Cristi Puiu directs and stars in ‘Aurora.’

‘Aurora’ Startles, Subtly

Dennis Harvey September 15, 2011

Unhurried, character-driven story demonstrates the filmmaking finesse that’s brought Romanian cinema to the fore.

Though it had made an occasional international impression before—notably with a long history of Cannes entries and prize winners—few could have anticipated the splash Romanian cinema would create in the last few years. Or that the attention paid it would bring a number of often long, difficult, obtuse movies out of their usual habitat (the festival circuit) into theaters around the world.

The collapse of Communism and execution of Romania's quarter-century dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989 freed the filmmaking industry from strict governmental control and propagandic content. But it took until the middle of the last decade for a new breed of filmmaker to emerge—one informed by the oppressive atmosphere of the national past as well as an uncertain future, able to freely express themselves in a cinema of minutiae, uneasy stasis, moral ambiguity and blackest humor.

Among the most famous films reflecting that sensibility so far have been Cristi Puiu's 2005 Kafkaesque collapsed healthcare system nightmare The Death of Mr. Lazarescu; Corneliu Porumboiu's 2006 12:08 East of Bucharest, which threw acidic doubt on revisionist-history claims of widespread heroism in the ’89 revolution; Cristian Mungiu's 2007 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, a harrowing portrait of illegal abortion toward the end of the Ceausescu era; and Porumboiu's 2009 Police, Adjective, in which surveillance and arrest over a trivial crime exposes deep official corruption.

Now we have Puiu's latest Aurora, which opens at SF Film Society | New People Cinema this Friday. Like the above-named films, this is a poker-faced, deliberately paced, carefully crafted tale of ordinary citizens whose very ordinary life is followed in “nothing happening” scenes that might lull us into thinking that nothing is going to happen—until we realize something's been happening all along, something whose enormity has merely been masked by the film's utter lack of melodramatic trappings.

Puiu (who cast himself after an apparently long and fruitless attempt to find the right professional actor) plays Viorel, a divorced, middle-aged Bucharest man we follow as we goes about his everyday tasks. An atmosphere of subtle hostility surrounds most of them—when he's not dealing with the recalcitrant workmen remodeling his apartment, he's being forced to cope with pushy neighbors forever yelling at their children and others to seem to live in a state of constant low-level conflict.

Viorel is by contrast passive and disinterested in stirring up trouble, or so we initially think. Yet there's something queasy about his detachment, such that we're puzzled but not entirely surprised when the film shows him purchasing, outfitting and practicing with a rifle—actions viewed as casually as a trip to the grocer. Spoiler alert: After some time he suits up in paramilitary fashion, goes out, and executes an act of violence no less startling for the fact that we have absolutely no idea who the victims are.

The remainder of Aurora's full three hours—which many viewers will find riveting, while no doubt some others will resist—tracks our protagonist on the rest of a mission that has been carefully planned all the way to the point of confession. Yet it's only at that point, in the film's final minutes, that we get explicit (if still partial) insight into Viorel's motivations. Puiu has crafted a revenge saga in which just what's being avenged is almost completely withheld from our comprehension.

Obviously such storytelling tactics—particularly at such a length—require patience from the viewer. Yet it's surprising how much absorption, suspense, and even beauty Puiu ekes from a canvas almost punishingly austere by ordinary movie standards. Even (or especially) at 181 unhurried minutes, Aurora is a quintessential illustration of the less-is-more principle.