PRINT Summer 2011


Cristi Puiu’s Aurora

Cristi Puiu, Aurora, 2010, still from a color film in 35 mm, 181 minutes. Viorel (Cristi Puiu).

“IN MY COUNTRY, people ride around with guns in their cars,” Romanian filmmaker Cristi Puiu remarked at last fall’s New York Film Festival, by way of explaining how close to ordinary the protagonist of his extraordinary new movie Aurora is and, perhaps, how similar his homeland is to the US. Some of these gun owners have paranoid tendencies, and every now and then, we hear about one or another who was pushed over the edge when his wife left him, or his boss fired him, or a professor undervalued his work. The revenge these men take (for they are almost always men) often extends to anyone they believe was conspiring against them.

Aurora, the second film in Puiu’s proposed series “Six Stories from the Outskirts of Bucharest,” is, like the first—the critically lauded Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005)—about a lonely, alienated, charmless man whose tenuous human connections are inescapably tainted by pathology: his own and that of the social system that has ignored him until it is too late. Mr. Lazarescu, dying painfully from liver failure, spends his final hours being ignored by (and himself ignoring) a piebald pageant of his fellow citizens as he is shunted among understaffed and overregulated emergency rooms. Viorel, the central character in Aurora, stalks and kills the people he believes are responsible for the failure of his marriage, while sporadically trying to maintain his relationships with his girlfriend, his young daughter, and his mother, none of whom realizes, despite his aggressively hostile demeanor and erratic behavior, that there is a killer inside him.

Even more so than The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Aurora is a rigorous work of “observational” cinema. It provides its audience with scant information about the who, what, where, and why of the narrative—especially the why—thereby focusing our attention, preternaturally, on the how (and the now). In many ways, the movie resembles Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), though Puiu eschews the interior monologue that punctuates the latter in the form of Travis Bickle’s diary. Instead, the moment of first-person disclosure arrives only in the three-hour film’s final twenty minutes, when Viorel turns himself in and attempts to explain what he’s done to a pair of clueless and indifferent cops. The sudden flood of information is the movie’s black-humored coda, but it doesn’t answer all the questions. Handing him a sheet of paper, one of the cops tells Viorel to write his confession. “I’ll give you more paper if you need it,” he says helpfully. To which Viorel replies, “Can I have a pen?” With this absurdist punch line, the movie ends.

Doubling down on his withholding strategy proves the purity of Puiu’s method and also its canniness. His refusal to complete the puzzle makes one want to see the movie again, in the hope of . . . what exactly? Understanding? Being able to put the facts literally in place? Indeed, while hindsight clarifies some of Viorel’s relationships and actions, it does not diminish the tension of the narrative or the larger mystery of why a movie that deliberately keeps its characters at a distance generates such intense anxiety.

Spanning just thirty-six hours, Aurora opens in predawn darkness and never fully emerges into the light. Despite the evidence of new wealth in Romania—not just the gilded interior of the InterContinental hotel or the store stocked with designer goods, but the class resentment it stokes in people like Viorel—middle-class digs are either crumbling and cluttered or new and cheaply constructed. Puiu’s visual strategy is brilliant. The camera follows Viorel, staking him out from a distance as he stalks his victims, rehearses, and then executes his killings. It never anticipates the action or calls attention to itself. There are no handheld shots or bravura movements. Neither are there classic subjective shots or reaction shots. Compositions are wide-angled, but our view of Viorel is almost always partially obstructed by trees or cars, walls or door frames. The first set of killings takes place in extreme long shot, the second almost entirely offscreen—although, granted, the sounds of struggle and choked surprise are horrifying in themselves. The slow build to the first killings takes about seventy-five minutes. Afterward, there is a moment of something like relief that the film has finally gone where one feared it might, and then forty-five minutes later Viorel kills again. After that, everyone he encounters as he moves about Bucharest, toting his shotgun in a duffel bag, is a potential victim. But what is most disturbing is the implication that Viorel’s homicidal rage is merely an extreme expression of a society in which bullying and intimidation are acceptable adult behaviors.

Notwithstanding the elegant and radical schema of mise-en-scène and editing, the key to the film’s enigmatic power is the performance of the actor who plays Viorel, the focus of the camera’s eye in almost every shot. For this immensely difficult task, the director selected himself. Romanian cinema has an abundance of actors who are at once subtle and magnetic. But actors are by inclination and training psyched up for that moment in which they reveal everything, and in so doing secure an emotional response from the audience. Puiu’s performance combines clinically accurate behavior—the glowering gaze, the vicious retort, the menacing gesture—and a refusal to disclose what we think of as interiority. Puiu spent more than four years researching killers like Viorel. Maybe the only way he could complete his case study was to go through the motions himself.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.