through their lives, space and time itself (and where we are in time is mostly dictated by the length of Toma’s hair). We learn that Ana is from a poorer rural background, Toma is from an affluent religious background. Their backgrounds, possibly more so than Ana’s mental health, are a source of tension between them – Toma’s parents have a very visceral hatred of Ana on their first meeting. This seems to subside by the time they the two of them have a child, because the next time we see Ana and Toma’s parents together, they are all together at what seems to be a traditional Romanian religious event.

This sort of ‘bait and switch’ occurs several times, most notably with the birth of their child. In one scene, Ana and Toma are convinced that they will have an abortion, but a few minutes later, we see Ana at 24 weeks pregnant having tests done on her unborn child.

Consequently, Ana, mon amour can come off as confusing. Netzer gives nothing away, we are expected to do a large amount of work to figure out where we are, how far we are into their relationship and how old the two of them are now. It’s frustrating, perhaps a reflection of how frustrated Toma feels with Ana. Perhaps it is also reflection of the Ana’s frustration at her health and being torn between her failing medication, Toma’s insistence on religion as a solution, and her own desire to see her psychotherapist. Religious symbolism is rife throughout the film, and is often presented as the antithesis to modern antidepressants/medication. 

Though this technique sometimes works well for Netzer, and clearly has deeper connotations, it also means that a lot of smaller details are missed by the audience. It also means that the deeper we get into the film, the more disorientated we are with the constant time-hopping. It is difficult to understand, especially at the end, what has really happened and what has only happened inside Tomas’s head. Though as I’m sure  Ana, mon amour is supposed to be ambiguous, walking away from it not knowing what really went on felt very dissatisfying. 

Though Ana, mon amour is not a film about placing the blame, or deciding who was good or bad in the relationship, there is a sense of competing misery between the two main characters by the end. Toma, expressing this to his therapist, feels that he has been dealt an undeserved hand. He feels that he cared for Ana, that he ‘invested’ in her when she was sick, and now she is better, she doesn’t need him anymore. He also reveals that he believed that he loved Ana because she was dependent on him. In another scene, Ana tells him that he exacerbated her condition by controlling her all the time, by doing everything for her and by never encouraging her to be independent. Now that she is healthy and independent, he doesn’t like it.

Whilst both of them have their own issues to work through, and clearly communication is one of them, I felt very strongly for Ana’s character. Toma, who held the power throughout most of the film, came across as entitled and controlling. This seems to be at odds with Netzer’s intentions, however. It is Toma’s voice that dictates the way we see Ana, as it is through his therapy session that we are reliving their relationship. It feels like we are supposed to see Ana as selfish by the end – with her new blonde managerial haircut, her unwillingness to look after their child and the secrets she keeps from Toma.

Though Cavaliotti does a phenomenal job portraying Ana’s insecurity and anxiety, it is clear that Netzer wants Ana to be a ‘type’, rather than a well rounded character. Ana starts off as a problem which Toma needs to fix, but then becomes the shadow of Toma’s mother – a woman who wants to leave her husband. Equally, Ana’s mother fits this second ‘type’ too – whilst pregnant with Ana, she married another man who was not Ana’s father. Diana, Toma’s ex girlfriend (who we never see, but is integral to understanding Toma’s paranoia) cheated on him as well. For Netzer, all of the woman in Ana, mon amour are essentially the same character.

Nevertheless, I found Ana, mon amour to be a very interesting film. I identified with Ana and whether that is what Netzer intended or not, it doesn’t really matter.

LFF 2017: Brigsby Bear Review

“Room meets Frank meets The Truman Show meets Be Kind Rewind”

On the opening night of the London Film Festival, Brigsby Bear was introduced by the festival’s programmer as ‘what happens when people who made their careers on SNL make a film about child abduction’. She’s not far wrong. From the mind of SNL alumni, director Dave McCreary, and headed up by producer Andy Samberg (who also makes a cameo appearance), Brigsby Bear is truly a light hearted and humorous take on kidnapping and abduction. 

Brigsby Bear has drawn numerous comparisons to several critically acclaimed films, the most obvious of which is Room – predominantly for its subject matter. Let’s be clear, that is really the only thing those two films have in common. I personally found myself reminded of Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank because of McCreary’s ability to slide seamlessly between absolute tragedy and a genuinely honest laugh out loud moment. Also, something to do with a monolithic character dress up (you know – with massive heads).  

