Director: Cristi Puiu
2h 53min | Comedy, Drama | 3 August 2016 (France)
Cristi Puiu’s new chamber-work might be a stretch to sit through at nearly three hours long, but any viewer who sticks with it will be richly rewarded with an insightful, blackly funny look at family dynamics. Anyone who has ever been stuck in the pressure cooker scenario of an edgy family gathering with various hangers-on mixing things up, on a day when everything that can go wrong seems to go wrong, will be able to relate. True, not a lot of explosive stuff actually happens during the three hour run time, but writer-director Puiu’s film situates its appeal elsewhere. Puiu proves that you don’t need superheroes or car chases to make a film compelling, just a room full of dysfunctional related people who can’t - or won’t - leave.
For most of these three hours, we are trapped - along with our point of view character, Romanian medical supply manager Lary - in his mother’s old Bucharest apartment, which is being used asthe gathering point for a memorial lunch service to Emil, one of the recently deceased male members of the family. Gradually, the tiny five-room apartment begins to fill with more and more relatives and partners, and eventually even an elderly priest, who brings his entire retinue with him. An air of surreal black comedy sets in as the apartment starts to feel like it is going to burst apart at the seams with all these bodies crammed in, and the lunch is repeatedly postponed by no-show guests, unexpected arrivals, certain requisite rituals and - inevitably given the number of hangups and complexes these family members seem to be carrying about with them - increasingly bitter arguments.
As the various groups in the apartment flit about from room to room, their debates, jokes and arguments cover the personal and political, making this home an interesting microcosm of Romania’s past and the world’s more recent troubles. More often than not this is played for comedy value, with Lary shaking his head at his younger brother’s obsessions with internet conspiracy theories (he is a 9/11 truther, though his current fixation is on forensically studying cheesy pop song lyrics for coded references to both that and dozens of other assassinations and terror attacks) and trying hard to stifle his laughter at his cranky, unreconstructed communist aunt monologuing about the necessary sacrifices of the Red takeover of their country, which drives her eldest daughter to tears. Throughout the afternoon Lary and his wife Cami conduct an ongoing series of arguments which are striking in how recognisably petty and repetitive they are, with the exact time one should go to a local supermarket taking up an inordinate amount of time. They also endure what just be one of the worst parking arguments ever seen on screen.
The large ensemble cast are all totally believable in the way they portray this household of shifting alliances, intimacies, tensions and resentments. But although the film could not be called “flashy”, there is a real technical achievement to marvel at here too. Puiu favours very long takes, often situating his camera in the hallway at a point where it can pan from room to room, capturing the various movements and encounters all within this single cramped space without cutting. The cast and filmmakers pull the choreography involved in this approach off with aplomb, creating a believable set of rhythms within what comes off as a genuine, lived-in space. A hugely involving slice of cinematic realism is the result.