Out of the Shadows
By Matt Connolly
Dir. Cristi Puiu, Romania/France/Switzerland/Germany, The Cinema Guild
Even more so than his much heralded The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Cristi Puiu’s Aurora is a monument to the quotidian. Or is it the quotidian made monumental? Everyday life seems at once faithfully recorded and amplified in Puiu’s films: carefully observed studies of average men—Lazarescu’s eponymous ailing sixty-something; the terse loner at the center of Aurora—whose prolonged running times and sheer accumulation of detail force us to consider the complicated undercurrents churning beneath what we might dismiss as “commonplace” happenings. In Lazarescu, this attentive gaze became a spotlight, illuminating the defective inner workings of Romania’s post-Communist health care system as seen through the experiences of one dying man. Too attentive to the contradictory flux of human experience to churn out a simplistic “exposé” of medical and bureaucratic dysfunction, Puiu’s camera remains interested in everything that passes before it, expanding its view to note the precise way a long-married couple bickers over household tasks, or recognizing the oasis of relief that comes from finding a trusted colleague amidst a whirlwind of professional chaos. Nevertheless, the film’s argumentative thrust feels clear, and intrinsically tied to Puiu’s detail-oriented eye. The depth of the medical establishment’s ineffectiveness—and the inability of well-meaning individuals to break through its inertia—becomes clear through the ever-growing cavalcade of arrogant physicians and dismissive nurses that Lazarescu encounters over the course of one long night. Maddening structural failures get refracted through the lens of familiar human failings, making them feel at once revelatory and recognizable.
But Aurora doesn’t reveal “reality” in the way that Lazarescu did. Indeed, Puiu’s latest approaches similar material from an almost diametrically opposed perspective. If the camera in Lazarescu could work its way into the cracks of society to find those who had fallen through, it stays a resolute outsider in Aurora, with an almost categorical inability to sift through the sands of routine existence and find the jewels of insight buried within. Puiu’s expansive perception of day-to-day existence results not in discovery but obfuscation, with the accretion of half-understood conversations and fragments of other people’s lives flattening out the narrative until it becomes impossible to discern a given event’s meaningful connection to anything else. And while such an approach nicely fits the film’s inscrutable protagonist, it nevertheless represents a striking departure for the director. In Aurora, our sightlines—physical, psychological, moral—stay boldly and irrevocably obscured.
From the very beginning, Aurora leaves gaping holes in our understanding of its world, even as its elisions initially seem to reflect structural caginess rather than fundamental impenetrability. Viorel (Puiu) is barely visible when we first see him, bathed in the dim blue light of early morning as he lies in bed with a woman (Clara Voda). A sober, fleshy man of 42, he continues to sit naked as she rises in the darkness to use the bathroom and speak with a young girl. Are they Viroel’s wife and daughter? It remains uncertain until roughly half an hour later, when we see him entering a half-refurbished apartment that appears to be his actual residence. But when one mystery appears to resolve itself, others hang in the air. Why, for example, does Viorel so forcefully demand a loan repayment from a man (perhaps a work colleague, but who knows) at a factory? Who is the blonde woman whom Viorel spies on from behind a truck as she walks with a small child? And are the maternal woman and gruff man who visit Viorel’s apartment and chide him on his lack of remodeling progress family members? Parents? Friends? Some have complained about Aurora’s willful abstruseness, testing the audience’s patience with its three-hour running time and fluctuations between sudden bursts of action and long-take tedium. Fair enough, but to dismiss Aurora as a butt-numbing exercise in cine-boredom undersells, among other things, the shrewd manner by which Puiu (who also wrote the screenplay) disseminates basic narrative information. Viorel’s wanderings around the outskirts of Bucharest always retain their enigmatic flavor, his ultimate destination a mystery until it is jarringly unveiled. But, especially in its first half, Aurora provides enough teasing hints of what’s to come—including the appearance of that Chekhov chestnut, the loaded gun—to make one lean forward and look closer, straining to make out the turning wheels behind Viorel’s poker-faced features.
Puiu undermines this impulse while also fostering it. Once Viorel commits the first of two shocking acts, Aurora refuses to shift its narrative axis from the revelation of Viorel’s actions to the explanation behind them, even as we continue to scan the frame for clues. (While several reviews have already disclosed the specifics of Viorel’s plan, I think that the film gains power from not knowing exactly what will occur, and will not divulge them here.) Can his actions be tied back to his biter isolation, as seen in the quasiadolescent territorialism he displays over his DVD and electronics collection? Perhaps he acts out of some displaced oedipal hostility, as seen in his caustic encounters with the man—maybe a stepfather, maybe a boyfriend—involved with his mother? The film leaves such moments hanging, daring us to evaluate their meaning while refusing to validate what we think we can discern. If one detects a mild strain of art-house sadism in the protracted mystification that Aurora engenders in its viewer, it’s an impulse that seems to spring from a similar respect for the everyday that drove Lazarescu. To reduce Viorel’s story to those events that “directly” caused his actions would be to deny how commonplace routines and chance encounters shape our moment-to-moment existence, simplifying the instability of daily life into a hierarchical pyramid of influences.
