Blues after Ceaucescu

To some of you, it would seem to be a parody of the kind of film I like, but to me, it is the kind of film I like: a three-hour contemporary Romanian film in which hardly anything happens and almost nothing is explained. Aurora is that film, the third from Cristi Puiu, whose second feature The Death Of Mr Lãzãrescu was hugely acclaimed and kicked off what he has called his Six Stories From The Outskirts Of Bucharest, and what critics have called the New Romanian Wave. This is the second of those. I won’t tell you where it is set.

No idea why it’s called Aurora, by the way. This seems to be its international title. (His previous was called Moartea domnului Lãzãrescu in his native land.) Does it refer to the Roman goddess of the dawn? To the astronomical light display? To the fictional planet from Isaac Asimov? The film is very much set on this planet, and very little occurs to suggest gods or astronomy. The characters, embodied by the enigmatic, muttering Viorel (played by Puiu himself), seem pinned to the earth, trapped inside the grey of their immediate vicinity: work, home and transit in between. There were points in this slow, deliberate, precise film, which takes place over two days under colourless skies, where I thought it was simply a case of watching a middle-aged man in Bucharest go through a mental breakdown. (Without giving anything concrete away – which is fairly easy, as Puiu doesn’t give anything concrete away either – Viorel’s initial purchase of a rifle is the only element that seems to raise Aurora above the level of mundane, everyday routine.)

In fact, it’s nothing as melodramatic as that. He has conversations with workmates at some kind of metalworks; conversations with his neighbours in the worn block of flats where he lives, alone, within the stripped walls of his emptied apartment, apparently prepared for “redecoration” that may be a mirage of forward planning; conversations with shop assistants and others in the service industry – a gun shop; a cafeteria; a brightly strip-lit supermarket; a chi-chi fashion outlet that offers a prickly glimpse of middle-class life albeit one that seems out of this man’s reach, ambition or pay-grade – and he basically goes about his day. Divorced, with two daughters, he slowly picks his way through unsatisfactory relationships with his in-laws, the staff at his eldest’s school, and even what appears to be his girlfriend (or a married woman he’s having an affair with), and amid sll this, Viorel emerges as an amazingly full-blooded creation, for all of his communication problems. Credit to director, screenwriter and actor, who are one and the same, after all.

He seems at times unable to give a straight yes or no answer, preferring to stay silent. He’s the kind of guy you might well divorce, although his eldest treats him with respect and does not seem scared of him. He’s something of an incomplete man. This impression is pointed up by Puiu the director, who frames him so that he is literally not all there.

I must admit, a three-hour film is always a challenge, even if it’s action-packed. Aurora is not action-packed, but its lack of action lends extra weight to ordinarily insignificant details. I became fixated on a tiny Tom & Jerry badge Viorel had stuck to the dashboard of his car: the implied western influence on a former Communist country; the sad trace of a time when, perhaps, it was a family car, with kids in the back; an even subtler suggestion of violence. It’s hypnotic, and very difficult not to get involved in, as this man lurks, and runs, and lurks again, and picks things up and puts them down and then picks them up and puts them down again in a different place.

I’ve read good reviews and bad of Aurora, including a one-star decimation in Time Out New York, which I think deemed it a “waste of time“. There is no consensus. It debuted at Cannes two years ago and only now finds an international release, despite Puiu’s reputation after Lãzãrescu. But it does not steal three hours away from you. Not if you relish the privilege to eavesdrop on another culture, another way of life, another daily reality. It’s over 20 years since Ceaucescu was deposed – and executed – ending more than 40 years of Communist rule, during which time a country that had failed to remain neutral in both world wars, and whose part in the defeat of Nazi Germany was not officially recognised by the Paris Peace Conference in 1947, had industrialised and collectivised, thumbed its nose at the Soviets, and endured a police state under its own autocratic megalomaniac. It’s not too fanciful to read all of this 20th century history into a film about a man going about his business in the early 21st. The narrative deliberately defies context, but carries an awful lot of subtext.

I can’t, and won’t, talk about the film’s ending. Even though it’s not an action thriller, a lot happens in the final 20 minutes, by which time you’ve spent 160 minutes on the outskirts of Bucharest, and although resolution is not achieved in a traditional sense, you learn things about Viorel that were up to that point presumed, or simply opaque, like the windows and screen doors we’ve been watching him through.

I’m glad to have seen Aurora. It’s flawed, but it’s worthwhile. Had I seen it on TV, with distractions and a pause button, and not in the isolating dark of a cinema, I may not have been so engaged and absorbed by its minutiae. It is categorically not a waste of time.

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