Though it is Be Kind Rewind that Brigsby Bear resembled the most, for me. Widely regarded as both funny and sweet, it is a film which also created a very strong contender for a second Ghostbusters theme. It is the thread of creativity running through both films characters, and the films themselves, that make them so similar. The likeable and naive main characters (Brigsby’s James and Be Kind‘s Jerry) keep us believing that they can achieve their wildly unattainable dreams. They are forces for creative positivity, pushing us to realise that the world isn’t such a bad place, and we can make other people happy by being ourselves. It’s exactly the kind of message that we need right now.

Brigsby Bear tells the story of James, a young man who was abducted as a baby and has lived underground with his two captors for his entire life. His ‘father’, Mark Hamill, and his ‘mother’ (Jane Adams), seem like pretty reasonable people – albeit the weird dinnertime hand shaking ritual and the weird stuffed animals in their garden.  James is rescued from the disturbingly homely underground bunker and returned to his real family within the first ten minutes. There’s a reunion with his father (Matt Walsh), mother (Michaela Watkins) and teenage sister Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins). Claire Danes plays James’ psychiatrist, who reveals to him that the TV show he grew up watching (the ONLY thing he watched for 25 years) is not actually real. Rather, it was created and filmed by his kidnapper Dad. James is the only person to have seen the show Brigsby Bear, and even the ‘friends’ he spoke to on forums about it turned out to have been his kidnapper parents all along. 

After befriending Spencer (“Mr Spencer”) at a party, and employing the help of both his sister, some friends and the local aspiring thespian cop Detective Vogel (played by Greg Kinnear), James sets about creating the Brigsby Bear Movie – an epic finale to the hours and hours of the TV show made solely for him. Of course there are hiccups on the way (including a home-made bomb, stealing police evidence, a bad drugs trip and time spent in a mental institution), but Brigsby Bear has a happy ending, thank goodness.

I think the real highlight of Brigsby Bear is the sincerity it manages to pull off within its characters, and this in part due to a fantastic performance by Kyle Mooney as James. He has some of the funniest lines (‘what’s wrong with you?’… ‘I was abducted as a baby..’), and delivers them with such straight-faced integrity that we genuinely feel for him, even whilst guffawing with laughter. Whilst James story is perhaps unbelievable, the relationships he forms with his ‘new’ family and friends keep us intrigued and engaged in the story. Particularly the arc of James and Aubrey as they reconnect as siblings which (unless you’ve got a heart of stone) will make you feel super happy.

There is some finer point being made somewhere in the background of Brigsby Bear about how television, cult or otherwise, can help us through difficult moments in life. James frequently talks about how Brigsby was all he had whilst he was kidnapped and when the Brigsby videos go viral, people are enchanted by it’s quirkiness. Cult TV features heavily throughout the film, Spencer’s bedroom is filled with Star Trek posters – a programme itself that was slightly out of the mainstream to begin with, but is deeply loved and obsessed over by it’s fans. A bit like Brigsby, perhaps?

The film never reveals Ted and April’s true intentions or motivations behind abducting James. At one point Brigsby Bear almost gets there but it stops because James’ character is not interested in those things. We learn what James wants to learn, we go where James goes. He isn’t really interested in his captor’s motives (probably because he has not been able to mentally mature properly), and he still sees them as good people. Of course, the process of creating the Brigsby Bear Movie is an attempt at processing his trauma and coming to terms with his life now, but fortunately the film doesn’t push this too much. Brigsby Bear is light hearted, and succeeds because it doesn’t delve too deeply into James’ experience.

We are left with a sort of surreal, strange yet emotionally savvy film, which also fits very comfortably into the comedy genre. Honestly, t’s just a really, really lovely film with a stellar cast and a ethereal soundtrack. I can’t wait for the Brigsby Bear TV series.  

LFF Round-up: The Levelling

In 2014, intense rainfall flooded the farmlands of Somerset, UK. Land became waterlogged, crops were destroyed – buildings, bridges and homes were washed away in the flooding. In true British form, we ‘kept calm and carried on’, but the effects of the floods can still be seen in the landscape today. Hope Dickson Leach’s first feature film The Levelling sets its narrative around this disastrous period – and investigates the connection between nature and humanity, with breathtaking results.

