Three hours in one of the cherry-colored seats of the Republica movie theatre in Cluj, and I feel like I’ve slept on the floor. My back hurts, my neck is stiff, the upholstery has branded my skin and my knees are sore from all the leg crossing and rubbing against the seat in front. I’m not alone. Most of the 1,000 people who showed up for the premiere of Cristi Puiu’s latest film, Aurora,at the Transylvania International Film Festival, are still here, and they’re clapping. They clap for more than 20 seconds after the closing credits interrupt the mind games that the wonder boy of Romanian cinema put us through, and they clap again, moments later, when he strolls down the corridor and hops on stage.
He’s wearing jeans, a sailor tee, and a professor’s jacket. His scruffy hair clashes with the precise cut he had in the role of Viorel, the murderer he plays in his film.
“Thank you,” he says into the microphone. “Thank you for holding out to the end. I’m sorry I didn’t say it at the start: those who can’t take it can leave. I’ve been standing there, by the exit, writing everyone down.”
He laughs and the audience responds. He told us from the very beginning that Aurora was going to be a long film; not to apologize, but to warn us that it’ll be an experience, three hours that will batter our brains and bodies. Three hours that Puiu needed in order to show Viorel crisscrossing the city, committing four murders, and, at the end, confessing as he turns himself in. Puiu rarely sits in the theatre when they screen his films. He did now, somewhere by the exit – a perfect spot to spy on the audience and to analyze his directing decisions. Aurora was first screened at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and returned with no awards, but with loads of contradictory reactions. Critics debated its length; the fact that Puiu plays the leading part; his decision to withhold information; the similarity to other films – from Taxi Driver to Police, adjective; the symbolism of the title.
Nothing unusual for a Puiu film, a director that has become, in 10 years of activity, a landmark. Film critic Alex. Leo Şerban divides Romanian cinema into two eras: BCP (before Cristi Puiu) and ACP (after Cristi Puiu). Aurora is the director’s first movie in five years, when he won Un certain regard at the Cannes Film Festival for The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu, which put Romania on the map of film critics and cinema-goers round the world, influenced the style of future local productions, and launched the so-called “new wave.”
Aurora was one of the most expected Romanian films at the Cluj festival. Before the screening, the lobby throbbed with film aficionados, organizers, guests. Over here, the American guests, most of whom were introduced to Romanian cinema through Cristi Puiu; over there, Wim Wenders, the renowned German filmmaker, one of the festival’s VIPs; over there, a spectator ironically addressing a friend: “We’re going to school.”
Not everyone managed to make it to the end. Some decided to walk out, because “nothing happened after the first hour”. Others said that it was “genius”, “exhibitionist” or “longer than all Lost seasons put together, commercials included”. Wenders called it “disorienting.”
Still, most of the audience – ecstatic, confused, displeased – is still there when the film crew joins Puiu on stage. His daughter Ileana steps to his right and grabs his hand. Anca – Puiu’s wife and one of the film’s producers – is also there, holding their baby girl, Zoe.
“There were many actors in this film…” Puiu continues. “In fact, this is a five-hour picture that eventually turned into a three-hour picture. Many of the actors involved were left out, not for commercial reasons, but simply because this is how we thought things should be.”
Puiu is not an artist who explains himself. A few hours before the screening, at a round table on the marketing of Romanian films in America, he said about trailers: “I don’t make films to catch the audience; I make films for people who love cinema. I hate trailers. I’m not interested in Oscars. I’m not interested in people who are not interested in cinema.”
Mihai Chirilov, the artistic director of TIFF, walks on stage to translate for the foreign guests. It is past 10 p.m. and Chirilov didn’t expect Puiu to speak after the screening. Someone in the audience asks about the title. “I keep getting that question,” says Puiu. “I didn’t kill anyone in my life. I was really into this story, of a man that ends up committing murder. Especially because, I don’t know how, the beginning always seems promising. And I believe that the beginning is a beginning, period. The beginning of anything.”
This is how Puiu talks. Always. On TV, in print interviews, or live. A hodgepodge of words stemming from a rush of thoughts and concentration, never superficial, but often obscure, as if thoughts were too elusive to be captured in precise sentences. He adds that Aurora feels like one of those cold mornings when you have to wake up and have to go to school. Then, as always, he sidetracks the initial question and starts explaining some of the film’s genesis: “Our relationship with murder is mediated by television and cinema. We tend to imagine that these stories – murders – happen as they do on screen. I am referring especially to our visual cues, as literature tells us all sorts of things, too. Hence this three-hour story. And the audience complains. Not many can endure; but I’m glad you did. I’m not sure if I succeeded, but it’s been my constant concern – to undermine this image we have about murder, an image that was built by cinema.”
