A Comedy of Bad Manners

(Romania, 176 min.)
Written and directed by Cristi Puiu
Starring: Mimi Branescu, Judith State, Bogdan Dumitrache, Dana Dogaru, Sorin Medeleni, Ana Ciontea, Rolando Matsangos, Catalina Moga, Marin Grigore, Tatiana Iekel, Marian Râlea, Ioana Craciunescu, Llona Brezoianu, Simona Ghia, Valer Dellakeza, Andi Vasluianu, Mara Elena Andrei, Petra Kurtela
Courtesy of TIFF
Sieranevada is the best three-hour Romanian funereal comedy ever made. It might be the only three-hour Romanian funereal comedy ever made, but the film deserves to wear this title with morbid pride.

The tragicomic Sieranevada takes audiences into the dark, cramped, and confined quarters of a home as one not-so-tightly-knit family bids adieu its dearly departed patriarch. The film, a hit at Cannes last year that went home empty handed, is Romania’s submission in the most recent Oscar race and it should have won the whole thing. In the grandest, most understated way, Sieranevada is the epic Romanian Seinfeld movie we never knew we wanted: it’s about nothing, yet everything, as members of the family gab about nonsense around the dining room table like Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer at Monk’s diner.

Times are tense as Lary (Mimi Branescu, more endearing and sympathetic by the moment), a portly, dishevelled, and middle-aged doctor-turned-medical-supply-salesman, makes his way to a memorial for his late father. It is forty days after the dad’s death and less than a week after the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, so emotions are high and people are nervous. There’s something in the air, as there always seems to be in these tense Romanian dramas that play with their surroundings through intricate manipulations of space and time. A healthy long take opens the film as Lary scuttles around the neighbourhood in search of a plum parking spot (also a Seinfeld storyline) as his girlfriend Laura (Catalina Moga, a great screen presence) lugs around a kid, a stroller, and an elderly woman whilst fending off honking motorists in the narrow street. As the unbroken shot lingers through the street, taking in the busy space and the faces anxiously warped by the hustle bustle and a ticking clock, the film introduces an air of tension that needs to be broken. When it comes to comedy, this uneasy atmosphere only sweetens the pot.

The bickering ensues once the couple is en route and Laura realises that Lary doesn’t listen to a word that she or her daughters say. Communication and observation aren’t this man’s forte, nor do they seem to be the strengths of any of the family members who pop in an out of the film. Memory, especially at a time when people are emotional and sleep-deprived, is a slippery thing. As the family members spend their day reminiscing about the past—and, more often than not, fighting about it—recollections and memories clash. Bitter memoirs compete with rose-tinted souvenirs, and the snippets of moments pushed from memory eat away at the family members, particularly Lary, as they realise they’re eulogising a much different man than they recall.

Writer/director Cristi Puiu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) teases out the ceremony as the family waits in anticipation for a priest who is stuck in traffic. The ensemble trades Seinfeldian jibber jabber as they pass the time and fend off pangs of hunger and temptations to nibble away at the cabbage rolls, cold cuts, and cheeses eagerly awaiting the priest. Puiu tours between the rooms of this packed space and moves from the kitchen (aka the smoking room), the widow’s bedroom, the dining room, and the bathroom in which a young hot Croatian drunkard pukes, shits, and smears everything all over the floor. She’s the least of their worries, though, for the tensions in the other room bring lasting effects.

Debates about conspiracy theories of 9/11 and Charlie Hebdo, which rage throughout the day, only amplify the irrational that simmers on the hungry bellies. An unfaithful husband crashes the party and tires to justify his actions to his offended wife. An old communist hag defends the glory days of the party to the younger generation. Cell phones ring. Tablets invite people to Google odds and ends. A random track from Ace of Base intrudes to break the silence. And through it all, Lary realises the lies about his father that he buried and that his mother deserves to know. The ensemble is uniformly excellent as ghosts arise and wounds heal themselves. Sieranevada is caustically funny because it’s so authentic, natural, and, unfortunately, relatable.

Sieranevada treads heavy material as Puiu circles around the elements of ritual and ceremony that outline a family celebration, but the comedy comes with the playful teasing of space and time. Dinner never comes despite the family gathering around the table on more than one instance, ready to tuck in, before another interruption delays the ordeal. Puiu plays with the accumulating number of bodies, too, by frequently fixing the camera from the vantage point of the hallway and panning around the abode like an all seeing eye. Doors open and shut as bodies go to and fro like the characters from an old French comedy of manners. Call Sieranevada a comedy of bad manners, though, as it humorously and refreshingly reflects the tensions that arise with any simple family gathering. Bon appétit!

Sieranevada opens in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox on January 13.