Clover (Game of Thrones‘s Ellie Kendrick) returns home to the family farm after the sudden death of her brother, Harry. As she re-connects with her father, it is clear that there is a huge fracture within their family – bought to light by Harry’s suicide. Both Clover and her father, Aubrey (David Troughton) battle with their grief, and inability to communicate with each other. It becomes clear to Clover that life on the farm for her brother was not what it seemed and although Aubrey insists that Harry’s death was an accident, Clover starts to realise the issues run deeper than she could have imagined. Both father and daughter, inept at dealing with their own emotions, struggle through the aftermath of his death – eventually learning that they both must accept their own feelings of guilt before they can move on.

The Levelling is a film of little dialogue. What is said between Clover and Aubrey holds great meaning and is deliberate. There is little room for small talk or chatter, there are no wasted words or ‘filler’. It is also within the silences between dialogue (of which there are many) that The Levelling is at it’s most captivating. From the very outset, the lead-up to Harry’s death, we are engaged by images. The stark contrast between the lucid party sequence (colourful fire, costume and frantic camera movements) and the following scene as Clover arrives at the farm, explains everything we need to know without words. As Clover arrives, the farm is dull, grey and washed out. There is something wrong here. The interluding shots between scenes of animals swimming in water remind us of the flooding, and consequently of Clover’s feelings of guilt.

The vast majority of the shots are handheld, following Clover around the farm, watching her as a bystander as she tries to make sense of her brothers death. The Levelling is shot simply but with great conviction. The lighting and set design makes the most of what is already there, giving the film a sense of absolute realism, as is so often the style with British indie films. It undermines the hard work of director Hope Dickson Leach and the crew to say that it’s ‘no frills’ filmmaking, but the style is uncomplicated and modest, and all the better to immerse us into the narrative. Dickson Leach has talked about the films tight budget and shooting schedule, and whilst that might have produced a lesser film for some – in this case it has made the film pretty remarkable. Working with what was already available, shooting in natural light, using pre-existing farm buildings yet focusing on the two main characters relationships to each other sincerely pays off.

Ellie Kendrick’s performance is also a real highlight of the film. We watch her unravel in  front of our eyes, and Kendrick is superb at portraying the emotions pulling Clover in two different directions. She wants to be angry at Aubrey for kicking her out, angry at Harry for killing himself but she is too preoccupied with her own sense of guilt for not returning during the floods, that she can’t make sense of anything. Kendrick delivers an incredible performance throughout.

Under the surface, The Levelling also explores the relationship between humans and nature. Life and death are constant themes throughout the film. The catalyst for the film’s events is the death of Harry, and Clover constantly encounters death throughout the film. She discovers the badgers, which have been killed, and in one traumatic scene, Aubrey orders her to shoot a baby calf. Despite desperately not wanting to, Clover obliges – shooting the calf with a shotgun (similar to the one which Harry killed himself with). Clover’s job (a trainee vet) means that she is constantly in contact with the circle of life – bringing new life into the world, and watching animals die. It’s cyclical – much like Aubrey and Clover’s relationship in the film. As soon as it seems that the two of them see eye to eye, their relationship deteriorates again.

The idea of nature going on regardless of whether or not we are here to see it is very prevalent within The Levelling. The farm must carry on, the work will never stop and if the rain is going to come, it will. Nature doesn’t care for Clover and Aubrey’s grief or guilt. As Aubrey says, ‘we move on…’ The cows still have to be milked, nature will not stop for the death of one human.

This message, though seemingly very distressing, becomes one of hope by the very end of the film. It is only as the heavens open and it finally begins to rain, that Aubrey allows himself to grieve. He breaks down crying in Clover’s arms – reiterating that cyclical bond with nature yet again. The rain mimics Aubrey’s tears whilst Aubrey and Clover’s roles are reversed – Clover is comforting her father.

The Levelling is a small film, with a lot of heart, and a lot to say about grief, humanity and nature.