One of the reasons Puiu is making films is the need to find a substitute for words, using the camera as a research and recording tool that can convey at least some of the space-time continuum of the world. In order to better understand the truth – truth in 24 frames per second, as Jean-Luc Godard put it – both the director and the viewer must take their time to observe, listen and strive to put all the pieces together.
“In Cannes I felt like shouting: WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU PEOPLE? YOU COMPLAIN ABOUT A THREE -HOUR MOVIE?” Puiu’s voice, now rising to the level of shouting, covers the entire hall. “YOU THINK KILLING A MAN IS EASY? TAKE A MOMENT AND OBSERVE THIS MURDERER. WHAT’S GOING ON THERE?”
Cristi Puiu didn’t grow up dreaming of becoming a director. The world looked different from his ground floor apartment on Fetești Street in Ozana, Balta Albă, the Bucharest neighborhood where he spent his childhood and lived for more than 30 years. Cristi was born on April 3, 1967. His parents were from Botoșani; his mother, Iuliana, was an elementary school teacher, and his father, Emil, managed supplies at Colentina hospital. He grew up with his big sister, Florentina, and little brother Iulian.
They were always climbing trees, as they lived one block away from an orchard. When they were kids, they would pick cherries; later – as teenagers – they would sit and talk for hours, or listen to their friends play guitar in the pavilion amidst the walnut trees. (On New Year’s Eve, during Ceaușescu’s speeches, they would place a speaker on the window sill and blast AC/DC’s Hell’s Bells).
Iulian Puiu, an art director at Re:ply, a communication agency, remembers his brother as a true leader of the neighborhood boys, a stubborn Aries who would make everyone follow. Cristi was the “the smart one who read” and, over the years, he amassed a library he knew by heart. Iulian used to play a game with him: pick out a shelf, then the position of a book on it, and Cristi would instantly name it.
Both parents were amateur painters, and their mother, who kept a diary of her children, once wrote about Cristi that he loved history and drawing. When he was about 10, inspired by his mother’s paintings, as well as those of an uncle from Botoșani, Cristi started taking art lessons. (Florentina was studying violin and Iulian clarinet.) At 12, he tried to make his own charcoal, following the instructions of renaissance artist Cennino Cennini: he put a few linden twigs in a pot, covered them with clay and placed them in the oven. He wasn’t very successful. He tried to make his own brushes and worked on his canvas stretching skills. When he was 14, he took a test to get into Nicolae Tonitza, an art school. His family, his tutors, everybody thought the exam was going to be a formality.
He failed. This affected him deeply. He stopped painting for a while and decided to study chemistry.
High school was difficult for the Puiu kids: Florentina had to repeat a year, and so did Cristi. On his second run at 12th grade he was expelled. It took him seven years to graduate. Because of the family’s financial shortcomings, Iulian transferred to evening classes and got a job at the heating plant. “I had to provide for my brother,” he remembers. “When I was buying socks, I would buy two pairs. Underpants, shoes, everything in pairs.” Sometimes Cristi would ask for money to buy clothes, but he bought books instead. He was doing poorly in school because he didn’t care – he would rather stay home and read.
After high school he joined the army, determined to follow it up with history or philosophy. He took up painting again because of friends with an art background, and his army comrades nicknamed him The Painter. Because of his poor school records and an aunt that lived in England – something frowned upon in communism – he was sent to a tank regiment in Constanța, where he had to serve alongside convicts, and men from correctional facilities. He brought along a carton of Kent cigarettes and a pack of coffee, which greased his way to a first leave a few weeks later, after a superior found out about his artistic skills and asked him to paint a 7 by 2 meters landscape on a wall of the shooting simulator. Then they had him paint planes and tanks on billboards. Things got worse when he was transferred to “diribau” in Bucharest (forced labor for soldiers with lousy records) – he had to shovel, load cement, the kind of labor that he believes contributed to a cervical disc hernia that prohibits him from lifting heavy weights. Art came to his rescue again: he spent three months on a copy of an Aivazovsky for an army captain.
When the ’89 coup began, Puiu was hospitalized with indigestion. He was discharged in early 1990 and joined, along with brother Iulian, the nightly crowds in the University Square shouting slogans against FSN (National Salvation Front), and then against mineworkers. He then got a job as a fire fighter at the Museum of Art where, before being fired for leaving his post, he would stare undisturbed at paintings by Paul Cézanne and Pierre Bonnard.
