Written and Directed By: Cristi Puiu
Starring: Cristi Puiu
Director of Photography: Viorel Sergovici, Editor: Ion Ioachim Stroe
Rated: Unrated, but a brief shock of violence within three hours of otherwise nothing.
I counted three moments where the protagonist of Aurora, played by writer-director Cristi Puiu, seems to be staring back at the camera, almost with a menacing smile on his face. As this three hour epic drags on, Puiu seems to be mocking his audience. Go on, he dares, walk out on me. Of course, like any good film critic who trusts the director of the very funny The Death of Mr. Lazerescu, one of the harbingers of the Romanian New Wave, I waited, and waited, and waited for not just for something to happen, but to have something to have a stake in.
However, Puiu instead mocks us, almost with more contempt than Lars Von Trier at a press conference. Aurora might be hailed by some as the culmination of what Romanian filmmakers have been getting at with their neo-realistic approach that some have described as “slow cinema,” but it’s actually a major step in the wrong direction, where the style has become as pointless as its narrative.
It is hard not to think of last year’s Romanian New Wave feature, Police, Adjective, which also featured sequences of its protagonist, walking, waiting, reading, eating, and doing nothing of interest for long amounts of time. But we knew the score even before we got into the narrative—our policeman’s job was pointless, a petty crime that amounted to nothing, and we were thus forced to endure the pointlessness of the protagonist, and feel with him as he felt the incredulity of his circumstance.
Puiu gives us nothing. After a brief opening scene, which is completely removed from the rest of the narrative, Aurora then follow the trek of 24 hours where Puiu seems to walk from area to area, with motivation, but not one revealed to us. The film runs just over three daunting hours, and only after the first hour and a half, we see him obtain a shotgun, our first sign that this is not an ordinary day. And while the sequences where Puiu delivers on Chekov’s rule about firearms are briefly shocking, mainly because he knows how to make cinematic violence hit hard without showing anything, the rest of the film is hard to watch because we have no context for any of this.
Puiu is constantly framing his camera looking through doors, in which have the frame is only a blank wall, and we only have access to so much. And thus the film is like that too, where only during the last thirty minutes of the film, do we get some clues, none of which even add up to anything relevant. We are left with no motivation nor consequences, only an action without meaning. Some will sure argue about the brilliance of this—an existential crime in which we fill in our own pieces. Yet the whole procedure just feels pointless.
“Slow Cinema,” and especially that which the Romanian directors have proved so capable of, is a style that is so effective when used in a narrative that captures us as well, most notably in the 2007 Palm D’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days or this year’s brilliant satire Tuesday, After Christmas. In Aurora, Puiu thinks that the style itself can serve a purpose, and we can be invested in that. It can’t, and it doesn’t invest us. Had Aurora had a stronger point to make by crafting this minimalist narrative, it could have had much to chew on after the film, making the endurance test worth our time. However, the rewards can hardly be described as paltry, and the film can be said only to truly serve Puiu’s self-amusement.