Aurora is the best kind of film: one that you aren’t sure is going to float the old boat, but by the end far exceeds expectations. Though it’s directed by Cristi Puiu, who is best known in the west for his excellent The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and though its description as a “slow burn” is right up my alley, the 3+ hour runtime really turned me off. Call it an unfair bias, but I like my films to be about 90 – 110 minutes. Plenty of longer ones are great, but it’s an immediate red flag.
For the first 45 minutes of Aurora I found myself tuning in and out. Puiu himself plays the lead, Viorel, a man who – we gradually learn – is recently divorced and is losing control of his life. Viorel walks around. He drives. He buys a firing pin and a gun. And for 45 minutes, even Puiu’s sure-handed direction and subtle, taciturn performance didn’t completely hold my attention.
And then the film drastically shifts. In a few moments of violence not at all unlike a portrayal that a Chantal Akerman or Michael Haneke might favor, the tone suddenly changes. Scenes move faster, and even those few that still linger are fraught with a nerve-wracking tension. Spoilers aside, a scene where Viorel enters a shop before it has opened and calmly demands to see someone, and another where he picks up his daughter early from school are incredibly tense. By the midway point any stability or predictability of character is gone. We’re left to watch a man who could do anything at anytime.
Romanian cinema seems to me to be taking genres and twisting them in their slow, patient way. I recently watched and wrote about Tuesday, After Christmas, which took the American “break-up” formula and reworked it into something of a different kind of drama. Mr. Lazarescu takes something like Hiller’s The Hospital and makes it Romanian comedy/commentary. Police, Adjective plays on the classic police procedural. And Aurora takes the descent into madness, ala Falling Down (or a slew of others), and “Romanian-izes” it.
The aesthetic is not unlike that of Tuesday, After Christmas: long takes, dialogue that could feel improvised. A camera that does not move excessively. Unlike Tuesday, Aurora uses more darkness – almost verging on underexposure in a few scenes. Further, the information is rendered in a way that is beyond patient – almost maddening in its slowness. Relationships and motivations aren’t easily – or ever – revealed, and we’re left with a half-finished connect-the-dots. But this is all still satisfying. The character is fascinating and we’re drawn to and repelled from him with surprising frequency. The final 25 minutes are a small kind of terror – not necessarily of a mass rampage or extreme gore, but the creeping kind of terror that comes from uncertainty.
Unfortunately it’s difficult to find worthwhile images of Aurora to discuss, so here’s the trailer (which impressively manages to include the word butt-munch). It’s an odd mixture of carefree piano, and dialogue and scenes that suggest violence, up until about 0:54, where the music drops…and things get real (realism, as should be no surprise now in Romanian cinema, is the name of the game):