For a long time, he didn’t think cinema could be art. It was too technical; not as tactile as painting. Movies meant entertainment, Saturday night westerns, thrillers, film noir, and, of course, Sergiu Nicolaescu – who would later become his artistic nemesis. The Puiu brothers remember that Nicolaescu used to swing by the neighborhood – he once stopped to talk to the kids about films, a moment of sheer joy for them. Later, his friends took him to the Cinematheque to see The Exterminating Angel by Luis Buñuel, a film that made him think. But Puiu was still dreaming about painting.
In 1990 he participated in a joint exhibition with six other young Romanian painters, in Lausanne. One of his best friends, painter Matei Șerban Sandu, had an aunt in Switzerland. She knew someone at an art gallery there who helped organize a cultural exchange. The trip to Switzerland was a cultural shock for young Puiu, who left Bucharest wearing espadrilles, jeans made in Turkey, and a tank top. When he returned, he applied to get into the Bucharest Art Institute and he failed. It occurred to him that he wouldn’t be able to make a living from painting and decided to study jewelry in Geneva, a trade he was passionate about and that could have paid for his painting. (His wife, Anca, who grew up across the street, said that Cristi once made her a brass bracelet and also gave her a ring he made from her grandmother’s molten jewelry. They met during the late ’80s – she was 16, he was 21 – when Cristi crossed the street to offer her a cherry.) Eventually, in 1992, he was accepted at École Supérieure d’Art Visuel in Geneva, painting department.
After the first year he transferred to film. He had seen Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise, the story of a three slackers in ’80s lethargic America; then Oliver Stone’s JFK, which made him say: “I can do that! Now I understand cinema.”
What he saw then, but couldn’t articulate until later, were things that pertained to image interpretation. The first was the brain’s ability to take static frames and turn them into movement; the second, its propensity to give meaning to a string of images, regardless of editing or length.
He says he chose film for two reasons. First, he believed he had learned everything there was to learn about painting in an academic environment, and all that was left to do was practice. Second, film was a challenge. He was 26 at the time, and Iulian remembers his family was quite confused. “First he wanted jewelry, then painting and now directing. We kept telling him: You’ll come back a tailor. And he would answer: It’s a process. You search, you find. What’s the problem with that?”
The film he made for the admission exam catapulted him directly into the second year. There he learned everything there was to know about the mechanics – cameras, loading film, sound – but he never cared too much about that. In his spare time he would watch up to six movies a day just to catch up. What interested him most was the function movies can have, as well as the relationships between characters and the ones between the spectator and the film. He once told me: “I am very Bauhaus, in my mind. I really believe that function determines shape. You just can’t say that you make movies because people need them.”
Puiu found the primary function of cinema: a technique for investigating reality, a means of recording the world. In an article in Dilema on his debut film Stuff and Dough he said: “In my final year I was interested in the realist film. My purpose was to abolish the frontier between fiction and documentary, in an attempt to bring together the observer and the inventor. I wrote all about it in my graduation thesis. If I applied some of the conclusions I had reached, they would’ve enabled the creation of a different type of cinema.”
Critic Alex. Leo Șerban said about Stuff and Dough (2001) that it landed like a UFO in Romanian cinema. “It was so new, so fresh and challenging that the cinema world did not know how to react to it.” Film critic Andrei Gorzo calls it “the head of a bridge.” Stuff and Dough broke a pattern, dazzling critics from the first press screening in 2000 – Gorzo remembers one critic called it “providential.” The film launched the careers of actors Dragoș Bucur, Ioana Flora and Alexandru Papadopol, and, more importantly, of the screenwriting duo of Puiu and Răzvan Rădulescu. (Because they were fresh, the more experienced Stere Gulea and Lucian Pintilie asked them to write scripts for them.)
Today, Stuff and Dough appears to have been a success. But at the time, the movie was accused of being vulgar because of all the cocks, shits and fucks (nonetheless fewer than in the original script), that spiced up the journey of three friends to Bucharest, to deliver a bag of “medical substances,” as the gangster who paid for the delivery called it.
Some said it was just amateurish nonsense anyone could have shot, and that it doesn’t qualify as cinema. What’s hard about shooting for an hour in a van? (“I’ve seen more exciting X-ray films,” a viewer commented on cinemagia.ro) The distribution shortcomings stopped it from becoming a box-office hit. (According to the National Centre for Cinematography, CNC, there were almost 4,000 spectators by 2007; Puiu intends to release it on DVD this year.)
When he returned to Romania from Switzerland, he wasn’t entirely convinced his future was in the movie industry. He received an award for his graduation film and another of his films had been selected at Locarno, yet with the money he managed to save up in Switzerland he bought a flat he intended to turn into a painting studio. For a while he worked in television, perfecting his documentary making skills.
