San Sebastian 2023 review: MMXX (Cristi Puiu)

“Puzzling, engrossing, entertaining, and wonderfully acted, MMXX lacks its predecessor’s density, but is endlessly watchable.”

Starting with the carefully constructed realism of his breakthrough The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, the cinema of Romanian director Cristi Puiu has always had layers that focus on observation and perception on the part of the viewer. In Aurora, and even more so in Sieranevada, the camera becomes in a sense the proverbial fly-on-the-wall but also a participant in the action, a character of its own that wanders through the scenes. It’s a disorienting effect that causes you to focus on the conversations at hand, given that Puiu drops in and out of them at any given time. His most recent film Malmkrog did the same, although the more classical setting and the academic approach of the source material, an early 20th century novel by Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, kept that film at arm’s length. In his latest film MMXX (or 2020, for those whose Roman numerals have gone rusty) he returns to the observant realism of Sieranevada, giving us a snapshot of the lives of four people at an important point in history, and placing at its centre the art of storytelling.

MMXX is cut up into four long scenes, all roughly the same length, in which the protagonists of each scene are distracted bystanders in the larger story of those around them. In the first story young therapist Oana (Bianca Cuculici) has a session with one of her patients, Macri (Otilia Panaite); a woman who, as the scene develops, is revealed to be quite full of herself. Oana is distracted though, in part because of her brother Mihai (Laurentiu Bondarencu) interrupting the session, but also by something in the back of her mind that we, as the audience, are not privy to. As she and her patient go through a questionnaire that is supposed to get to the heart of Macri as a person, Oana slowly loses control over the conversation.

Sometime later we meet Mihai and Oana again. Mihai is trying to prepare a baba au rhum for his birthday but is having a hard time collecting the right utensils, no surprise given the absolute state of chaos his sister’s kitchen is in. Oana gets a phone call about an emergency hospital visit of a heavily pregnant friend, and the cake gets slowly pushed to the background as they try to pull all the strings they know to find out the situation around Oana’s friend. Except Septimiu (Florin Tibre), Oana’s husband, who is studying for an exam and is far too concerned about being possibly contaminated with COVID.

Septimiu and a fellow ambulance nurse are waiting for their next emergency call. The co-worker tells him a long story about a woman he met at a club and later had sex with, only to find out she’s the mistress of a local mobster. Septimiu only half listens, and their communication isn’t helped by the fact that his co-worker is Moldavian, creating some language mishaps that cause misunderstandings in the story.

Narcis (Marin Cumatrenco), a police inspector investigating organized crime, attends a funeral. Not because he knew the deceased couple, but to listen to the story of a young woman also mourning the dead. Her dark tale about a child trafficking and prostitution ring is gruesome, but Narcis can’t fully concentrate on the details of her story, unsettled as he is by the death of one of his colleagues.

Puiu loosely connects the four stories through the characters, placing Macri in Narcis’ story as a bridge for instance. He withholds information about the characters on purpose; for a good while in Oana’s therapy session that opens the film it is unclear who the protagonist is. During the frantic flurry of phone calls regarding Oana’s best friend the people on the other end of the line are often left as ciphers. The story of Septimiu’s co-worker goes largely unfinished. Whether the child prostitution ring gets busted as a result of the details the young woman gives Narcis is left in the dark. This leaves a lot of possibilities open for the audience to strengthen the bonds between the separate stories that make up MMXX. Could the mobster whose girlfriend Septimiu’s co-worker was having sex with be at the head of the prostitution ring, for instance? And does Oana have connections to this underworld, or maybe her patient? The screenplay leaves a lot to ponder and forces the audience to reflect on the set of long conversations comprising the film.

In that sense Puiu follows his usual modus operandi of placing the viewer in the role of witness. What emphasizes this role in MMXX is that at least three of the scenes contain or feel like confessions, with only the second scene not truly having that element. Puiu clearly tries to connect this, if only through its title, to the year COVID-19 threw our lives into chaos. Face masks occasionally play a role in the film, although generally being dismissed by the characters, but it is hard to find a true connection between the characters and their stories on one side and the pandemic on the other. Other themes are touched upon, like corruption and organized crime, or urban arrogance, but not really given much depth or poignancy.

While the message may be muddled, the form is engrossing. As you are groping for an idea of who these people are, you are glued to the screen, hanging on their every word. There is a hard-to-define humour in the text, dark yet elusive. Puiu bears some responsibility here, knowing exactly how to approach the dynamic of each story. Most of the opening scene and all of Septimiu’s scene are filmed in a single static shot (the former has some panning to lead the frame into Oana’s hallway), allowing the audience to fully focus on the back-and-forth between the two characters in each case. The scene in between is more akin to his work in Sieranevada, the camera closely following the characters here and there through Oana and Septimiu’s apartment. Tonally the direction is fully in tune with the scene’s heightened tension, at first because of the irritated back-and-forth of brother and sister, and later when Oana gets the fateful call about her pregnant friend. If MMXX shows anything it’s that despite the film’s free-wheeling and somewhat aimless nature, the end result is a masterclass in direction. Even if the film is not successful in communicating its ideas, provided it even has them, it still manages to captivate an audience for its full two-and-a-half hour runtime. Puzzling, engrossing, entertaining, and wonderfully acted, MMXX lacks its predecessor’s density, but is endlessly watchable.