Romanian film “aurora”: history with gaps

A difficult masterpiece: "Aurora" by Cristi Puiu tells the story of how Romanian society disintegrates into its individual parts – and reenacts the disintegration itself on film.

On the way through the Romanian society of the post-communist present. Image: promo

It is still the middle of the night when, in a dark room in Romania, a man and a woman crawl out of bed and begin their morning errands. The woman puts on a dress, the man sits down at the table with a cup. During breakfast, the woman says that in school, about the fairy tale "Little Red Riding Hood," her daughter said, "When the huntsman took the grandmother out of the wolf’s belly, she had to be naked." Why? Because the wolf was wearing the grandmother’s clothes. The man needs quite a while until this little piece of childish logic makes sense to him. It is still dark, you can see that he would rather think about other things – or maybe nothing at all.

It then takes a considerable amount of time before we learn the man’s name (Viorel) and what his life is all about. That we are in Romania, we actually only know because of the preliminary information about the film "Aurora" by Cristi Puiu. It has been a long time since cinema has been so stingy with information, or to be more precise: with a certain form of information that allows us to move confidently in a story at any time.

Here things are quite different. Here, there is nothing left to do but to set off with Viorel on a tangled path through the city and thus through the Romanian society of the post-communist present. The fact that the director himself plays the leading role makes things even more self-referential. Gradually, however, it becomes clearer why Viorel goes through the world with a mixture of apathy and grimness.

Out of control

He is currently living in divorce (from another woman, whom he now spies on when she takes their common daughter out of the house in the morning), he lives in one room in a large apartment that is already being renovated for eviction. He has also lost his job, going to the factory only to collect old debts and to stock up on ammunition for an antique rifle.

"Aurora" lasts three hours, and in the course of that time nothing changes in the film’s uncompromising premise: that there is no all-knowing or even more-knowing narrator to fill in the gaps in the story. This contradicts traditional expectations all the more when a crime finally occurs and the question of motives and connections thus intensifies once again. Three people perish, they have a very different relationship to the center of this narrative, they are either met with deliberation or by chance.

They are a representative set for the narrative principle of this film – every detail may or may not be of interest. According to what criteria? Puiu refuses to answer in favor of a more general relationship: At the center of the picture, organized mostly in the cinematic shape of long shots, is the enigmatic, even aggressively introverted Viorel; all the rest is Romanian society. With a comparable approach, Cristi Puiu created one of the great successes of recent Romanian cinema in 2005.

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" was about how an old man falls acutely ill and is then driven from one emergency room to the next for a whole night until what the film title had already announced as the outcome occurs: Mr. Lazarescu dies. This exciting protocol of a typical individual case in the field of tension between the individual and institutions was clearly readable as a model investigation of where Romania stands on its path of modernization.

Aesthetics of cool observation

Puiu and other well-known colleagues such as Corneliu Porumboiu ("Policeman, Adjective") or Cristian Mungiu ("Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days") share in their cinematic investigations an observational gesture that encourages the audience to once again "search" the already highly consciously designed images and thus only give them that sense that the film artists deliberately keep open.

Thus, a neorealist impulse meets classical strategies of modernism, and even beyond the names mentioned, Romania is currently producing remarkable films. Cristi Puiu, however, with "Aurora", which was already shot in 2009, has now pushed the distinctive style to an extreme point at which it threatened to become a kind of patent recipe for festival success and critical acclaim.

The limits of communication

In the meantime, even observers from the mainstream have noticed that an aesthetic of "detachment," of cool observation, has in many cases become a manner that is not at all as revealing as it appears at first glance. With this aesthetic, Puiu now takes a significant step further towards a style that no longer obeys the dramaturgy of a circumstantial trial, but rather involves the director himself more strongly in the matter – and not only because, for once, he himself takes on the leading role. "Aurora" can be read as a critique of the sovereignly auctorial narrative positions that have become the norm stylistic device of festival cinema from Michael Haneke to Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

Viorel’s path not only leads to a moral turning point, in which Romania’s problems seem to crystallize, it also leads to the border of that communication that separates the pathological loner from a still responsive citizen. "Aurora" thus tells of how a society disintegrates, and at the same time performs this disintegration itself cinematically, in a difficult masterpiece that is absolutely worth the effort.

"Aurora". Directed by Cristi Puiu. With Cristi Puiu, Clara Voda a. o. Romania 2009, 181 min. From Thursday, June 21, in the Berlin fsk cinema, from August 30 also in Munich.