Cristi Puiu is the dark, mysterious Viorel in “Aurora,” which is set in present-day Romania.
Following in the Shadows Of a Very Shadowy Man
By MANOHLA DARGIS
Published: June 28, 2011
When the central character in “Aurora” begins eyeballing another person — turning his shiver-inducing gaze on a complaining co-worker, on a salesgirl who anxiously laughs out of turn and even on a child who innocently returns his look — he seems like a man possessed. His eyes lock and the whites catch the light, shining without revelation. You may think you’re in Charles Manson-ville. (It’s only Romania.)
For the most part, Viorel, the character played by the film’s director,Cristi Puiu, doesn’t explain or, for that matter, bother to do much talking. Mr. Puiu also directed the 2005 festival favorite “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” by turns a deadly serious comedy and comically deadpan drama about a broken-down man in a broken-down society dying alone among a veritable crowd of people. That film felt like a relative talk-a-thon compared with “Aurora,” a quiet, steady burn filled with stretches of unsettlingly reverberant silence cleaved in half by a midpoint eruption of violence. Here there is before, and then there is after.
The movie opens on a man whose name, like so much else in the story, is held back from you for a relatively long time even as he and his world come progressively into focus. For the next hour or so the camera closely tracks the man, Viorel, and brings to mind the nominally objective style of those fly-on-the-wall documentaries in which the camera hovers near subjects without conspicuous commentary, seemingly following rather than predicating (or predicting) the action: Viorel idles in one apartment and then another, smokes, drives a car, smokes some more, buys groceries and steadily, imperceptibly unnerves you. As in such documentaries, Mr. Puiu’s fingerprints are all over “Aurora,” evident in both style and sensibility.
Money counts here for starters, and it’s notable that shortly after the movie begins a woman who appears to be Viorel’s lover discusses the price of a dress with him (a satiny chartreuse number bought by a different man, suggesting that there’s another lover or sugar daddy in the background). A short while afterward, Viorel (a metallurgical engineer) visits a factory where he lurks about, ducks out of the view of one worker and retrieves money from another. After passing the cash over, this man carpingly implies that Viorel doesn’t believe his excuses, an outwardly innocuous comment that leads to a near-comic, uneasy conversation with a shudder of violence. Not long after, Viorel buys a shotgun and a little later fires it.
Like Viorel, a thickly set man who at times moves as if through a heavy fog, the film unwinds deliberately if not slowly, its rhythms those of someone going about the business of an apparently unremarkable life. In some mainstream movies, the rhythms can be so obvious you can keep the beat with your tapping toe as you play along with the three-act structure (calm, crisis, resolution). In “Aurora,” Mr. Puiu thwarts various narrative (and rhythmic) expectations, reversing or avoiding many familiar rules, including psychological explanation for what happens. When some clarification finally arrives, it’s about as illuminating as the shrink’s yammering about why Norman Bates done it in “Psycho,” which is the point.
This is the second film in Mr. Puiu’s projected cycle, “Six Stories From the Outskirts of Bucharest,” a series about love, morality and human relations. (The cycle’s title refers to Eric Rohmer and his “Six Moral Tales.”) He has said he sees “Aurora” as something of a counterpoint to “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans,” the 1927 F. W. Murnau lyrical classic.
“Murnau’s film is about his hopes concerning the relationship between a man and a woman, what that should be,” Mr. Puiu explained in one interview. “This film is about what I think is the relationship between human beings.” He added that he doesn’t “know what real life is like outside Romania, but in Bucharest, where I live, relationships are pretty brutal.”
That may make “Aurora” sound like a dirge rather than a song, when it’s not. Clocking in at an engrossing, immersive three hours, the movie is a mystery about the human soul. It’s brutal in its particulars, with dreary streets, bleak houses, stray and (maddeningly) barking dogs and the grim, hard faces of men and women wearing masks bequeathed to them by Ceausescu. Yet the film is also marked with oddly funny, touching exchanges that waver between the ridiculous and the tragic (a mother chastising her child so harshly that she becomes absurd) and that are more generous about people than Mr. Puiu’s tough talk may suggest. His stare may seem at times pitiless, but there’s compassion in his insistence on looking.
Opens on Wednesday in Manhattan.
Written and directed by Cristi Puiu; director of photography, Viorel Sergovici; edited by Ioachim Stroe; produced by Anca Puiu and Bobby Paunescu; released by the Cinema Guild. At the IFC Center, 323 Avenue of the Americas at Third Street, Greenwich Village. In Romanian, with English subtitles. Running time: 3 hours 1 minute. This film is not rated.
WITH: Cristi Puiu (Viorel), Clara Voda (Gina), Valeria Seciu (Pusa), Luminita Gheorghiu (Mioara), Catrinel Dumitrescu (Mrs. Livinski), Gelu Colceag (Mr. Livinski) and Valentin Popescu (Stoian).