 

LFF Round-up: 13th

An exploration of the prison system and race in the US, 13th takes it’s name from the 13th amendment. To paraphrase, the amendment states that the restriction on rights associated with slavery will not be upheld for any citizen in the United States, except those who have committed a crime. Safe in the hands of the extremely talented Ava Duvernay, 13th paints an astonishing and appalling picture of the longstanding systematic racism that has led to 1 in 3 black men being incarcerated at some point in their lives. From the slavery, to the phenomenon that is mass incarceration, Duvernay produces a compelling documentary that screams out for change.

I don’t pretend to know much about the legal system in the States (equally I know very little about it in my own country) so the first thing that struck me about 13th was how accessible it is for a uninformed audience. Roughly chronologically, Duvernay takes us on a journey from the tail end of slavery, segregation, through various Government administrations right up to present day legislation – all through the lens of ‘law and order’. A commonly used phrase, as we see, and one that has been used time and time again to justify racist legislation. 13th uses infographics combined with archive and interviews in order to explore the racism inherent in the criminal justice system under the guise of ‘law and order’. For someone who is aware of the issues, but has little understanding of how it got the point we are at today, the film is saturated with information, as well as being visually and emotionally compelling.

Without giving too much away (because it’s far better to listen to people like Angela Davis, Marie Gottschalk, Jelani Cobb etc talk about this, than to read my words on it), there are some jaw-dropping statistics. The United States makes up 5% of the world’s population, yet 25% of the world’s prisoners are in the States. Likewise, 1 in 3 black men in the United States will, at some point in their lifetime, do prison time. 13th charts the rise of the prison population from the Nixon era (ending in 1974) to the end of the Clinton administration (2001), where we see the prison population of America basically quadruple in size.

It’s very easy for documentaries to spout statistics, but without context and explanation they are essentially meaningless. Duvernay validates these disturbing figures by surrounding them with interesting and articulate interviews with a wide variety of professionals, academics, senators and activists – many of whom have been on the front-line of this battle. Davis is one of the most emotive interviewees, her words made stronger by archive footage of her arrest in 1970. She talks at length about the crimes being done to black communities, the level of systematic violence directly targeted at black men and women. Her words, though 45 years old now, are still so relevant today.

The word ‘criminal’, and it’s association with black folk, recur several times throughout the film – exploring how the word ‘criminal’ is now interchangeable with black people. Of course it’s incredibly important to have an understanding of where this came from, and how society (black and white alike) have been conditioned to see the black population of the US as criminals. There is a segment of the film which focuses on analysing the DW Griffith film, The Birth of a Nation, a film which is full of racism and bigotry – but a film that was still being heralded as a masterpiece when I attended film school (only a few years ago). The Birth of a Nation is often talked about in these terms, being one of the first films to use the editing techniques we still see today in cinema, yet it’s representation of black people (all played by white actors in blackface) is key in understanding how society views race today. They are presented as criminals, rapists, degenerates. Did you know that the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan was a direct result of the release of The Birth of a Nation? I didn’t…

Duvernay concludes the film in the present day – with talk of what comes after mass incarceration, and the work that the Black Lives Matter movement do on a daily basis. Though the footage of victims of police brutality (Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice amongst many, many others) have been shown repeatedly on media networks, watching them in the context of the film is a very different experience. This footage, shot on mobile phones, is even more horrific (if that’s possible) when we have just seen the complete history of state sanctioned violence against communities of people. There is raw emotion behind these sequences, the strong editing giving the film real conviction in it’s message.

A lot of reviews (Guardian, LA Times)  have described 13th as ‘fiercely angry’, yet I feel this undermines the incredible work that has been done here. Describing it as ‘angry’ only plays into lazy stereotypes of black people (black women in particular) – irrationally angry. Naturally there is a lot of anger around the subject, but the film itself is calm, collected and polished. It speaks to both those who have an understanding oppression and institutional racism, and to those who are coming to the film with no previous knowledge of it.

13th is an accomplished documentary speaking out about a taboo topic. It’s controversial and incredibly important. Every interview, every animation is detailed and precise – and it definitely warrants a second viewing. Duvernay, though propelled to fame for her fiction films, draws heavily on her past in documentaries and has produced a stunning film.  I’ve barely scraped the surface talking about it here, it is really one you should see for yourself.

To learn more about the Black Lives Matter movement, click here.

 

LFF Round-up: Sieranevada

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.