Cannes 2016 – Sieranevada (Cristi Puiu)

Rituals were once sacred, untouchable events in our daily schedules. Nowadays, we can browse YouTube during a procession; we may talk about Islamic fundamentalism at a Christian table, and we may need our mother to remind us the exact words of a prayer. In Sieranevada, Cristi Puiu explores the blending of our ceremonies with our quotidian life and the tension created between tradition and technology in a globalised world.

Emil died one year ago. His family gathers for dinner to commemorate his departure. As the afternoon advances, the problems of a middle-class Romanian family unfold into a severe confrontation with their personal issues, the political path of their country and the dilemmas of the post-9/11 society.

Sieranevada seems to center on Lary (Mimi Brănescu), a middle-aged, successful doctor with a picture-perfect family. He discusses holidays, groceries and school plays with the beautiful Sandra (Judith State). As they join the domestic ceremony, we quickly understand the film is not about a man, but about a family that portrays the yearnings and frustrations of a whole nation. The first clash comes around the Romanian transition from Communism. Emil’s daughter Laura (Catalina Moga), pleased with the current economic model, has a strong debate with former activist aunt Evelina (Tatiana Iekel), who justifies the regime’s oppressive protocols in exchange for housing and national pride. The argument goes from political to personal, as it would do in most families, and unleashes a chaotic, politically infused homage.

The film meditates on terrorism as a shaper of modern society, but also as a phenomenon now being treated as a showbiz product, the kind of subject we discuss after dinner. After debating the veracity of the official versions of Charlie Hebdo and 9/11, young Sebi (Marin Grigore) urges his cousins to listen to the different versions surrounding a political event to build a historical truth. Shortly after, he rejects sharing the table with his presumably unfaithful father, who demands to be listened to before being judged by the family of his wife.

Mrs. Mirica – the widow – is naturally the core of the family (endearingly played by Dana Dogaru). Once challenged by Lary, she says they can have her buried as the siblings wish. This dialogue makes us question for whom a funeral is celebrated: if for the one who passed away or for those mourning a departure, trying to fill a void. Emil, the commemorated one, is hardly remembered until the very end of the film. After a crisis, one of the characters takes shelter in a car and has a meltdown cherishing the defunct patriarch. An automobile, the same essential node of Aurora and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. On the other hand, the vast majority of the film takes place in Mrs. Mirica’s apartment. It’s through Lary’s SUV that we reach that building, we leave and come back. Puiu once again identifies our cars as a key location of our lifestyles: once sedentary, now urban and nomadic, and perhaps doomed to become virtual.

The camerawork by Barbu Balasoiu places us as a member of a family gathered in the grim Romanian winter, a silent one, the one that stays in the hall most of the time and is dubious where to look in a small, crowded flat. Cristi Puiu makes no rush introducing the family members, their convictions and sense of humour. Through the ritual, Lary witnesses the struggles of his family and his country. He starts laughing at them, he starts laughing at himself.