The idea for Stuff and Dough came to him in 1998, when Anca’s brother died in a car accident while hauling merchandise. He was a student, but he also managed a small neighborhood kiosk. Puiu saw that several of his friends were running all sorts of businesses in order to make a living. They compromised. This became the subject of the movie: Papadopol agrees to make deliveries for a local gangster in order to open a shop downtown, one step up compared to his parents’ balcony kiosk.
At the time Puiu was still writing long hand, but he wrote his part of the script on Rădulescu’s computer. (Rădulescu was a young writer that Puiu had befriended several years before.) They began exchanging emails with parts of the script and reworking them until they reached common ground. The problems began after Stuff and Dough won funding from the CNC. The RoFilm producer embezzled part of the funds and sabotaged the production of the film every step of the way.
A movie about making compromises became a compromise in itself. The money was barely enough for a rusty van; the fees were hardly ever paid; the technical support team was always arguing; promises weren’t kept; when actors were asking for water they were told there was no money; there was no one to ensure the continuity of the props; and when Puiu asked the producer for help, the answer he got was: “Who do you think you are? Spielberg? Get out.”
Harassed, disgraced, with the film almost destroyed, he decided to ask the party for help. Since the beginning of the ’90s Puiu had become a member of the center-right National Peasant Party, thinking that if the communists were ever to make a comeback, he’d love to be thrown in jail with the resistance. Although not an active member, he paid his membership fees. He also knew that the RoFilm manager was a member of the same party. He went to ask for help, but to no avail. The film would have never come out without the financing received from Pintilie and without Gulea’s help, who filed a complaint with the Romanian Court of Audit. Around the time of the release, Puiu wrote in the cultural weekly Dilema: “[The movie] is ready. It has a beginning and an end and there is even a certain shine to it. It makes sense. And still I cannot distance myself enough. Each line, each cut, each frame shows me how far I strayed from the initial project.”
In 2001, Stuff and Dough went to Cannes, brought by Marie-Pierre Macia, the director of Quinzaine des Réalisateurs at that time. (Macia was also Cristian Mungiu’s personal counselor for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.) It was an exhilarating moment. Chirilov remembers he felt the movie was like a book he had just read and now wanted to share with others. So at Cannes he told everyone to go see it, he helped the crew, and he even distributed flyers. Something had happened to Romanian cinema and it was all because of Cristi Puiu, a newcomer with his own views on cinema, an outsider.
Not much had changed when Puiu returned from Berlin in 2004 with The Golden Bear for A Carton of Kent and a Pack of Coffee. There was not a single soul in Romanian cinema that hadn’t heard of him, but he was considered more of an uncomfortable, abrasive debutant. “He didn’t have the wariness or the conservation instinct of a debutant,” remembers Gorzo. “He made many enemies before getting the international press on his side. He never made a movie to make friends. He criticized those who controlled everything, he denounced the corruption and the mediocrity of the system, and he was not afraid to name names. And thanks to him, things have got a little better.”
He criticized the CNC’s ways of granting funds, both in 2001, when Rădulescu and he were declined funding in favor of Gulea and Pintilie, and in 2003, when he received money for Kent. In 2003 he wrote in Dilema that Romanian film is bad because the directors “clog cinemas with sub-mediocre productions.” “To pay for a ticket to see a Romanian movie is a sign of affluence, a fad, if not even proof of masochism. (…) It is not easy for me to be this drastic with my fellow colleagues, and I believe many will be angry, but I believe this is a fair attitude.”
Reactions were immediate, and just before the short film won in Berlin, there was a kind of anti-Puiu movement going.Leo Șerban said that the award was not as important as it first seemed and that “I am afraid that Puiu’s most durable talent is that of pissing everybody off.”
The short was a double tribute Puiu paid to Jarmusch and his Coffee and Cigarettes, and to Moromeții, directed by Gulea, which Puiu considers one of the best Romanian films ever made, next to The Forest of the Hanged by Liviu Ciulei and Sequences by Alexandru Tatos. Initially, Puiu wanted the father and son that meet in the restaurant to be played by Rebengiuc and Ionel Mihăilescu, the father-son duo in Moromeții. But eventually the son was played by Mimi Brănescu after Puiu had an argument with Mihăilescu, allegedly because the latter had failed to memorize his lines.
Puiu believes the director is the supreme authority on set. He’s always hated some Romanian actors’ propensity to improvise or recite in a dramatic fashion. He says that when interacting with actors his most commonly used words are: “Bad. Very bad.” He lets them have a take whichever way they want, lets them watch it, but then he has one his way, too. Luminița Gheorghiu, who stars in all three of Puiu’s feature films, describes him as “horrible” – she used to call him Hitler on the set of Lăzărescu –, but she also says “I’d play any part, anytime, for Cristi Puiu.He is the director with whom I know I cannot fail.”
