With a running time of almost three hours, Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada unfolds almost entirely in real time as Lary endures a final ceremony for his recently deceased father at his mother’s apartment.
Sometimes, Sieranevada seems interminable, in the way that family gatherings can seem interminable. With a running time of almost three hours, Cristi Puiu’s film unfolds almost entirely in real time as Lary (Mimi Branescu) endures a final ceremony for his recently deceased father at his mother’s apartment. The camera weaves in and out of rooms, eavesdropping on partial conversations, but rarely giving us access to anything Lary himself isn’t witnessing.
We first meet Lary driving his car to the event and arguing with his wife in the passenger seat about Disney movies. We can tell from her fine clothes and fancy coif that they’re upper-middle class, so that when they arrive at his mother’s decidedly middle class home, stuffed full of people, Lary already feels out of place — and not just because he insists on bringing an extravagant gift.
In this cramped, overcrowded space, cinematographer Barbu Balasoiu is limited to still frames and swivels. Often, he’s crowded out of the rooms where the action is happening, lingering in the hallway behind Lary where he captures the sound and bustle if not the faces of the people talking and reacting. Doors open and close — and slam — and each room is its own little stage where old problems are aired, power is displayed, or people go to escape.
Puiu’s choreography here is extraordinary. With a cast of more than a dozen, he manages to send them in and out of various rooms in such a way that we always feel like there’s life being lived and things happening wherever we aren’t. Everyone has a sense of purpose, a task to do, and feelings to deal with, even when it can be seemingly impossible to trace the family tree of all the participants involved. It often feels a bit like immersive theatre, if Sleep No More were the family gathering from hell in four rooms instead of Macbeth played out over more than four storeys.
What makes Sieranevada is also what breaks it. The belaboured pace makes you feel like you’re in the same hell that Lary is: desperate to leave, but engaged enough to not quite manage it, and wondering when it will ever end so you can eat. This is as close to what it’s like to be at a family gathering as I’ve ever seen depicted on film, but that also meant I was both intrigued and desperate to flee in exactly the same ways. The drab color scheme and surroundings don’t help, since there’s little visual stimuli to enjoy. The hyper-realistic performances and strong screenplay make the punishing runtime, designed to make you feel the exhaustion of family gatherings, worth pushing through.
Sieranevada is a Toronto International Film Festival Special Presentation. It will be distributed by A-Z films in Canada, but it is still seeking a U.S. distributor. The film screens Tues. Sept. 13 at 9:30 p.m. (TIFF Bell Lightbox) and Sat. Sept. 17 at 2:45 p.m. (TIFF Bell Lightbox).