Puiu hones in on this idea with particular acuity in a late-film sequence. Viorel has taken his daughter out of her third-grade classroom early and plans on dropping her off at her grandmother’s while he takes care of some unfinished business. No one is home, and Viorel knocks on the neighbor’s apartment door to see if they can watch her. Tentatively agreeing, the woman lets them in. What follows—shot by DP Viorel Sergovici in a masterful long take—has little effect on Viorel’s story per se. While he gives the neighbor instructions about what foods his daughter is allergic to, we notice the low-key buzz of life in the apartment: a would-be business deal slowly falling apart in the living room; a young couple in various states of dress coming in and out of the bedroom; Viorel’s daughter’s increasing discomfort with the strange milieu. The scene derives some of its tension from the contrast between Viorel’s recent actions and the room’s bustling banality. Still, Puiu’s focus differs from, say, the dinner party scene in Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, in which the camera zeroes in on the anguished heroine’s face—heavy with the knowledge of her friend’s illegal abortion occurring across town—while her boyfriend and his family idly chat. Puiu draws no such dichotomy between subjective and objective experience here, giving this scene’s seemingly inconsequential actions the texture and complexity of Aurora’s weightier passages.
Similarly, such “big” moments become de-emphasized and emotionally clouded through a visual style as rigorously austere as Lazarescu’s handheld cinematography was supple. Puiu and Sergovici constantly block our access to Viorel, placing him in distanced long shots or half-obscuring him behind entrapping door frames and obstructive curtains. Often, the closest we come to Viorel’s face is when the camera rests just behind his head as he drives, our view of his face mediated through the vehicle’s front mirror. (Not that Puiu reveals much anyway—his powerfully implosive central performance makes little effort to garner our sympathy, yet it’s entrancing nevertheless.) And while Sergovici’s locked-down camera keeps the viewer at a chilly remove, it also manages to capture Bucharest in a way that speaks to personal instability, rather than social breakdown. The fluorescent-bathed office buildings, cramped apartments, and other visual markers of the recent Romanian (new?) wave are all here—sights that, for cineastes around the globe, have gained an emblematic power and social meaning akin to Italian neorealism’s rubble-strewn streets. But Aurora doesn’t view Romania's urban decay as the shadowy backroom hell of 4 Months’ Bucharest or even the overcast purgatory of Vaslui in Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective, and elides all of the societal criticism that those visions implied. Foregoing explicit commentary (save for an absurd late-film police confession that wouldn’t feel out of place in Porumboiu’s Kafkaesque policier), Puiu envisions the landscape as indirectly reflecting the deceptively still waters of Viorel’s mind: composed yet unstable, with exteriors weighed down by foreboding skies and interiors splintered into dividing planes of actions. Viorel’s half-finished apartment—with its plastic-covered floors and peeling paint—proves a particularly elegant bit of visual shorthand for his sense of perennial displacement.
Aurora’s insistence on the unknowable nature of Viorel’s mind proves perhaps its most fertile and resonant conceit, yet it also lies at the root of its most nagging flaw. Without giving too much away, both Viorel’s free-floating rage and the deeds it inspires tie the character to a long line of quietly aggressive male loners, acting out their frustration toward the world’s perceived injustices—particularly those caused by disloyal women and their compatriots. Indeed, the character’s subtle misogyny gains prominence as the film progresses, culminating in a sweaty-palmed encounter with three female sales associates at a downtown boutique. Puiu cannot be accused of flattering his protagonist’s wormy resentments. But I don’t think it’s strictly a matter of personal predilection to wonder if the world really needed another exploration of the straight while male’s bruised ego and instable mind. And while Aurora’s systematic denial of interpretation yields a richly destabilizing viewing experience, it also removes Viorel’s acts from the realm of social and political context and places them in some recondite realm. This idea lies at the heart of the film’s final scene, when Viorel discloses until-now hidden details of his plan and attempts futilely to explain his motives. Those listening express a vague interest but remain unable to comprehend his reasoning: a fact that the film, following its internal philosophy, takes at face value. Is it contradictory—and perhaps revealing my own biases—to at once appreciate Puiu’s respect for the mysteries of human experience and wonder if this particular type of film character really needs his prejudices and antagonisms re-mystified? Perhaps I valued Aurora’s hypnotic slow-burn vision of one man’s heart of darkness while wondering what a different experience it might have been had Puiu located that heart in a less-expected individual.