After the 2005 Cannes festival, where The Death of Mister Lăzărescu was awarded Un certain regard, the press, especially the foreign one, gave extensive praise to the 2h 34min Romanian film, which had become an unexpected hit. Lăzărescu was far from being a certainty. The film was first screened in an almost empty theatre and got only two or three reviews. The one written by Jay Weissberg in Variety, combined with the pro-Puiu lobby of Argentinean critic Eduardo Antin (Quintin) brought a large audience to its second screening. Dozens of festivals and awards followed, and the film topped critics’ lists, both in 2005 and 2006. It was a glorious moment for Puiu and Romanian cinema, but it didn’t come easily.
The story of the 63-year-old man dying before the eyes of his neighbors, ambulance staff and medics, while being shuttled in the middle of the night from one hospital to another, began for Puiu shortly after Stuff was presented at Cannes. One night, due to mere indigestion he started throwing up blood. Iulian remembers receiving a phone call from Anca’s mom: “Come quickly, Cristi is dying.” He got in his Renault and barely made it to the hospital. “I was shitting my pants. And my dad said: Son, I don’t know what to say. He lost about one liter of blood. That’s a lot.” Cristi had had an aneurysm, a blood vessel ruptured in his stomach, and the doctors forced an endoscope down his throat to stop the bleeding and remove the clots. Iulian could hear Cristi screaming with pain from the corridor. He calmed down when he finally saw him, although Cristi looked like a ghost: in a wheelchair, pale, haggard, both feet on the same footrest, as the other one was broken.
This traumatic experience sparked a bout of hypochondria for Puiu, which would produce a series of self-diagnosed deathly diseases before it produced a memorable movie: cancer, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, mad cow disease. It is because of his fears that Puiu is weary of flying. This is why he doesn’t attend most festivals and why his first US trip only happened at the end of 2010.
Apart from fighting his fear of illness and death, Puiu also fought the CNC. Having two projects rejected by the Center in 2003, he came up with his own concept: micro budget films. As cheap as possible, shot in digital, with friends and acquaintances as actors. He identified six ideas and gathered them under the title Six Stories from the Outskirts of Bucharest. He co-wrote all with Rădulescu.
It was Lăzărescu’s story they related to the most. The character, Dante Remus Lăzărescu (played by Ion Fiscuteanu) was reminiscent of both their fathers and Cristi’s hypochondria. They conducted research in hospitals, they spent time in the E.R., took turns writing, and finally entered the project in the CNC contest of 2004. It was rejected.
Outraged, Puiu filed an appeal with the Minister of Culture, who, impressed by the recent award Puiu won in Berlin, requested the commission to finance the film. He got the money, but this public battle of wills put a tremendous amount of pressure on him to make a great film. (The movie was produced by Mandragora, the production company founded by Puiu in May 2004 together with his wife and an old friend.)
Production literally wore him out. The film was shot in November-December 2004, 40 exhausting nights in hospitals and apartments; 40 nights followed by 40 mornings and afternoons of reviews; 40 nights in which Puiu resembled a zombie. In the making of and the photo album on the DVD, Puiu looks detached, despondent. The images perfectly capture his power of concentration, but also the anxiety of some of the crew members. No wonder Iulian says his brother “makes the air vibrate without uttering a word.”
Lăzărescu was shot with a handheld camera. Puiu meant to transfer a kind of restlessness to the observing camera; he wanted it to have absolute freedom to follow Lăzărescu into his world, but without anticipating his every move. And since he didn’t always get what he wanted, Puiu says he had to choreograph every movement – not an easy task when it comes to six-minute shots.
This movie was an important stage in crystallizing Puiu’s views on cinema. In an interview with Observator Cultural, he said “I am preoccupied with conveying this truth of reality as accurately as possible – since the perfect depiction is impossible. I am no fool. I know I’ll never get there. But it is particularly important for me to try.” Truth is achieved through as few cuts as possible in the editing – “every cut is a lie” – and through long scenes, such as the hour spent in the apartment, with Lăzărescu and his cats, a scene that goes beyond a simple cinematographic exposition and turns into a record of the prosaic preceding death. Lăzărescusucceeds in expressing philosophical concepts such as the loneliness of death, love, and our inability to help each other. Maybe that explains Puiu’s indignation when Lăzărescu was described as a film about the shortcomings of the medical system – it sounded too simple. For him, it is a film about a dying man and the last people he meets. Some of them look down on him, some of them help him, but clearly none of them wish to harm him – they are just overcome by problems and prejudice.
