The Big Ones: AURORA
Cristi Puiu poses a question with his post-communist epic: What is ‘Romanian time?’
Just how suitable are home video platforms for the full appreciation of very long films? There are certain externals in our lives that are fairly constant, and it seems that other factors always intrude alongside those more predictable obligations. So, if a film is not only lengthy but protracted in its very depiction of time—that is, if the movement of time itself is a foregrounded element in a particular film’s aesthetic program—the adjustment of our own quotidian time to accommodate its viewing becomes an issue. Do we have a large swath of downtime with which to allow the concentrated appreciation of a challenging film? It becomes a formal question, one that depends on specific attributes of the film itself.
Aurora, the third feature film by Romanian auteur Cristi Puiu, is without a doubt one of the most perplexing specimens imaginable for this experiment, for a number of reasons. Apart from its length (just over three hours) and its relative lack of action (which aligns it with a certain strain of contemporary art film—more on that below), Aurora is a film that is willfully perverse in its refusal to dole out meaningful information or, at times, to even cohere. Puiu has not only produced a film that is, in vernacular terms, both long and slow. It grinds on with a kind of militancy against narrative meaning, while at the same time functioning enough like a work of cinema based in conventional narrative (actors, locations, discernible activity) that it never tips over into the realm of the avant-garde. Plus, Puiu’s filmmaking simply isn’t lush or visually complex enough to edge it across that Michael Snow-Andy Warhol dividing line. As pure filmmaking, a great deal of it is functional at best.
These negatives that Puiu put into place were very much intentional. ‘Aurora’ is ‘negative’ in the sense of Theodor Adorno’s pioneering analyses of modernist aesthetics, wherein certain artworks throw down painful challenges by refuting all of our engrained pleasure centers.
Please pardon all the parentheticals; as you can see, Aurora is not an easy film to discuss, because almost everything one can immediately say about it is negative. At the same time, all of these negatives that Puiu put into place were very much intentional. Aurora is “negative” in the sense of Theodor Adorno’s pioneering analyses of modernist aesthetics, wherein certain artworks throw down painful challenges by refuting all of our engrained pleasure centers. And yet, whatever Puiu’s strategy may be, it would be dishonest to claim that working one’s way through it yields the rewards of Joyce, Beckett or Godard. Yet where Aurora fails, it fascinates.
What “fails” about Aurora, however, ironically makes it suited to home video viewing, if one gives it a shot. Unlike so many Big Ones, Aurora lends itself to piecemeal and even distracted viewing (provided you can attend to the subtitles, or understand Romanian). This is because part of its dominant aesthetic, at least until the final half-hour, is that it presents event after event so unemphatically, with so little in the way of explication or even recognizable connective tissue, that the overall fabric of things, how one action relates to the next, is about as obscure as any ostensibly narrative film you’ll ever see.
[Ed. note: SPOILERS ahead.]
Here is what we know. Aurora follows a middle-aged man, played by the director himself. Only about mid-film do we discover the character’s name: Viorel. We first see him discussing his kids with his ex-wife (Clara Voda), and soon he goes to work. What does he do? Until he explains his job in the final scene, I certainly couldn’t tell. He wanders around a giant foundry of some sort, involved in heavy industry. There are huge, rusty iron cylinders hanging from cranes and scrap metal strewn about the yard. Shipbuilding? Locomotive repair? Who knows? But Viorel apparently acts as a loan-shark to his co-workers on the side. Later on, we see people moving things in and out of his apartment, for quite some time, before we find out why. He also drives around at night, hiding out behind trucks and buildings, skulking about. And occasionally he takes a 12-gauge shotgun out of a duffle bag and kills people.
Yes. The first murders happen at around the midway point, and they are presented with the same mopey, Bresson-on-Percodan disaffection as every other action Viorel undertakes. (It’s only when he is forced to interact with strangers, like when he goes to a boutique looking for a young girl who is probably his babysitter—again, who knows?—that we see his true psychopathic colors.) Puiu, for this part, downplays performance in favor of studied camerawork and a severe, alienating mise-en-scéne. As for character psychology, there is none. Apart from a general disgruntlement at an unwanted divorce, we have no idea why Viorel does anything he does, whether it’s killing, stalking, or redecorating his pad.
In a way, ‘Aurora’ represents an even more extreme version on the relative exteriority of Puiu’s previous film, ‘The Death or Mr. Lazarescu.’ That film, hailed as a masterpiece by many and certainly a milestone in the recent Romanian New Wave, was not so much about the psychological torments of its title character as it was his brusque mishandling at the hands of an uncaring, bureaucratized post-communist medical establishment.
In a way, Aurora represents an even more extreme version on the relative exteriority of Puiu’s previous film, The Death or Mr. Lazarescu. That film, hailed as a masterpiece by many and certainly a milestone in the recent Romanian New Wave, was not so much about the psychological torments of its title character as it was his brusque mishandling at the hands of an uncaring, bureaucratized post-communist medical establishment. We watched Lazarescu slowly die of a stroke while doctors, nurses, and paramedics shuttled him around or shunted him in the corner, a problem no one wanted to deal with. All the same, we understood that the man was a liberal, retired academic, viewed askance by his neighbors, as well has his physicians. We also grasped his existential plight, and that Mr. Lazarescu’s running time was equivalent to the slow fizzle of a man’s mortality.
By contrast, the extrapolated time of Aurora is not “real time.” (Even as it takes place across two days and nights, Puiu interjects bizarre cuts and ellipses that rupture time and space within single scenes.) It is also not the time of a human breakdown, since we get no sense that Viorel had to do these things “today,” as opposed to last week or next. No, Aurora’s conceit seems to be that wanton violence must be inserted into a timeline so banal as to barely register as human time at all. The gunshots go “bang,” but they don’t exactly shatter the complacent surface of the film. Rather they punctuate it with semicolons. “Here’s this; and now we continue as we were.”
Given the utter befuddlement that Aurora so actively courts, with even the most basic plot elements seeming random or inscrutable until the very last moments, there is a temptation to give it some kind of reading. A “last refuge for scoundrels,” of course, but not necessarily an incorrect approach nevertheless, would be to wonder aloud whether Puiu is offering a national allegory. What is “Romanian time,” in the confusion and flux of the post-communist era? When a framework that has provided meaning for decades (however oppressive it may have been) is removed, and the promise of revolution leads instead to malaise, where does this leave a nation’s consciousness? Inasmuch as he deals with other human beings at all, Viorel seems to pivot between false power (i.e., bullying) and powerlessness (trying and failing to be a boss and a paterfamilias). Perhaps Puiu is asking us to consider a crisis in Romanian identity, or more specifically in that nation’s masculinity, but also reminding us that such a “crisis” is, at bottom, crushingly boring?