Monday, June 27, 2011

Puiu’s Aurora

It might be a new wave, but it’s a slow wave. The so-called “Romanian New Wave,” a relatively young school of filmmakers from the former Communist bloc country, has been toasted on the international festival circuit for their intensely personal, unflinchingly intimate work. If that sounds like a euphemism for dull and plodding that can sometimes be the case with the more indulgent representatives of the movement. This brings us to Cristi Puiu’s Aurora, which opens this Wednesday at the IFC Center.

Viorel does not look threatening, but there is something profoundly off about the doughy Droopy Dog. His personal and professional lives are in a state of deep freeze. Though divorced, he tries to stay engaged as a father, but makes a poor show of it. Still, he definitely seems to be laying the groundwork for some sort of violent plan.

For three hours (which feel like nine), Puiu shows Viorel (played by Puiu himself) going about his obsessive but obscure business in minute detail. There are no real surprises in Aurora because every plot development (such as it might be) is telegraphed well in advance. Of course, viewers also have plenty of time to process everything on-screen, with few distractions of a dramatic nature.

As an actor, Puiu does not give the audience much more than he does as a writer-director. Still, he has a haunted look that is undeniably unsettling. He also helps himself from the director’s chair, framing Viorel in ways to consciously heighten the air of mystery surrounding him. He is not bashful either, willingly revealing his pasty whiteness for the world to see. For better or ill, Aurora is his film from stem to stern. Indeed, his behavior as Viorel is so deeply idiosyncratic and anti-social, it is difficult to remember any other characters in the film.

Arguably, Aurora would have been far more compelling as a short. It sets the mood of alienation rather effectively, but then just keeps setting it throughout the balance of the film. Frankly, it is not like we have not seen similar Travis Bickle cousins in scores of previous films. Granted, Aurora is stylistically consistent with Puiu’s acclaimed The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, but his earlier film tapped into deep Kafkaesque archetypes of bureaucracy and Catch-22 proceduralism. In contrast, Aurora deliberately tries to keep the audience at arm’s length and to that extent it succeeds.

At 181 minutes, Aurora is a long forced march. The film will certainly have champions, primarily among critics looking to atone for their bourgeoisie original sin. If that sounds like a good way to spend three hours, then have at it. A punishing viewing experience, Aurora opens this Wednesday in New York (6/29) at the IFC Center.