At some point Lăzărescu tells the nurse on the ambulance: “We are miserable human beings madam.” These words capture Puiu’s profoundly human manifesto: we are all here to die and we can’t even deal with each other on our way there. “I don’t think that the things you discover by this process will change your life, I’m not so optimistic,” Puiu told an American journalist. “But I think you can deliver a very precise story about humans in order to allow the audience to assume – to help the audience to assume, at first I help myself to assume something – that we are weak. To accept our weakness and our failures. We do not talk enough about our imperfections, and cinema can confront that.”
The director’s main achievement, film expert Petre Rado wrote, is succeeding in telling “in real time a story that is so lifelike that it attains a level of strange documentary credibility.” Quintin, who has also seen Stuff, said he wasn’t prepared for such an exquisite proof of artistry and that Puiu is one of the few contemporary filmmakers that “is very close to becoming a maestro” after only two films.
Lăzărescu was very well received in Romania – it brought in almost 30,000 viewers and a fair share of detractors. People complained about the duration, the “miserableness” of the story, and the relationship Puiu began with businessman Bobby Păunescu, one of the film’s producers.
Soon, the Lăzărescu style was to be found in other films: The Paper Will be Blue, 12:08 East of Bucharest, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. It was a film that spawned films. “His influence is very wide,” says Gorzo. “There are those who regard it as a recipe. There are others who made it a starting point for their own search. And there are those who were motivated by the movie’s success.” The focus that was placed upon Romanian film by Lăzărescu led to epithets such as “the new wave,” which Puiu countered immediately. He did not, and still does not, believe in a “new wave” because, he says, for there to be a new wave there have to be authors as well. And there are no authors in the Romanian cinema, except for the accidental ones and a handful of rookies.
The phrase stuck, helped along by several prizes abroad, culminating with the Palme D’Or award for 4,3,2. “Puiu put us on the map,” Leo Șerban wrote in an e-mail. “I cannot pinpoint it better than this: Puiu planted the seed, Porumboiu watered it, and Mungiu harvested.” The battle that the young directors lead against the CNC, against obsolete regulations, against the complacent attitude on set seemed validated by each and every award received abroad.
“The artist’s desire to protect his uniqueness and singularity is only natural,” Gorzo told me when I asked him about the phrase ”the new wave.” “But it is a generalization that we all use – critics, distributors, public. It is appropriate to talk about a new Romanian cinema, about a new wave. There is no lie in it. There is a clear distinction between the Romanian cinema before and after 2001. We have to put a label on it. People work with definitions. One cannot regard each person individually.”
The debates between critics and filmmakers pertain to an isolated world, since the Romanian audience is still small. At the Cluj round table about Romanian film in the USA, Porumboiu was optimistic, and said he feels an audience is forming. A more pessimistic Muntean expressed his disbelief in Romanians’ interest in anything else but blockbusters: “The future of our films is in a museum.” Puiu added that we are a nation that has consumed almost all post-communist products in English: music, films, Internet. “We have been waiting for the Americans to come. We have been watching American movies. We grew up with westerns. The audience is just the same. We grew to believe that unless it’s American, it’s not cinema. Unless it’s in English, it has no value. It will probably take us 100 years.”
Weissberg from Variety, a Romanian film enthusiast, told me during TIFF that it is not fair to expect Puiu, Porumboiu or Muntean to make films for the masses: “These people create art films, others make comedies. Romanian cinema will be deemed healthy only when there will be such diversity. Until then, one cannot expect Puiu to direct Toy Story 3. It is not fair. It is not fair to be burdened with this responsibility. No artist can be the savior of the country he lives in.”
Cristi Puiu’s apartment is a mess. Three weeks after Aurora premiered in Cluj, Puiu’s family has just returned from viewing an apartment. The five of them: Cristi, Anca and their three girls, Smaranda, Ileana and baby Zoe, plus Otto, a permanently hungry pug, thick as a log. The Puius have been living in this downtown apartment for some years now, but they are looking for something more spacious. Cristi wouldn’t mind moving back to Balta Albă, but he knows the girls wouldn’t like that. The connection to the neighborhood of his childhood and the people he met there are ubiquitous in his films. Both Lăzărescu and Viorel live on Feteşti Street, just as he did.
The white front door opens into a hallway that leads into a living room crammed with books and a wooden table apparently used for storage. In the next room, part of the same living room, Puiu is vacuuming crumbs left over from last night’s TV watching session. A huge painting of an old telephone, painted by Puiu himself, hangs over the couch. On the wall between the living room and the kitchen there are two shelves packed with over 1,000 DVDs. They include those whose path he follows: John Cassavetes, Raymond Depardon and Frederick Wiseman, and those to which he goes back when he wants food for the soul: Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut. Among them there’s one of his favorite movies: La Maman et la Putain by Jean Eustache. Today he brought a stack of DVDs: some Ingmar Bergman films and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus for the girls. He also bought some bottles of beer, wine, gin, which he stashes in the kitchen fridge.
