Sierranevada played October 9 and plays again October 14 as part of the main slate of the 54th New York Film Festival; the film is currently without US distribution. Graduation plays October 11 and 12; the film has been acquired for US distribution by Sundance Selects. Follow our coverage of NYFF 2016 here.
As it cruises through its second decade, the Romanian New Wave’s characteristic blend is by now a familiar one to festivalgoers—grim resignation and gallows humor, pregnant silences and purposeful circumlocutions—but this year’s dispatches prove its vitality remains undiminished.
Cristi Puiu, who in 2005 gave the movement its first international success with The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, offers up Sieranevada, a bravura chamber piece and a sharply observed family portrait whose real subject is the inheritance each generation leaves for the next. Close to three hours long, the great majority of it confined to a single cramped apartment and unfolding nearly in real-time, the movie’s approach is essentially serpentine. Puiu reveals the characters’ backstories and relationships only gradually—his aim is immersion, not exposition. A reference to the Charlie Hebdo attacks serves to date the action, which itself centers around a ritual to mark the passage of time: a memorial ceremony, held 40 days after the death of the family patriarch (and according to regional custom foreign to most of the assembled relations).
In Puiu’s sure-handed staging, this family reunion is a seemingly interminable nightmare, evoking the grown child’s self-image at homecoming as the lone normal in a clan of mutants. The rainbow of maladjustment includes a sulking 9/11 truther, a glib communist mouthpiece, a violent and philandering drunk, and a post-adolescent partier with puking-prone friend in tow. The audience’s point of entry into this menagerie is Lary (Mimi Branescu), son of the deceased, good-natured enough to take most of the dysfunction with a sense of humor, but also clearly drawing on a finite reserve of tolerance as he observes from behind his protective beard. Lary lets his guard down once in the course of the movie, in a moment of confession that provides the film’s emotional climax; then, the respite over, he resumes his post, psychic armor back in place.
Graduation, directed by Cristian Mungiu, also concerns family legacies and the difficulty of controlling them. Middle-aged doctor Romeo (Adrian Titieni) is at his mistress’s apartment when he gets the news that his teenage daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) has been assaulted on her way to school; as he tries to help her cope with the trauma, he can’t help but be most immediately concerned by how it will affect her performance on her upcoming state-administered final exams—her scholarship to a British university is contingent on her scores. Romeo has cultivated a professional reputation for honesty—unlike some of his colleagues, he doesn’t expect or accept kickbacks from his patients—but, desperate to protect the goal he has exalted as his child’s certain gateway to a better life, he makes contact with the Romania’s invisible but ever-present economy of unofficial favors.
Mungiu’s 2007 Cannes champ 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days—still the highest profile of any of the country’s recent exports—also employed a ticking-clock structure, wrestling with moral dilemmas it didn’t presume to solve. Graduation is rather less harrowing, but likewise scrubbed of any of the escapism usually connoted by the word “thriller,” and still resonant in its picture of a society where history’s scars remain freshly tender.