The kitchen often comes up when you read about Puiu; it is where he retreats to do the cooking, but it’s also where he meets with reporters. Puiu enjoys a challenge, and loves to talk (once, when he was struggling with his hypochondria, a doctor asked him if he eats as fast as he talks).
The kitchen is L shaped around the fridge and the washing machine, small and crammed: dishes, hangers, glasses, espresso machine, laptop, and pots of azaleas. We sit on the colored pneumatic bar stools, leaning on the kitchen slab. Puiu pours me a beer – he has Stella and Peroni – makes a gin and tonic for Anca and a Campari Orange for himself. Ileana takes the dog out for a walk and then plays with a hula hoop. Smaranda tries on her brand new tennis outfit. In the middle of all this commotion, there’s Puiu, dressed in a pale pink and cream colored shirt, cheerful, jolly, and visibly affectionate when calling his daughters “honey.” He has cut his hair since Cluj, but he still has the habit of tucking it behind the ears, combined with the habit of rubbing his face with his hands, a gesture that makes one think of sandpaper when he is unshaven. He’s going grey around the temples, but that gives him a rather sophisticated look. Then there’s his nose, sharp, anchoring the entire face, and the pale green eyes, so terrifying in Aurora, and always restless.
It’s not long before we get to Aurora. After Lăzărescu Puiu intended to shoot Food for Small Fish (after a script initially written for Gulea). He even received funds from CNC. But at the end of 2006, they rejected another two of Puiu’s projects and he fought back. Eugen Şerbănescu, head of CNC, mocked him in a public letter and Puiu refused the money for Food and said he would never ask them for funding again. He felt alone in this, and he was left without a project to work on. Furthermore, there were the uncanny personal events following Lăzărescu. Rădulescu’s father died before the movie premiered in Romania, Puiu’s father passed away in spring 2007, and at the end of the same year Fiscuteanu also died.
Anca signed him up to some film markets, where directors, producers and distributors share ideas. Puiu had an idea for a film about a murderer. The idea came from his love for crime novels and some documentaries on serial killers he’d seen on TVR. The perspective of digging deeper into the soul of a murderer intrigued him. He asked a prosecutor friend to allow him to watch murderers’ depositions. He understood there are no clear motivations and decided upon creating the subjective portrait of a murderer, going beyond the explanations and the causes characteristic to this genre.
The 80 meetings he had in Berlin and Rotterdam enabled him to refine this idea. Back in Romania, he went to the mountains to write the script. (He no longer worked with Rădulescu, a split Puiu doesn’t talk about.) As a wife, but also as a producer, Anca (who jokingly calls herself “the bitch that brings up money”) convinced him that he must apply for funding from the CNC if he is to access money from abroad for a co-production. Puiu did as his wife advised and in the summer of 2008 he received over 1.5 million lei (some 350,000 euros). Anca managed to raise the rest – up to two million euros – from foreign partners.
The most difficult thing was the casting for Viorel. Over 60 actors auditioned, none of them perfect for the role. Clara Vodă, who plays Viorel’s mistress, suggested he should try, too. When Puiu evaluated his own tape, he noticed a series of gestures he didn’t like, but he discovered the look he was searching for: that of a man obsessed with his mission.
Some critics said that no one else could have played this part. Leo Șerban sees Aurora as a movie in the first person, with Puiu, and about Puiu’s obsessions: “It is a story about his inner landscape, a type of self-portrait by means of an alter ego.” “Viorel showcases the worst in Puiu,” Gorzo added. Puiu says that there are few who can begin to comprehend the importance of his undertaking in Aurora. “It’s Madame Bovary, c’est moi. I take the role and I go all the way. I’ll be it and I’ll look for the murderer inside of me. I’ll take upon myself this extremely delicate position.”
Aurora is a complex film, and Puiu has talked a lot about it. He already disclosed the characters and the story – 36 hours in the life of a metallurgical engineer, divorced, father of two, who ends up committing murder. He also suggested possible interpretations, as he believes the story is much less important than the cinema.
Puiu opted for a witness-camera again, this time mounted on a tripod, which turns the spectator into a direct observer. The story unfolds before your eyes, which means that there are no clues, such as what relationships exist between characters, what motivates them, etc. – so typical for the vast majority of films. Aurora is a puzzle. It is a radical film to be discovered during and especially after the viewing.
“Making a movie is like building a path to the world,” says Puiu. “It is a path to things. It’s research.” Trying to find the murderer within him, Puiu takes his research to the highest limits of authenticity. This boundary is signaled by the abrupt cuts that disrupt the long sequences. It is Puiu’s way of saying “there’s no story, just a storyteller.”
According to Puiu, we all have our own truths, we only see what we choose to see and we synthesize other people’s messages and, in fact, most of the time we’re not even paying attention. A powerful moment, like that of a murder, marks an apocalyptic clash between several worlds, each with its own truth. Aurora is precisely about the details that we’re missing, a very difficult aspect to convey in a movie. How can one express cinematographically that some things are visible and others are not? How can one suggest that there’s an author cutting the material as he wishes – regardless if that helps the story or not?
Puiu built Aurora based on two things: “On one hand, I’m relying, cinematographically, on the partial truths I have access to – characters vanishing behind walls, undisclosed identities – and on the other, I’m assuming the spectator was present, they know what I am talking about when I show them a man.” Like he did for Lăzărescu, Puiu undertook to capture a life: “I don’t make a movie to show a story. I make a movie to show people. Take a look at the person; take a look at people.”
Puiu said he dreams of capturing a day on film. But not just in any way. He doesn’t want to capture something just because it can be captured. He doesn’t want to undermine the story completely. His ideal film lies on the thin and tense line between what’s unpredictable and what’s controllable. He loves accidental shots – when people, other than the extras, pass by, when something falls – and yet he does not want to make a documentary. He says he’s too self-conscious and he believes that real intimacy cannot be achieved when mediated by a camera. He prefers the intimacy of the author’s mind, even if it presents a filtered, relatively controllable truth.
In Puiu’s fiction the quest for the unpredictable is constantly battling a desire for control. Not knowing is hard when you know it all. He somewhat achieves that in Aurora because, although Puiu the director controls the choreography of the shots, Puiu the actor does not fully understand the murderer he’s playing. His ideal film would probably be a type of fictional documentary, in which some actors playing pre-determined parts are confronted with unforeseen situations they have to manage. Meanwhile, the director and the team are fumbling – they are making a movie in order to find out what it is they want to say, as Cassavetes put it.
“It’s a process of learning and we are all part of it” says Puiu. “Director, cameraman, actor, everyone. We are conducting research. We are not interested in the final outcome. The final outcome will be a mere pale expression of the cognitive process. And should this pale expression make the audience question themselves and get them thinking, then we achieved something. Get them thinking would of course mean to impart all those things words cannot express. Otherwise, why would we be making films?”
He talked about all these in the kitchen that evening we spent together. He smoked several cigarettes, had some coffee and his good mood slowly sullened. As time passed, Puiu kept repeating phrases such as: “it’s very hard” and “it’s very complicated” – regardless of the topic: capturing ideas in images, raising money for film, team work. He is criticized for being difficult when he makes a movie, but it’s not an easy process for him either: “I can consider myself a person difficult to live with, but I could also say that I am a person that has a hard time living with myself. So, a little consideration, please.”
He sacrificed friends for his vision (Rădulescu is just one of the many). “I don’t think you can find in the world of cinema too many authors that are also friends at the same time. The impetus that drives you to make movies or art in general is much too potent not to consume the friendship. It’s very complicated. It’s very complicated.”
Sometimes he even argues with critics, usually for criticizing something without compelling arguments. But they usually make up, as he needs their feedback. But the way some critics or spectators are on the hunt for mistakes, just to be the first to bust him, saddens him deeply. It’s why he wears a pendant around his neck – the scapegoat.
Puiu sometimes seems annoyed with the world, as Leo Șerban puts it. His stubbornness and obsessions can be overwhelming. His way of making movies might not be the only legitimate one, but it does consume him. “Once you’ve discovered a path, what is your biggest responsibility?” Gorzo wonders. “To stop, fearing that nobody would be able to follow you? Or to take that path, aware of the risk of it being a dead end, of the risk of you ending up alone?”
Aurora has already gathered a few festival awards, but it will be a difficult movie to market and distribute and the path Puiu has chosen seems to become even more obscure. He says that, compared to Aurora, Lăzărescu is an easy film, considering all the clues and explanations. And he has no intention of going back to that.
„Bye bye, don’t cry. Good bye. GOOD BYE. I can’t take it anymore. I can’t take it anymore. I can’t take it anymore. I turn on the TV and all I see is explanations. Bye. I don’t care. I am just not interested. And you know why I am not interested? Because it’s all bullshit, that’s why. It’s rubbish. It’s rubbish. OK, an explanation. But what does it explain?”
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